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Post-Waitress Syndrome

I was reading an entertaining post at Callapidder Days about how Katrina sent back a very overcooked steak to a restaurant’s kitchen. It was a big deal for her.

I found myself leaving an almanac of a comment, detailing my entire food service history. I shared anecdotes, philosophies, observations. There is something unifying amongst former and current food service workers that turns any discussion of restaurants into a 12-step meeting. It’s a society of those who have scraped gum off the bottom of white ceramic plates, endured toddlers spilling orange soda on their shoes, and suffered the smack of being stiffed when service was impeccable.

Rather than leave an almanac of a comment at Callapidder Days, I’m writing an almanac of a blog post, all about food service—working, eating, enjoying, and about tigers raining from the sky.

1. When I was in college, I worked in my dorm’s cafeteria. In exchange, I got free room and board. After my wages exceeded the cost of housing all 110 pounds of 18-year-old me, I received a paycheck. It took until April of my freshmen year. Everyone started out washing dishes and trays. I spent at least a month on the other side of that conveyor belt, receiving my dorm-mates icky half-eaten platters. I moved up to server of the slop/lunch hour sandwich-maker. I got to check dorm IDs at the door. Finally, I got what I felt was the best job: Working with a very old woman named Ruby in the basement of the dorm, doing things like chopping lettuce and shelling 12 dozen hardboiled eggs. I listened to Ruby tell the stories of her life. I consider those hours in the dorm basement one of the most important classes I took during my college career.

2. Tipping: Tip! If you have little kids, think about leaving 20% if the service is good. Most people know waitstaff make less than minimum wage. When I waited tables in college, I made $2.13 an hour. It’s not much more now. What many people don’t realize is that waitstaff must share their tips with the bussers and bartenders. At the end of every shift, waitstaff must fork over cash to anyone who bussed tables and anyone who made or poured drinks. The tip you leave is split amongst several people. If you leave 15%, the waitperson is only going to walk away with about 8%. On a $35 tab, that’s about $2 for keeping your drinks brimming, your food coming, your ketchup bottle flowing, your napkin pile sky-high, fresh forks appearing at plate-side, splitting your checks 5 ways, putting up with jokesters and flirts, getting burned by hot plates, ruining shoes, and making your salads.

3. Do not leave faux million dollar bills with Bible verses as a tip. Never. Nobody has been converted or seen the light because of one of these things.

4. If your food isn’t prepared correctly, feel free to call attention to it. Fallible humans are the ones preparing the food, not archangels. Mistakes are made. Bad cooks and chefs are hired. They are quickly discovered and fired, most of the time. You may be at the restaurant on the wrong day. So be polite when you draw attention to your overcooked steak or undercooked chicken, just like Katrina. You can ask for a new entree or for your meal to be comped. Don’t do it too often, or you’ll gain a reputation as a person who fishes for free food. News travels. And if you find yourself whining about something wrong with EVERY dining experience, then maybe you are a little uptight. Don’t expect $200 a plate service at a place called Taco Taco Taco.

5. Anecdote: I’ve never shared this on Lifenut. Several years ago, we were waiting to be seated at a place I’ll call Bed Bobin. If you aren’t familiar with it, they often decorate with funky fixtures like a model of the Statue of Liberty, pop art and travel posters, and sometimes old carousel animals. Sam and Joel were sitting on a bench by themselves when a wooden carousel tiger fell off a ledge and hit them. There was a big scene. Screaming, crying, disbelief. They were conscious. We decided to head to the nearest ER, but before we could leave, the manager insisted on having me fill out an incident report. At the ER, we were questioned over and over and over about how their injuries (mostly bruises and a small cut on Sam’s scalp) occurred. A tiger fell on them. A tiger fell on them. A tiger fell on them. Then a doctor asked what part of the tiger hit Sam. I said, “The tiger’s butt.” Sam immediately perked up and began to laugh. The fact that the tiger’s BUTT crashed on his head made it a cool, funny thing. He still laughs about it. I’m happy to report they were okay. Bed Bobin paid the ER bill. They bolted the tiger down. I checked.

6. Another restaurant anecdote. Longtime readers will remember the incident at a restaurant I’ll call PiPi’s. Don’t read whilst eating.

7. You go to a restaurant to have a good time. You are with friends. You are laughing like you haven’t laughed in years. You’ve been parked at your table for 4 hours. Appetizers, dinner, drinks, dessert, coffee were consumed so long ago, you are starting to get a little hungry again. Please leave. Other people may be waiting for the table, especially on a busy weekend. The waitperson would like the opportunity to serve another set of customers. Remember, they must survive off the tips. If staff starts hovering and asking every 2 minutes if there’s anything else you need, that’s your hint to take the party to a coffee shop, ice cream place, pub, your house, the parking lot. When you are seated at a table, you haven’t rented it for the remainder of the day.

8. Did you know Bed Bobin’s macaroni and cheese is bottomless? Your child can have bowl after bowl after atomic-orange bowl.

9. I hope, when my children get their first summer jobs (a practice I will encourage), they will find themselves working in a restaurant. Food service is a great teacher. It’s humbling, hard, fun, and it attracts all sorts of interesting people.


Maitre D’: You’re Abe Froman?
Ferris: That’s right, I’m Abe Froman.
Maitre D’: The Sausage King of Chicago?
Ferris: [caught off-guard] … Uh yeah, that’s me.
Maitre D’: Look, I’m very busy. Why don’t you take the kids and go back to the clubhouse?
Ferris: Are you suggesting that I’m not who I say I am?
Maitre D’: I’m suggesting that you leave before I have to get snooty.
Ferris: Snooty?
Maitre D’: Snotty.
Ferris: Snotty?

11. None of the above was written to be snotty. Bon appétit.

6 comments to Post-Waitress Syndrome

  • I worked in food service in college too! Dishes were the most disgusting, most fun job. Water fights may or may not have broken out. My favorite was preparing desserts, slicing cakes or pies for hours. I really wanted to get to help with the baking but my class schedule never worked out with it.

  • And here I thought you were being metaphorical when you first mentioned tigers raining down from the sky. 🙂 Glad that Bed Bobin paid the bill…and that Sam got a good laugh out of the tiger butt.

    My husband spent a semester working at our college’s cafeteria, but he never made it beyond mopping up the grease and grime at the end of the day. Seeing the state of the things every evening cured him of eating the cafeteria’s burgers.

    And as a final random note, in addition to my brief stint as a waitress, I worked for many years in my parents’ ice cream store. I vastly preferred the food prep and “mom and pop” environment to waiting tables.

  • I worked in Food Service at my college for…oh…a weekend. I called the Financial Aid Office on Monday and BEGGED to do something else. BEGGED. How you took those hot plates off that conveyor belt without bursting into flames, I’ll never know. They made me do things that were awful, and I grew up on a farm, so I was shocked that it was so horrible. 😉

    Financial Aid asked if I’d prefer something more clerical? Perhaps at the Maintenance Office? Get to do my homework AND answer calls from Frat Boys who were trapped in their rooms? Absolutely! Having an “in” at the Maintenance Office was just an added perk!

    Kudos to you, Gretchen.

    Oh, and we, too, discovered the bottomless pit o’ crack-and-cheese at Bed Bobin. Happy times!

  • Gretchen (the other one who now has fewer children than you)

    I worked in the dining hall in college. I washed dishes, which was fun because you could relax in the back and didn’t need to be polite and business-like. I stocked the salad bar, which was not so fun, because some people are pigs; or else lettuce and shredded cheese are somehow related to jumping beans. My favorite job was checking IDs at the door for the football team. They got their own dining room, and were required to show up for meals, so every single one of them had to check in. I saw some semi-well known faces back then, since I was at Penn State in the 80s. I didn’t get to check in DJ Dozier, though. That would have been cool.

  • edj

    I too have done my share of food service jobs. College cafeteria, everything from cooking to dishes. Tea room, thanks to being half-british, although I have an American accent. Useful skills, but I was happy enough to leave it behind.
    You mentioned being considerate enough to leave the table, that you haven’t rented it for the evening. That is one of the things I’m having a hard time adjusting to now that we’re back in the States. Cuz in France, you HAVE rented the table for the evening! They reserve one table per party per night, and they won’t bring you the bill till you specifically ask for it. And now I can’t get used to servers bringing me the bill along with my food, like they’re telling me, “Okay you’re done now. Out you go!” Feels so rude! But I know it’s not; I know it’s just a cultural difference.

  • I worked at Bed Bodin–I must have told you this when we met since I did get to hear the tiger story from you–and I mostly enjoyed it. It was a great experience, and I never grew tired of any of their food. Until I got pregnant. Then I didn’t like their food for quite a long time.

    Servers in Washington and Oregon are very, very lucky when it comes to paychecks. They get minimum wage (which is at $8.50/hour now) PLUS tips. I think that’s what makes left coasters unsympathetic to the rest of the country because they don’t realize most servers make less than minimum wage.

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