There’s actually a section in our employee handbook called “Social Media and Blogging” which states that team members “should not create or post anything that identifies themselves as company team members or representatives.”
So, because I kind of enjoy being employed, for the duration of this post we are setting up a hypothetical restaurant called Binky’s. Binky’s is located inside a shopping mall which is high-end in the sense that it caters to guests who are financially comfortable with the concept of a two-thousand-dollar handbag. I consider it a rather classy dining option, on account of the fact that (a) I can’t afford the food without my employee discount, and (b) it comes fully equipped with candles, dim lighting, and a gorgeous 20-seat bar you might find heavily filtered on some young and upcoming socialite’s Instagram account. Its 60-or-so tables are typically crammed to the max on Saturday nights, fluctuating during the weekdays among (a) barren wasteland, (b) light buzz, and (c) WHERE THE HELL DID ALL THESE PEOPLE COME FROM.
I started serving at Binky’s mid-June. My last day is September 13. This makes me a three-month veteran of the food service industry. In other words, I’m really not a veteran at all, and writing this post has given me a severe case of imposter syndrome, which I will proceed to cure with day-drinking and stress-eating, because I’m young and stupid and currently that is how I handle all the problems in my life. But that is beyond the point.
Here are the reasons that I, three-month not-at-all-a-veteran of the food service industry, decided it was a good executive idea to publish this post:
- Some myths need busting.
- Everyone eats out. Everyone utilizes the industry. Not everyone, however, understands how it works.
Now, one last disclaimer before you begin reading. In the world of serving, there are family-owned diners and corporate-owned monster restaurants. There are places that’ll hire college kids and places that only accept career servers. Some attract old ladies on brunch dates; others, wealthy and bitter businessmen conspiring to overthrow their CEOs. The atmosphere may even fluctuate among the stores in a single chain. Thusly: different places offer different experiences. The ensuing blog post draws directly from my own personal experience serving at Binky’s. Not all parts may reflect the entire industry.
Situational Example A: What Goes On In My Head During Saturday Night Dinner Rush
Okay, so I was supposed to get Table 21 some ranch like four minutes ago, but Table 13 just got sat, so now I have to find a Time Turner because Table 101 also just got sat and I have to somehow greet both of them within 30 seconds, except Time Turners don’t exist and also I just mispronounced my own name and I’m NO CLEAR YOUR MIND ANGELA FOCUS ON THE PEOPLE WRITE DOWN THE DRINK ORDERS okay water no ice water no ice diet diet diet diet water no ice GOOD EVENING WELCOME TO BINKY’S dammit I don’t have time to make a hot tea right now please no don’t order LORD JESUS SHE ORDERED A HOT TEA what the hell is a ketawon someone help me RUN RUN RUN wait was it water no ice or diet no ice DEFINITELY WATER okay make the hot tea make the hot tea OW MY THUMB also someone help me what is a ketawon ohhhhh a KETEL ONE okay okay who knew DAMMIT I FORGOT APP PLATES FOR TABLE 12 run those app plates run like a motherfucking fox oh my God is that the glass-and-a-half of red wine I ordered ten minutes ago sitting on the bar GODDAMMIT IT IS run to Table 31 run to Table 31 and don’t spill the wine run like a motherfucking ballerina fox run run but don’t run because you’ll fall and die and did I even ring up the orders for table 101 wait pause why is Table 21 looking at me like that did I pee myself or is there a malignant growth on my SHIT I NEVER BROUGHT THEM THEIR RANCH MAY MY DEAD BODY AND SOUL FOREVER REST IN PEACE
Situational Example B: What Goes On In My Head During Monday Afternoon Lunch Drag
Please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table I will sacrifice my firstborn child please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table what is life please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table please give me a table
So there’s the first thing I learned about serving. There is no consistent flow of income.
MYTH: Most servers get paid the minimum wage of $7.25/hour.
REALITY: Most servers get paid the tipped employee minimum wage of $2.13/hour.
EVEN REALER REALITY: Most servers get paid the post-tax tipped employee minimum wage of $0.00/hour.
So in most cases, servers get paid in tips, and tips only. The result? Income becomes a gamble. I take my tips home in cash after each shift. Some days I walk out with over $100. Others, I barely scrape by with $20.
Keep that $0.00/hour in mind the next time you’re deciding how much to tip your server. This is important to me because I know so many people who tip poorly for one easily reparable reason: they are uninformed. See, before I became a server, I was one of those people. I was Young And Ignorant. Which is actually just a clever euphemism for Really Shitty Tipper.
Here’s how I tip now: 20% for average service, 22% for great service, and ≤10% exclusively for rudeness, goofing off, or obvious slacking on the job. These are just guidelines; at the end of the day, it’s your meal, and your choice of tip. But I will say this: unless your server is a misogynistic asshole who purposely insults you and, I don’t know, cavorts about the restaurant kicking puppies and small children for sport, you should never stiff.
Stiffing refers to the act of leaving a 0% tip. It is essentially when you sign the receipt and close your checkbook and leave, and then your server opens the checkbook, and this massive invisible middle finger leaps out and smacks him/her in the face whilst yelling “haha fuck you!” and then does a little Irish jig.
Stiffing is a mortal sin, not just for humanitarian purposes, but for mathematical purposes. Here’s a little known fact: servers don’t get to keep all of their tips.
MYTH: Servers take home 100% of their tips.
REALITY: Before the end of each shift, servers are required to tip out ~2% of their total sales to the food runner, ~2% of their total sales to the busser, and ~5% of their alcohol sales to the bartender. So basically, even if you tip me 20% of your bill, I walk away with less than 16%.
IN MATH LANGUAGE: If you tip me 0% of your bill, I walk away with less than -4%. No, my finger did not slip and attack a hyphen. Yes, that is a negative four percent.
IN ENGLISH LANGUAGE: If you stiff your server, he/she ends up paying for your meal out of his/her own pocket.
This has been a friendly neighborhood PSA you yourself can help spread to a confused, helpless stiffer near you!
Servers deserve more than that. See, serving’s not just some lah-di-dah floofy nonsense where you bat your eyelashes, take a couple orders, and wander aimlessly about the kitchen starry-eyed singing happy songs and getting fat off free food. Oh, no. Not at Binky’s, at least. As a graduate of a high-intensity magnet school and a student at an even-higher-intensity university, as well as an ex competitive cheerleader, I feel at least somewhat qualified to say that I have an understanding of the concept of stress. And serving? Serving’s stressful.
First, it’s physically stressful. We walk 6-8 miles a day, all in one go. Sitting is a rare delicacy. We run enormous trays of food out to our tables, then bus enormous trays of dirty dishes back to the dish room. Most of us work doubles (both lunch and dinner shift), and sometimes we work straight through without a break. No one eats at normal, humane times, because those times are when we’re the busiest. On Friday and Saturday nights closers get out as late as 1 AM. After my first three weeks of doubles, I found myself nursing blisters and muscle strains. I’d go kerplunk onto the living room couch after work like a rock in a pond. On the plus side, though, I didn’t hit the gym once this summer and still gained a noticeable amount of upper arm muscle. Not that I don’t still resemble an unsightly collection of twiglets. It’s just that the preexisting collection of twiglets is slightly more shapely now.
Second, it’s emotionally stressful. We get yelled at if the food takes too long. We get yelled at if the coupon doesn’t work. We get yelled at if we refill the lemonade too often or not enough. And no matter what, we’re expected to stand there and take it politely. All the real veteran servers have attained a certain level of badassery that allows them to deflect bullying with a mere indistinguishable roll of the eyes. I, on the other hand, was a bit of an emotionally challenged wreck to begin with (see: older blog posts), so sometimes I’d let it get to me. I remember the first time a guest made me inexorably sad: it’s the end of a ten-hour shift and these two guys ask me how old I am, to which I respond 19, whereupon they look at each other and guffaw, “That’s funny, because we were deciding between 23 and over-25!” So then I lowkey have an identity crisis and hide in the kitchen and roll like two bins of silverware, feeling as though I’ve aged ten years in the span of half a second.
I also remember the first time a guest made me inexorably mad. I’ve got three tables and a 20-top, and I’m zipping around like a deranged bee on steroids, and I stop by a table to prebuss their dirty plates. One of the ladies clears her throat and strikes me with a death-glare. “She’s not done with that.” I look down to see a single lettuce leaf in the plate I’m holding. Like, this is not exaggerated for the purpose of good storytelling. There was a literal. Single. Lettuce. Leaf. On the plate. Usually when this happens, the guest will laugh, take the food off, and thank me for clearing the plates. This lady scowls at me like I’m a street urchin trying to steal her child. So I apologize, slide the plate back on the table, and continue zipping around like a deranged bee on steroids. About half an hour later, I see that their kid’s getting antsy, so I run and grab them the check and drop it off at their table while I’m on the way to water the 20-top. A minute later, I’m back at the bev station getting someone a fresh Coke when someone tells me my table’s looking for me. I hurry out to the table, where the lady slams the standing checkbook flat and snaps, “What the hell is your problem? Are you trying to rush us out of here? Do you not like us? First you try to take our food before we’re even finished, and then you throw the check in our faces without even asking if we want a dessert menu-“
Also not exaggerated for good storytelling. I remember word-for-word what she said to me that day. I’ve never felt so helpless, misunderstood, and ultimately, dehumanized.
Just for shits and giggles, what follows are a couple common species of difficult customers:
- The Scammer: Complains incessantly about perfectly heavenly food for the sole purpose of getting it off the bill and possibly causing your manager early onset heart failure while they’re at it.
- The Priss: Sends an entire dish back because there’s a single piece of burnt steak, which is treated as if it is the harbinger of the apocalypse.
- The What The Hell: Sends an entire dish back—not because there was anything wrong with it, but because they didn’t like it. Literally once had a table who asked me, while ordering, “If I don’t like it, I can just send it back, right?”
- Just a side note on this.
- It frustrates the hell out of me.
- Ordering food and drinks is a contract. You agree to pay for food that the chef agrees to cook for you, or you agree to pay for drinks that the bartender agrees to mix for you.
- It’s dining, for Christ’s sake. Not wine tasting. Not food tasting. DINING.
- Oh, my God.
- The Almighty: Summons you by whistling, snapping fingers, or waving various pieces of silverware at you.
- The Ratchet: Brings their own lemons and sugar so they don’t have to pay for lemonade, then stiffs you to boot.
- The Dude: Ogles you, flirts with you, generally makes you feel psychologically violated, then leaves a shitty tip that makes you feel psychologically damaged. Age range: anywhere from 20 to 80. Yes. Eighty.
- The Lord-Heal-Our-Youth: Swarms in as a single horrifying preteen/teenage unit, squealing and waving their Snapchats around. Orders 12 of the same dish, 12 of the same drink. Gets 12 split checks. Leaves 12 5% tips.
- The Demanding: “Can I get the house salad, but with no mushrooms, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, walnuts, and put the chicken and the shrimp on the side, and add a lemon, and add just a little bit of pepper but not too much, if you know what I mean?”
- The Bougie: Somewhere in the middle of South Dakota or something there’s a lab where they made a hundred clones of Kim Kardashian, airlifted them to the D.C. area, and set them loose with Binky’s gift cards.
- The Absolute Worst Type Of Human Being That Is Universally Feared And Hated By All Servers:
- “Good evening, my name is-“
- “Water no ice.”
Third, it’s mentally stressful. Occasionally our restaurant will reach the where-the-hell-did-all-these-people-come-from level of traffic when we’re understaffed. At this point a number of servers will find themselves In The Weeds. “In The Weeds” is server slang for “I’m Approximately Half A Table Away From Screaming JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL And Spontaneously Bursting Into Flame.” You’ve got like seven tables and one of them asked for syrup, two of them want to order, two of them need refills, one of them’s motioning for you to box up their food, and one of them has been waiting for their check for five minutes but you need to apply a promotion code, which requires a manager swipe, except your manager is trapped at Table 95 with a woman who wants to get two orders of Crispy Tacos off her bill because they were “too crispy” and “too taco” (and also because she had a bad day and she supposes she’d feel a lot better if she didn’t have to pay in full for her dinner).
In the simplest of terms, serving is just a To Do List. Except new items keep hopping aboard. And instead of politely adding themselves to the end of the line, they wait for you to hand-place them based on urgency. And if you forget about them while they’re waiting, they stick out their tongues and pull down their pants and moon you before running away, never to be seen again until your table hunts you down and says “uh excuse me but like we asked for extra lemon wedges fifteen minutes ago.” And the entire time all the items are just running around deliriously inside your head screaming ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME.
Said items include:
- Greet a table within 30 seconds of butt-to-chair contact
- Take orders
- Refill drinks
- Stage appetizer/entree plates
- Bring additional sauces
- Clear dirty dishes
- Box up food
- Bring checks
- Bring receipts
There’s a lot of intuition that goes into this job. Other than knowing which items are more urgent than others (for instance, typically it’s more important to return a credit card than it is to stage an appetizer plate), you also have to time the food. When you’re ringing up orders, you can hold them for intervals of 5 minutes, depending on how long it’ll take for (a) the next course to be cooked and (b) the current course to be finished. Before serving, I just blindly ate whatever was within arm’s the second it touched upon the table. It appears that it matters what order the food arrives in. I’ve seen tables go all-out Hulk when their entrees come while they’re still working on the appetizers.
To help you better understand all the aforementioned points, imagine you’re taking a final exam for, I don’t know, calculus. There are two questions left, and you’re chugging through them, and then you realize you made a mistake in another one. And THEN you look up and HOLY SHIT THERE’S 60 SECONDS LEFT ON THE CLOCK.
Now take this feeling and extend it over several hours.
Last night I bolted upright in bed at 1 AM like “OH MY GOD I NEVER BROUGHT TABLE 65 THEIR EXTRA FORK.”
So back to my original point. Treat your servers well. When I say treat them well, I mean not only as providers of service, but also as human beings. Tip well. Be kind. Forgive when necessary.
Here are some other behind-the-scenes tidbits you can understand in order to be an agreeable guest:
- Split checks are the bane of our existence. We have to remember what each person ate, rearrange all the seats in the system, then hunt down a manager so they can swipe their card in order to split the bill. This is not a paid advertisement for Venmo. But also, download Venmo.
- My dear lovely friend Bailey asked if letting your server know beforehand that you’re splitting checks is any better. Yes, it is! Some servers will still be irked though, because usually when a table gets split checks they tend to tip less. And also, it takes a little more time to enter orders if you’re entering them by Seat 1, Seat 2, etc instead of sending them in one big clump under For Table. I personally don’t have an issue with this, because I’m an OCD freak and I enter all my orders by Seat # anyway, but some people I know do.
- If you’re not splitting per person at the table, label each family with Group A, Group B, etc. When you’re ordering, tell your server “I’m part of Group _,” then say what you want. It’s a lot easier to remember that way.
- If you’re splitting evenly between two people: don’t worry about it.
- If you dash into the restaurant at 10:28 PM and we close at 10:30 PM and your reasoning is OMG I’M SO GLAD I MADE IT JUST IN TIME, just know that we are in the back watching with our heads in our hands and single tears sliding down our cheeks in a silent tragic symphony. We’ve been there for at least five hours already (if not ten) and we want to go home and sleep (or go to the bar and drink our sorrows away), but we can’t start closing the restaurant until you leave.
- Reservations are promises. If you make a reservation for 6 people, don’t up it to 10 at the last second—there probably won’t be enough space at such short notice. Likewise, if you make a reservation for 10 people, don’t let only 6 show up, because each empty seat is prospective money gone to waste for both the restaurant and the server whose section covers those tables.
- Give the hosts a break. They’re not seating you at a smaller table when there are booths available because they hate you. They’re doing it because they’re following a rotation, and they don’t want one server to have six tables when another has zero.
- Give the bussers a break. If it is your desire to help out and stack your plates, please take physics into account. Big ones go on the bottom. Silverware and uneaten food goes on top. Stacks should not be over ten feet tall. Etcetera.
- Give the takeout counter a break. They prepare your food. By the same logic: they deserve a tip.
- Give the food runners a break. If someone’s doling out plates of steaming hot food and your table is covered with cellphones and purses, please kindly move everything out of the way, because though your food runner looks smiley and relaxed, he/she is actually silently screaming bloody murder as the dishes slowly give them early onset wrist arthritis and third-degree hand burns.
- If you’re going to camp, leave a worthy tip. Oftentimes we go out to eat to catch up with old friends, or discuss business plans, or to spend some Treat Yoself alone time. But the longer you spend at that table after you’ve finished your meal, the more you’re eating into your server’s potential tips for that day. When I finish eating, I pay and leave. Otherwise, I add to the tip based on how long I’ve stayed.
I hope I haven’t made serving out to be some sort of tenth circle of hell. It only sounds this way because I haven’t told you yet why I still work at Binky’s. All the stress and financial misfortune aside, being a server can be genuinely rewarding. I love that my customers look so satisfied after I deliver a flawless meal. I love that kids light up when I bring them extra fortune cookies. I love that, when someone comes in from a rough day at work, I get to greet them with a mildly terrifying Chesire Cat grin, promise I’ll take care of them for the meal, and walk away knowing I’ve managed to extract at least a shadow of a smile.
Not all my guests are evil and bitter. When I worked my first string of doubles, I was so destroyed by the end of my fourth night that I dropped a tray of plates. A young couple at one of my tables hastened to help me collect the shards, then told me not to worry about it because they wouldn’t have been able to lift the tray in the first place. They asked me where I was going to school, what I was studying. And they ended up leaving a 25% tip. I think something inside my heart grew wings and flew away that night.
That’s the thing about serving. You encounter people from opposite ends of the spectrum all at once. Sometimes one table will harass me for the pettiest thing, and then I’ll turn around and my other table will be gushing about how I’ve made their day and don’t even worry about getting them that refill on the Coke because they are so stuffed it’s almost impossible to breathe anyway and also I love your nails oh my gosh. On occasion, I’ll even encounter both ends of the spectrum in a single person. It never ceases to amuse me when a man or woman is a doting charmer with his/her significant other, then turns around and treats me like complete trash. When you’re on a first date, watch how he/she treats your server. That’s one of the most telling characteristics of a person.
I love people. I really do. That’s why I went into the job: I wanted to interact with as many different flavors of human being as possible. I wasn’t disappointed. There are the customers, and there are the managers, and there are also the coworkers. Guys, restaurant managers are so underrated. They have to know how to deal with assholes, when to cut staff based on traffic, how to navigate the menu and the kitchen, and a billion other things you’d never think it necessary for a human being to know. And during dinner rushes, they also have to know how to not go batshit insane. True story.
And my coworkers are some of the most underrated, crazy, fabulous, kind, respectable, and exciting people I’ve ever met. Also true story. If there’s anything I’m going to miss when I leave for college, it’s going to be cracking jokes at the bev station, commiserating over employee checkout, and heading to the pub after work to grab a bite and some beers. People here don’t care about fake success. They just care about living. That’s the way it should be. (Here I will add a small aside. Robin expressed his interest in a blog cameo. Here is your cameo, Robin. All is well with the world.)
Over the past three months, I’ve gotten to witness all the ugly and beautiful sides of human nature. So here’s to summer, and here’s to serving. Here’s to all of us treating our servers a little better tomorrow. Here’s to all of us also tipping our servers a little better tomorrow.
And thank you, my dear reader, for dining with Binky’s tonight. You all take care, and have a wonderful evening.
Check out something I started on the job called The Server Project!
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With each check, I leave the card, the receipt, a pen, some fortune cookies, and one of two questions: “What is your greatest fear?” or “What is an interesting fact about you?”
I think these questions shed a lot of light on both the human and humanity. Which is why I’m asking.
All relatable meme credits to the lovely Server_life!