What I Learned From Being a Waitress

During the summer when I was in high school, I was a waitress in the town’s most popular burger and ice cream restaurant. It was a terrific place to work, and I learned far more there than how to fold napkins, serve food efficiently, politely deal with all sorts of people; most of all, I learned how to be professional. The husband and wife who ran the restaurant trained me well, and I have carried the principles they taught me throughout my working life, such as:

  • Never let anyone see you NOT working.
  • Remember what it is you do to earn your paycheck.
  • Smile and be polite to everyone.
  • Don’t complain. Either fix the issue or live with it.
  • Even if the boss is a jerk, the boss is still the boss.

What I learned specifically about waitressing:

  • Always ask if the customers would like one check or separate checks right at the beginning.
  • Write down EXACTLY what each person wants.
  • Check the table a few minutes after everyone has starting eating. Ask first if everything is satisfactory, then ask if anyone needs anything. If they do, go get it, STAT.
  • When you see people sitting with their hands in their laps or their napkins in their plates, it’s a sign that they are finished eating. If someone, even one person, is still eating, wait until they are finished to come by and ask to clear and/or take a *dessert order.
  • Once the table has been cleared, desserts delivered and eaten, bring the check (or checks), smile and thank them sincerely for coming, that it was a pleasure to serve them,  and that you hope that they will return soon.

Please bear in mind that, no matter how thoughtful, caring and considerate your service is, people are going to tip you well, badly or not at all. This is annoying, but it really is out of your control. Do not gripe (out loud) about it.

Things you should NEVER say to your diners:

  • “But you TOLD me that you wanted your burger well done!” Even if he did and you served him his requisite charred burger, don’t argue. Apologize, then ask politely what he wants and how he wants it and get it out pronto. Trust me, someone in his party will tell him he is being a girnormous knob and tell him he was an absolute tool to the waitress. You might get a big sympathy tip from someone else at his table, too.
  • “No problem.” DO NOT SAY THIS, EVER. It has become the usual response to “thank you.” The correct reply is always “you’re welcome.” Whenever I am told “no problem,” I grit my teeth before I can blurt out “it’s ‘YOU’RE WELCOME,’ YOU TROLL!”
  • “You want peanut butter for your baked potato?!?!” Yup, this actually happened to me. I remember wanting to hit the guy who ordered this in the head and ask where he learned such a barbaric food combo, but, thanks to my training, I smiled at him and said I would be happy to bring him a side of peanut butter for his baked potato. Ours is not to question why.
  • “I gave you good service, and you only left me a 5% tip.” You may have done everything for them including clipping their toenails, but what they choose to tip you is up to them, not you. Sad but true.
  • “Whatever!” PLEASE do not say this to your diners. Just smile and walk away. “Whatever” implies that you really don’t give a hoot about them. You may not, but don’t show it by saying “whatever.”

Back when I was waitressing, the rule for greeting customers was addressing them by their names if you knew them, or if you didn’t, simply “folks.” Back then it was considered rude to address diners as “you guys” or, if the diners were older people, “sweetie,” “sweetheart,” “honey,” “hun,” and so on. To do so was considered disrespectful. But times have changed, so it seems that doesn’t apply anymore.

Personally, I don’t like being called “you guys,” “sweetie,” “sweetheart,” “honey,” but I didn’t mind at all when I lived in the South and was routinely called “darlin’.” Funny, huh? But the “sweetie,” “sweetheart,” “honey” just makes me feel old, and it makes me want to tip a lot less. I don’t, of course–but I want to.

Anyway, I learned that you pretty much get back what you give, although sometimes you get griped at for no good reason you can see. If so, please remember that in that case, it’s completely their issue and not yours–just as long as you were considerate and patient with them. One of the hardest things I had to learn was that you can be as nice as you possibly can be, helpful, fast, efficient–and you still can get screwed on your tip or get barked at for no good reason. Again, try to remember that the diner may be having an awful day. It’s just one of the many things you’ll just have to let go. Don’t let it eat you up. No pun intended.

*The place at which I worked during high school summers had fabulous homemade ice cream and sauces; fudge, butterscotch, marshmallow, penuche, and, for some odd reason; pineapple mint. This was an ungodly combination of mashed pineapple and mint flavoring. It was always on the counter and looked like pineapple in mold sauce, and tasted like pineapple-flavored toothpaste. The one and only time I went “off the reservation” as a waitress was when a diner asked pineapple mint over vanilla ice cream. I said without thinking twice, “Please don’t order that; it’s terrible. I recommend the fudge sauce.”


One thought on “What I Learned From Being a Waitress

  1. pamkirst2014 says:

    I love so much about this post! Top on the list is the current complaint that young people don’t know how to provide good service as wait-staff; I love the idea that it’s the responsibility of the supervisors to help their young charges develop those professional skills.

    In the part of Appalachia where we live, it’s common for very young people to refer to much older folks as ‘hon.’ I struggle with this, although I know no disrespect is intended. In my lexicon, though, that FEELS disrespectful!

    Thanks, Jane, for another thought-provoking post!


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