What I Learned From Being a Waitress

When I was in high school, it was expected that you would get a summer job so that you could save money for college, pay for your first used vehicle, or just add to your savings account. I decided to apply for a waitress position at our local burger and ice cream restaurant. It was considered THE best place to waitress; the owners were wonderful people, the pay was good, tips guaranteed that you never had empty pockets, the food was excellent, and it was a good way to prepare yourself for the work place out in the world.

I applied for and got the job, and immediately starting training. You may be saying at this point; “training?! How hard is it to take orders, bring the food, and clear the table afterward?” Well, you’d be dead wrong about that. The owners were friendly but strict, and kept to a good work ethic. Their training was not just about serving food; it was all about being professional at any job. They had a code of behavior that included these tenants:

  • Your white blouse and blue and white flowered skirt were to be clean and fresh each day.
  • Your white sneakers were to be spotless always.
  • Your hair was always neat and clean, and while a small amount of jewelry and light makeup was acceptable, long painted fingernails were not; they felt it looked unhygienic.
  • There was absolutely no gum chewing or swearing. Ever.
  • Your manner was always polite, respectful and friendly. If you knew your party, you greeted them by name. If you didn’t, you addressed them as “folks,” “sir,” or “ma’am.” You did NOT call them “guys” or “honey” or “sweetheart.” That was considered too forward and also rude.
  • You quickly learned the shorthand of taking orders. For example, a lamb dinner with a salad and side of squash was written down as “lam-sal-sqsh.” A sundae made with butter pecan ice cream and penuche sauce with no whipped cream was “B-pec pen, no whip.” After a week, it became second nature.
  • You were polite not only to the customers but to the cook, the bar folk who handled the ice cream, sauces, and so on.
  • You helped out wherever you could; including picking up dishes from another waitress’s table when she was overwhelmed, cleaning up spilled drinks and food to avoid someone slipping and falling; all the time with a smile on your face.
  • If you had no tables, you stacked mats and napkins; that is, you made easily-picked up mats with napkins to save time when it got busy. Or you cleaned the bathroom, or swept the floor–anything, just as long as you weren’t just sitting around.

When your food order was ready and the cook called your name, you picked it up as quickly as you could, and thanked the cook. You learned quickly how to balance a tray of food and drinks without spilling a drop or losing your smile. But of course, accidents did happen. I had the biggest and worst accident while working there. Certainly it was the one I remember best.

I had a couple at my table who had driven all the way up from Rhode Island (a long haul up to New Hampshire!) just to have our famous lobster salad and equally famous fruit salad.

A word here about these two dishes: first, they were two of the most expensive items on the menu. They were both large, and there was an entire large lobster’s worth of meat on the lobster salad. The fruit salad was delicious; full of melon, blueberries, pineapple, strawberries, raspberries and grapes, topped with either orange sherbet or cottage cheese. Fortunately, we had one of each left, and the couple was thrilled.

When I picked up the salads (which were quite heavy) along with the drinks, I was heading for their table when a small boy raced toward me and bumped my arm. I tried but couldn’t recover as everything on my tray tilted over to one side, and the very last lobster salad and the very last fruit salad, plus drinks landed with a spectacular crash at my feet. 

The couple saw what happened and were very nice about it, but I felt terrible. And if that wasn’t bad enough, my boss, who had made both salads, happened to see the whole thing. It was so awful that I don’t even remember all the details.

I have a vague memory of my boss going straight to their table as I cleaned up the floor, and telling them something to the effect that he would be calling them just as soon as the salads were available the following week and that they would be made especially for them at no charge.

I don’t even remember what they had to eat after that, or even what happened the rest of that day. But I do remember my boss and his wife coming to me afterward and saying that what happened was absolutely NOT my fault; that it was just one of those things.

Here’s the thing: accidents DO happen and the world doesn’t come come to an end. Although I felt responsible, I knew I couldn’t have avoided that kid–it truly was just an accident. My bosses did not dock my pay; they just told me to go home and clean up (I was wearing a great deal of both salads) and that they’d see me the next day.

My former bosses’ work ethic stuck with me; be nice, be professional, be aware, go the extra mile and remember what you are paid to do. That last one is solid gold: whether you are a waitress or a CEO of a trillion dollar company, if you do what you are paid to do and do it well, you will succeed.

And even if you don’t succeed through no fault of your own, you can walk out with your head held up knowing that you did your best. Perhaps that job just wasn’t your fit. Another good tip I added to my work ethic was this: when being interviewed for a new job and you are asked what happened in the last job, stay positive. Bad-mouthing a former company or boss is a bright red flag to a new boss. You can just smile and say that you and your last boss couldn’t agree on a few key points, but that you are grateful for the experience.

I can honestly say that being a waitress was the best workplace training I ever had. If you’ve never done it, you perhaps won’t appreciate how hard it is to keep up with the orders and keep a smile on your face when someone is blaming you for something you didn’t do (such as preparing your food). Professional is professional, no matter what job you have.

So, as they say at the end of every comedy act, “Don’t forget to tip your waitress!”

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