The Server Life

If all the world is a stage, then the restaurant is a place of drama where everyone plays a role in putting on a show, from the server to the patron.

Over a recent weekend my mom came to town, so I took her out for dinner at Fleming’s Steak House in Walnut Creek.  The food was great as usual, but what mattered more was that our server was pleasantly (and annoyingly) perfect.  

He smiled, he laughed, he knew more about the food and wine menu than I did the contents of my own wallet.  There was never a crumb left on the table or a water glass left empty. Plates were set in front of us using a napkin to hold the outer rim instead of his bare hand.  He cared about us and it was hard not to want to be his friend. We watched as he visited his other tables and you could see him delivering the same feelings of warmth and grace to those patrons as well. The kid was young and energetic and more than anything else, he was genuine.

I like to think I still share these same qualities, that my eye for details are razor sharp and my concern for the guests is selfless and sincere, but in truth I have become tired and jaded by the same pick-up lines, corny jokes and paltry complaints.

Sometimes it feels like I’m living in that movie Groundhog Day.  All I need is a clock radio to wake me up to "I’ve Got You Babe" every morning.  I’ll admit it, there are times when I stray into work with the enthusiasm of a tollbooth collector.

Yes, I’m aware that this is a cynical and sad viewpoint, but this is simply what serving does to you over time.  It’s in our creed to be sour and it stems from the very title we are given:  server (I realize that I am a bartender, but what is a bartender but a server granted the power to wield a bottle?).  

Personally I wouldn’t mind going back to being called a waiter. At least this designation has no belittling presence. It simply implies that we are hanging around, looming casually nearby to assist if the mood so inclines us. Waiting for an order to be placed; waiting for the food to be cooked so we can deliver it; waiting for our well-deserved tip. To a degree there is less pressure or sense of inferiority being a waiter.

Yet at some point someone decided that “server” was a more politically correct and flattering term, but really a server is just a set of coattails and a feather duster away from being a servant, a slave to other people’s demands. After months and years in the business, we eventually begin to experience a suppression that causes us to buck and rebel against the orders we are receiving from the guests (our masters).

Melodramatic?  OK, maybe, but it might as well be. When it comes right down to it the restaurant is but a stage where the servers (the actors) put on a performance in the hopes that you (the audience and patrons) will shower them with praise (and money) when it’s all over.  

It’s all drama. The restaurant business is nothing but drama from the high expectations of the guests who want perfect service and from the servers who are anticipating a high rate of return on the tip at the end.  For the guests, servers become the utility they need to receive a pleasant dining experience, and for the server, guests are no longer people, but percentages, as in, “Oh no, here comes Bill, the ten percenter.”

So let me paint a picture of server life for those of you who do not know anyone working in a restaurant or bar, or who have never stopped to consider what the culture might be like. Perhaps a better understanding of this bizarre world will give you a better understanding of who we are.  

Here are some interesting facts you may not know about servers:

We are nocturnal. Unlike most of the workforce, servers own the night. We serve or bartend until closing time and then we find a bar or someone’s house and we party hard until approximately three or four in the morning. Even if one of us works a lunch shift, we are not required to be there until 10 a.m. at the earliest, and if we work night shifts, we sleep until noon.  We party hard, hook up with our co-workers often, and then show up to our shift the next day complaining about how hung over we are.

We are college students or aspiring actors or other people who can’t figure out what to do with our lives. I used to be the first one, and now I fall into the category of the latter. Hopefully this will allow you to express a little empathy the next time your server runs to the bathroom crying when you tell them the halibut is a bit dry.

We complain about everything.  The problem with our industry is that nobody belly-aches and complains more than a server.  You would not know this unless you actually ever worked in a restaurant.  There are great servers who give spot-on service, but back in the kitchen, you’d think that guests were peeling their eyelids off with a pair of pliers.  A 10% tip can send them spiraling into a brooding abyss.  

Being a senior member of the staff, I try my best to keep things in perspective and provide a positive spin on things.  I explain to them that life isn’t so bad considering that people in Iraq are being bombed daily, not to mention that Japan has been obliterated, and many children have lost their lives, to which the response inevitably comes back, “Yeah, but at least they don’t have to deal with the bitch at table forty-three.”  

We believe the world revolves around this job.  When I first started bartending I worked with a neurotic server named Paul (alias) who became so flustered by bad tips and guest complaints that he was forever hurrying between chairs and tables and accidentally dumping his tray of drinks all over guests and the floor. He couldn’t see life as anything other than what was going on in this little building.

At some point I remember telling Paul to relax, that just because a guest complained that he was slow and stupid he shouldn’t take it so personal.  Paul’s eyes narrowed at this comment and he became so upset he promptly grabbed a tray of margaritas and went straight out and dumped it all over four businessmen having lunch.

We are our own breed.  I can’t possibly imagine what is taking Mark Burnett (producer of Survivor and a host of other mega-hit reality shows) so long to produce a reality tv series based on the life of a server.  We’re like carnies (carnival workers, for the laymen out there), without the corndog grease stains on our t-shirts and missing teeth.  Sure, carnies are disgusting and creepy, but there is also something essentially Americana about them.  Servers (Servies, if you’d like) are similar in this way.  We do not provide giant stuffed pandas for knocking down 25-pound pins with a baseball, but we are our own breed and we are unlike any other workforce culture in America.

We have goals and dreams.  Forget the goals for now; let’s talk dreams. Anyone working more than two years as a server has had this particular dream, and if they deny it they are lying. It goes like this:

I have recently given my two weeks notice and I am on my last day. I am cruising through my shift as if walking on air, light as a pillow. One of my guests begins complaining about the temperature of his pasta, something about it being ice cold.  I smile warmly and say, “Ahhhh, isn’t that just terrible?”  I then pat him on the head in true patronizing fashion.  The guest becomes angry and begins barking orders at me and demands to see the manager. My reply is to pick up the pasta and dump it all over his head.  “There,” I say, “now aren’t you glad it wasn’t piping hot?  That could have really hurt your witto head.”  I walk out the door without looking back and without clocking out, and I am a legend for years to come for anyone who will ever work here.

A grand exit and exclamation point is every server’s dream who has been in the business for any amount of time.  Remember that the next time you become angry with a server and begin treating them like they are beneath you.  It could be his/her last day, and if you’re not careful you may end up wearing your dinner.

Cheers, until next time.

The Barman

Deb wainscott May 21, 2011 at 07:08 PM
I absolutely LOVE your columns, they make me laugh & cry together. Keep up the great writing & your work as a bartender is appreciated, even if you don't feel it :-)
Martha Ross May 22, 2011 at 12:45 AM
Yes, Deb, the Barman rocks.
TheRealBarman May 24, 2011 at 04:37 PM
Thanks Deb. Your comments are equally appreciated. Because of people like you who tell me they enjoy the columns, I am inspired to continue writing them. See you soon. Barman


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