Service 101: Waiting tables IS an Honorable Profession

professional waiter
Waiting tables IS an honorable profession

Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of so-when-are-you-going-to-get-a-real-job-attitude for the work that I do in restaurants from friends and acquaintances. I’ve taken that attitude with a grain of salt. But frankly, I’m tired of it.

I do have a real job. I am a professional server.

There’s definitely a misconception in the minds of people outside of the service industry that restaurant work is something that’s easy, good for a fast buck and a vocation for unprofessional types. Though restaurant work is not a 9-to-5 job and doesn’t require the fabrication of cubicles or the purchase of slide projectors, restaurant workers ARE professional.

I’m not sure what it will take to change people’s mind about this…but let me be clear:

There is nothing fast nor easy about restaurants. Restaurant work is mentally challenging and physically exhausting.

When will America’s dining public start treating servers with some respect?

getting bad service getting good service
Waiting tables requires many skills, talents and virtues.

A typical day

It’s Friday afternoon at 2 pm I’m at the ironing board pressing my dress shirt and apron. While I nibble on a late lunch, I scan the pages of three-ring binder filled with food and wine notes for knowledge retention. I listen to a recording I’ve made of myself reading tasting notes on domestic and international wines. I listen to myself describe a California chardonnay so that when a table asks me about that bottle, I already have a sound bite response.

It’s 4pm and my car is parked. I tie my tie before I cross the threshold of the restaurant. A double check of my uniform for any last minute adjustments, and then I give myself a moment for a deep, cleansing breath. It’s time for service.

By 4:30 I’m in a staff meeting where changes in the menu, service issues are discussed, and guest information is shared with the front of house staff. By 6, hundreds of napkins are folded, glasses are polished, and stations are stocked for the flurry of service that is about to hit.

7 p.m. the restaurant begins to fill up. By 8pm service has kicked into high gear. Tables are sat and resat. Orders are taken, menu items described in minute detail. Food is cleared and silverware placed. Dishes are run to the back kitchen for washing. Glasses are refilled and silverware is placed before courses hit the table. Menus are dropped and egos massaged. Checks are tallied, split, cashed out and rung up.

By 9pm–after 5 hours without food or drink—I’m dehydrated. A quick sip of water and I’m back on the floor with smile. Business roars. There’s a problem that needs attention, a table needs clearing, a manager is needed to help fix an error. I push through service like a boxer at a speed bag. My mind races with details. Did I deliver that wine? Check. Did I place that steak knife? Has that entree hit the table? Did I find out what city in France that cheese was from? Check, check, check.

No night is flawless. Something goes wrong. The only thing I can prepare for is my attitude, stamina and mental preparedness. Seven hours have passed since I stepped inside the restaurant. By 11 pm service begins to slow. Full dinner guests lounge in their seats and enjoy another glass of wine. Maybe they’ll have some dessert. Or another after-dinner drink. A back-waiter prepares a double espresso, giving me just enough time to drink a full glass of water and chew a handful of nuts. There’s still a few more hours left of work. I have to keep my energy up. I adjust my tie, tuck my dress shirt into my apron and hit the floor with a smile. There’s another cocktail to deliver, a menu to drop, a table to clear, a story to tell…

By midnight I’ve handed in my cash, tipped my support staff and clocked out. By 1 am I am in my car driving home. I’m starving, craving a glass of wine and wired from a night of speed walking 7,000 square feet several hundred times.

My mind races with the cruel barbs from a guest I artfully dodged, the selfish behavior of a co-worker that made my temper flare, the European tourist that gushed verbal compliments but only left a handful of dollars on a large bill, the joke that had me quietly giggling all night, the fiscally generous guest, the out of sorts guest that went out of their way to be rude and the sweet guest that went out of their way to be kind.

Every night is different. But every night ends the same way–with my head spinning from the millions of tasks and service issues. If I’m lucky there’s a glass of wine in my hand by the end of it all.

It’s true, there are other things I would rather do on a Friday night with my time. I’d love to write full time and have my nights free. But the fact remains that as an artist there are other things I have to do to pay my bills. And I love restaurants, the food culture and the people that work doggedly day and night to put food on the table. There shouldn’t be any shame in saying I’m a server at a restaurant.

Yes, I work in the service industry. Yes, I’m a writer AND a restaurant professional. And I take my job seriously. Very seriously. I’m a professional. Respect what I do.

Other Service 101 Posts can be read here.

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Brooke Burton nominated for best food writing

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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.

43 Comments

  1. Food, she thought.
    May 25
    Reply

    I loved being a server. Not only did I learn about alcohol and broaden my food knowledge, I learned I am good at math (finally) and learned how to communicate with diplomacy. Being a server is not unlike being a teacher, in my recollection. One must multi-task at all times, have eyes in the back of their heads and consider, plan for and follow through in serving special needs clients of all kinds. The only person who thinks it is not a difficult job demanding professionalism is someone who doesn’t understand it.

  2. [eatingclub] vancouver || js
    May 25
    Reply

    Hear, hear!

    People have no idea how hard it is to serve/provide service to other people. And people have no idea that there are hundreds of little tasks that need to be done in a restaurant to make sure everything runs smoothly.

    You are so very right. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Gaby
    May 25
    Reply

    love this post!! I can tell that you’re a fabulous server… are you at Tavern currently? We are headed there for my birthday dinner next week!

  4. Steve
    May 25
    Reply

    That is some heartfelt writing.

  5. Leah
    May 26
    Reply

    I never have quite understood why people don’t realize the hard work that goes into waiting tables, but then again, I’ve done it. I’m a firm believer that everyone should have to work some sort of service oriented job at least once before they go out into the “real world,” perhaps then they’d have better manners.

  6. matt
    May 26
    Reply

    Amen. I think the problem is that there are really two kinds of servers.. Those that do it as a side job through collage, that couldn’t give a flying f…, and those that are doing it because they really enjoy food, the food culture, and making people feel good.

    I do go back to restaurants that have great service, even if the food isn’t amazing. I enjoy seeing people that are darn good at their craft – especially serving. Why? Its a job I could never do.

    I couldn’t deal with the idiots that think it is suddenly OK to be rude to a server – they wouldn’t if they were dining at your house, so why now?

    Then you get the opposite – the people that are so glad to have a good server, one that passionately knows about the food they are serving.

    Good on ya. A tough job, with wacky hours. You do it with passion.

  7. MyLastBite
    May 26
    Reply

    Beautifully written!!!

    There’s a great episode of “Inside Scoop” called “Waiting For Good Dough” on the Fine Living Channel.

    Episode synopsis:

    “Waiters — they’re some of the hardest working people in the restaurant business and the unsung heroes of the food industry.”

    I totally agree!

    (added link below)

    http://tinyurl.com/Waiting4GoodDough

  8. JH
    May 26
    Reply

    Great article and very revealing about your character. It’s great to know you, even if it’s just over the Internet.

  9. white on rice couple
    May 28
    Reply

    This is an amazing, amazing piece.
    You’ve taken us through a day in the life of a server and I’m exhausted already by the end of the post.

    We’ve always appreciated honorable, professional servers. Some customers just don’t understand the amount of time, study, hard work and integrity it takes to provide good service. This piece is a perfect illustration of how and why “Waiting tables is an honorable profession”. Not everyone can do it. It requires intelligent, driven, and patient people.

  10. Susan
    May 28
    Reply

    I agree with Matt. There are two kinds of servers…professionals and daytrippers. Just like there are two kinds of producers (or more) and two kinds of every job really. You are a professional, but I would guess that 70% of the servers between here and New York (save Chicago) are not. I could never do that job in a million years. I don’t know how you remember all of that stuff AND keep a smile on your face :) You must love people way more than me!

  11. lillie
    June 3
    Reply

    Cheers to working hard and being a part of an industry you love! Too many people don't take pride in what they do–nevermind respect what other people do. Hopefully this little day-in-the-life of yours will open a few minds–and maybe inspire some other folks to live what they love!

  12. david john
    June 9
    Reply

    well written and so true!

    i couldn't have said it better myself.

    all the best!
    david john

  13. November 28
    Reply

    found this article very interesting. my wife has waited tables, before kids, and i have had the pleasure hearing many inside stories. I have respect for what you do and agree that too few do. I know it’s hard work and the good servers work hard. Also I think too many servers don’t take their own careers seriously enough. I think they believe that they are just waiting for a better job and don’t give their work proper attention. I’ve asked to change tables after I met a server I didn’t like. To me the experience of dining out is ruined by a server that doesn’t want to be there. Keep up the fine work. You are really making a difference. :-)

  14. January 27
    Reply

    Brooke,

    I have always believed that service in the hospitality industry is an honorable, as well as honest (unlike so many others in our society which command much more respect and money) profession. I put in many years as a server in New York restaurants and hotels, and now own a catering company here in Los Angeles.

    When I was a server, I always believed that “server” was my profession while I was actually in a restaurant or hotel waiting on tables- not actress, dancer, writer, fill in the blank…

    As an employer in the hospitality industry now, I expect that attitude of my staff, as well. Not everyone makes a good server, and many varied skills go into being good at this work. Unfortunately, you are working in Los Angeles, where the entertainment industry, and the culture of celebrity infects everything. There is very little tradition of the “professional waiter”, as there is in a city like New York. Hopefully the environment is changing, and restaurant owners (who I believe also bear some of the responsibility) and their guests will regard their employees as valuable professionals.

  15. Blythe
    May 24
    Reply

    That was GREAT! Keep up the good work.

  16. […] will I be doing? I won’t be bartending or waiting tables. I won’t be managing, either. My title? Service […]

  17. Rebecca
    December 7
    Reply

    Well said! I hold a culinary degree, but my family never could understand why I “wasn’t interested in a career” and would rather “just have fun.” Apparently fine-dining kitchen staff just “hang out” in the kitchen. These are the same people who will order the cheapest thing on the menu, and then complain that they would rather have something “off the dollar menu.” Before I was a cook, I was a server, so I can always appreciate what the front-of-house staff goes through! You make or break the experience of dining for your tables, whether the guests know it or not. Keep up the great work- the writing and the serving!

  18. KMoore
    March 21
    Reply

    I am also a full time server/bartender by choice and I love my work. I also have a bachelor’s degree in English with a certificate in South East Asian studies, and if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me when I was getting a “real job” I wouldn’t even need this one!

    Sometimes I do struggle with that attitude (10 yr high school reunion anyone? lol) but most of the time I chalk it up to people being confused by choices they don’t understand and remind myself that being content in my lifestyle is all that matters. I have worked in a cube for a yearly salary and it drove me out of my mind, it just was not for me and my personality. I love meeting people and hearing their stories. I love surprising people with outstanding service. I love the camaraderie in the back of the house and the excitement of a busy Saturday night. I especially love giving it my all while I’m at work, but then being able to fully leave it behind once I get home.

    I also have a favorite quotation from Willie Nelson that always gets a chuckle:
    “Farmers work the hardest, waitresses are second, and hookers get an honorable mention.”

  19. […] All this teaching has revealed to me something much bigger is going on: it’s one thing to give good service, but it’s another thing entirely to pursue the vocation of being of service. I never fathomed […]

  20. […] the food industry, it’s also about exploring the world behind food. Past the great meals, restaurants, the work, and relationships with talented chefs–there’s the deep stuff that goes on […]

  21. Brad
    December 5
    Reply

    Great article! I am a server, and I am proud of the work I do! Oh, I am aware of the servers who are apparently “second rate actors” but it makes me smile to know that I’m genuine both, in my execution, as well as the care I take in making sure my customers are happy as well! Serving people is a fundamental attribute in what makes people Human, so I will never understand why there are so many people who look down upon servers, or disregard serving as anything but a professional career choice, save for “only a ‘job’ for college students”… :/ I think it’s a graceful, elegant and humbling experience, one that I would recommend everyone try at least once in their lives, but only if you go into it for all the right reasons, and a genuine passion for both people, and food.

    • December 8
      Reply

      Brad,
      I wholly agree. Thank you so much for reading and your thoughtful words.
      Best,
      Brooke

  22. Jake
    April 20
    Reply

    Thank you for posting this fine article. I served & tended bar for many years before ‘getting a real job’ in another field. I hated my career choice & it has finally caught up to me, wearing down my patience, I quit & am currently going back to food service. Serving was always demanding yet rewarding & I wish more people could see this. It’s not easy work.

  23. Jim
    June 9
    Reply

    I know what you’re saying, I honestly do. And at one point I felt the same way, like I was going to defend my honor and the profession I had chosen for myself… They I woke up one day and realized how bad my life really was…

    I waited tables for just over 2.5 years…. I would rather commit suicide than return to that horrible existence. The stress was unimaginable for me, I would get cold sweats on the drive into work just thinking about what the night ahead held for me. I swear I would rather die than have to ever take an order again. For me, dealing with the public as a waiter was a total nightmare. I was good at it, I even trained other waitstaff and paid my bills with the $2000 per month I earned in cash from my job as a high end waiter at one of the best restaurants in town… BUT… To this very day, 12 years later, I still wake up sweating from nightmares about waiting tables!! I’m serious, I dream that I’m still a waiter and I just got sat a 14 top of foreign speaking Arabs with 6 children and they want 9 separate checks. The food comes out wrong, I get their drinks wrong, I wake up sweating and shaking and then realize it was all just a horrible nightmare and I no longer work as a waiter.

    Good luck to you in your chosen profession. Trust me, you work harder for your $$$ than anyone else.

    • June 14
      Reply

      Jim,
      that’s quite a reaction to waiting tables! Thank you for appreciating the work that I do. There are certainly days that are hard, but plenty of extraordinary days that make it all worth it!
      Thanks for the support,
      Brooke

  24. June 15
    Reply

    “I’m starving, craving a glass of wine and wired from a night of speed walking 7,000 square feet several hundred times.” I’ve been working as a chef, server or bartender for nearly eight years now, and this statement is me about 5 or 6 nights a week! It’s physically demanding and frustrating, yet such a rewarding job that doesn’t get nearly the amount of respect it deserves. I’m tired of it not being considered a “real job”. To be honest, I can’t see myself ever being far away from the restaurant industry. I’m good at it and I enjoy it, and I know I’ll be involved in it some way or another for a long time to come. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to hear my same thoughts from another blogger! Thank you so much for this post- I’ll definitely be saving it.

    • June 20
      Reply

      Thank you for your sweet comments. It’s always wonderful to have my blog be found by my restaurant brethren. Your work IS honorable! Amen, Brooke

  25. Emlin
    November 11
    Reply

    I recently started waiting on tables, and it’s everything I heard about and not what I expected —- as it’s very challenging learning a menu that the computer does not follow like a bible. The guests are a variety of every affair. But the worst part of it is: I don’t know how I’m paid in tips, as that part is calculated through a tip-sharing system / formula unknown to me. While the other servers and the hibachi chefs are pocketing $100-$230 every night, I only get a third or less compared to theirs. When asked how they do the calculation, I only get a dry chortle and say it’s not hard to figure out. Though none bothered to explain it in details to me. SO, while I’m stuck in limbo over a personal crisis, I can’t raise my voice until a later date, because I can’t deal with problems on top of problems I already have.

  26. […] a job to be ashamed of or to be pitied. Waiting tables–just as bussing–is an honorable profession to be […]

  27. holly
    January 6
    Reply

    I’ve never been a server or worked in a restaurant….but I have always considered it a REAL job and am constantly in awe of the service staff at restaurants. There have been servers that I have gotten to know at restaurants and when they tell me they’re leaving to “get a real job” it saddens me because some people are just born to serve, you know? Like they’re leaving something they’re so great at to do something that probably won’t enjoy just to “grow up and get a real job”. Well written post.

    • January 6
      Reply

      Thanks, Holly! I couldn’t agree more. So many people fail to see the value of the work servers do–even great servers themselves. Great service and hospitality is an art form! Thanks for coming by and reading!

  28. […] the role of server in the workplace, and this holds true on both sides of the apron. This person certainly does. So does this person. The latter is especially committed to preaching the message of […]

  29. […] While I worked in restaurants, I dreamed I would have a full-time writing career some day. But it wasn’t until my early 30’s when I  started managing restaurants, that I started to get an inkling that perhaps a restaurant career could be more than temporary work that paid the bills until my “dream job” as a writer came true. I began to feel that my work in restaurants fulfilled me in a way that writing in solitude never could, because it gave me an opportunity to connect to people and make an immediate impact on their lives. It was at this time that I began to see that restaurant work was an honorable profession. […]

  30. MaryMargaret
    December 28
    Reply

    Sadly, the jerkfaces that NEED to read this are the ones that won’t. Great perspective on an often thankless and minimized profession.

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