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So, You Wanna Be A Waitress? Here’s 6 Things You Should Know

Over my three years as a waitress, I learned a lot of things about the job. Mostly, how much I didn’t want to do it for a moment longer than I had to. However, I also made a lot of friends, and gained some interesting experience.

So, you’re thinking about being a waitress? Here’s a few things to keep in mind:

 

6. The Customers

Ask any server (as we prefer to be called) what the hardest part of their job is, and they will inevitably cite the customers they are waiting upon. People are understandably sensitive about their food, be it due to sensitivities or allergies, health considerations, particular taste, quantity, or more. They want their food exactly how they ordered it, in a timely manner, for an affordable price.

However, when the chaotic nature of the universe interferes, and mistakes happen, or a misunderstanding occurs, nothing good can be expected. Servers are incredibly reluctant to return to their table and explain that we have 86-ed (run out of) something, made an error in putting in or cooking their order, or may need them to wait a little longer than expected. This is because they, to put it bluntly, are gun shy. I’ve had customers swear at me over being unable to order their favorite kind of free pie, or having to wait to make their order, or an unattractive plate presentation.

Secondarily, especially for women, the customer is someone to be wary of. I remember an instance where four drunk men came into the restaurant, and immediately began attempting to put their hands on me, being loud and belligerent, and throwing up on the table. But I smiled, and suffered through it, because that is what the job is.

Many times, you will have regulars come in who, knowing that the women they are flirting with are often underage, will still make advances upon them each time they come in. A particular example I’m thinking of is once when a man hit on me, questioned my ability to do my job, mansplained the career I am currently entering my senior year of study within, and tipped a mere $2.25.

And, in what could be its own category, are kids. Kids are messy and they scream; they run around and complain constantly. They feel entitled to whatever they want and haven’t learned how to say please yet. When they want to tell you something, they will talk over your explanation of the specials until you pay attention to them. They draw on the tables and walls and complain about the food that they literally just asked for.

People are hard to deal with, and even harder to handle when you can’t tell them what you really think.

The Flip Side: I’ve also met some of the best customers while working in restaurants. You meet people who are funny and deeply understanding, and care about you and your humanity. I’ve met people of great faith who shared their conviction with me out of a place of love, and people of great joy who shared their triumph with me out of a place of love. I’ve seen new babies and newlyweds, first dates and birthdays. People will surprise you.

5. The Hours

Due to the nature of the service industry, scheduling is often inconsistent, strange, and exhausting. I tended to work nights, meaning I would come in in the afternoon, and work until late in the evening.

The first thing you need to know is, that unless you are closing, you have no idea what time you will be leaving. Your manager will choose to “cut you” (remove you from the floor and allow you to begin the process of going home) whenever the pace of business allows them to. I have seen this work positively and negatively – maybe you’re tired from a previous shift and are able to leave early because you are not needed. Or, maybe your rent is due on Monday, and you are sent home early because of company labor costs with only $20 in your pocket. And vice versa.

And this effect tends to be cumulative. I’ve had 50-hour work weeks, and I’ve had 10-hour work weeks. It makes it hard to get things done around the house, either because you’re working or do not have the money.

But most of all, the hours are completely unpredictable. You will be scheduled whenever they need you, and even if you are unavailable, it is your responsibility to take care of it. You may be placed on call, where if they need you, you will be called in to work. This means that making plans with your friends can be especially hard, especially because traditional days off are at a premium in the service industry – people eat on weekends, even when it’s your sister’s birthday.

The Flip Side: However, many of my coworkers who worked mornings found their schedule ideal for raising a child, as they could be home to pick them up from school. They could work less hours for more money and spend time with their families. If their child is sick, they can get a cover for their shift and receive no penalty. While the hours of a server are difficult, they are flexible, and that is valuable for many.

4. The Stress

When you are working a shift, you are generally independent in your own section. You have your tables established, and essentially, you make the rules there. That means that the buck starts and ends with you.

This is incredibly stressful when you are in the weeds (particularly busy). You may be double or triple sat (receive multiple tables at the same time), meaning that you have to take care of their drinks, orders, meals, refills, upsells and special temptation (when your server offers the latest pie or cocktail in an effort to raise your bill), and checks at the exact same time. And if you are sat with these tables, plus a big top (a table of 5 people or more), you are well and truly slammed.

You need to keep track of time constantly, to make sure the food is arriving in a timely manner, and you are not neglecting any of your tables. And when they ask you for a refill on one trip, a side of ranch on another, an order of fries on another, and new silverware because their children threw it across the room, you make the ten trips and smile all the way.

However, much of this timing is out of your control. If you are busy, everyone else is busy, which means that the food will take longer, and the help will be sparser. Unfortunately, very few customers are patient during this time, as we discussed earlier.

The constant need to multitask and prioritize takes skill, a skill that is often underestimated, and one that gives you stressful dreams the following evening, when you remember that you never brought table three their side of ranch.

The Flip Side: While serving is stressful, it is only stressful during your shift. You never need to take your work home or worry about the consequences of not finishing a report or responding to an email. Once the rush is over, you can take a breath, eat some dead fries (dead refers to food that has been forgotten in the warming window and can no longer be served), check you phone, and move on.

3. The Food 

Working around food means that you are working around food preparation and clean up constantly. This is almost certain to have an impact on you, because you are surrounded, quite literally, by food.

The first thing you will notice about a waitress is that she smells like French fries. Constantly. And if you look at her hair, you’ll see its greasy from the grease in the air, and her face is breaking out for the same reason. Commercial fryers are an abomination, spreading oil and grease through the air and onto every surface. And it’s gross.

The second thing you will notice is that she has at least one food stain on her uniform, perhaps more. We are constantly preparing food to leave the kitchen (getting gravy, powdered sugar, and other garnishes), and carrying it on heavy trays. We’re also trying to get a head start on side work (various tasks in the back of house that need to be completed before we can leave, be it stocking or cleaning), which always includes at least one dirty task. We really try to keep clean, for our sake more than yours, but one can only do so much.

Finally, being surrounded by food means that you are always hungry. Being surrounded by food also means that you are surrounded by the people who make the food. Being surrounded by the people who make the food means you can ask them to give you free food. Eating free food means that your health directly suffers, as does your waistline, in spite of the constant motion.

The Flip Side: While working as a server, you will quite literally always be able to put food on the table. Even while everything else is flexible and uncertain, you can be assured of that. Even when money is hard, you can always bring home something from your work, but your work means that you are almost assured to be able to afford the necessities. In this difficult job market, that is invaluable.

2. The Physical Toll

Speaking of the constant motion, working as a server has a direct impact upon your body. Just look at what the job consists of – walking briskly over a series of hours, lifting and carrying heavy objects on our shoulders or across the restaurant (high chairs, tables, etc.), bending to clean, scrubbing floors (a common part of our side work), climbing to reach and grab things, and much more. One need not go to the gym if you’re working in the service industry – your job has you bending over backwards.

This means that you can lose quite a bit of weight, if you manage your diet, but it also means that, over time, these employees face great physical toll. Our backs hurt and are susceptible to pulling because we don’t have time to lift correctly. Our wrists hurt and develop early arthritis because of the angle in which we carry trays. Our feet are in constant pain due to long hours spent in ill-fitting nonslip shoes. Our posture and longevity suffer, as they do with any manual labor job, but we smile through it.

The Flip Side: However, you will also be incredibly proud of all you are able to do. You are able to take out an order of a seven top by yourself. You are able to lift racks of glasses and slide them in the dishwasher. You are able to walk quickly and put in orders quickly (due to muscle memory), and succeed. This is a job where, when you are good, you are very good, and that is something to be proud of.

1. The Money

So, why do they do it? The simple answer is – the money. As previously mentioned, serving is a job in which you can work less, and make more. The tip system means that on a good night, you can be making $20 an hour or more.

But not every night is a good night. Servers make less than the federal minimum wage, because they are tipped employees. The Colorado tipped minimum wage is $8.30 an hour, and the Federal tipped minimum wage is $2.13 an hour. This means that they are dependent upon their tips in order to make a living.

This provides incredible stress, because this is so variable. You put forth your best effort for everyone, but you are essentially putting your livelihood in the hands of someone who couldn’t be bothered to cook that evening. Sometimes they surprise you with their generosity, and sometimes they don’t.

You can’t budget when you don’t know how much you’ll make that night. And that’s hard.

The Flip Side: This is one of the few careers where you are directly rewarded for your good work, and where your efforts, even if not acknowledged with a pat on the back, are reflected in your paycheck. Those who are skilled can do incredibly well at this job, and often return to serving as a second job while they pursue their passion.

Serving has been both the best and worst experience of my life, for all these reasons and more. I am proud of all I have learned and achieved in this job, and the connections that I’ve made. But I also have zero inclination to take another Southwest Salad to table 21.

Kate is a Journalism major at the University of Denver, beating on like a boat against the current.
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