From July of 2014 until the beginning of last month, I worked as a waiter at an upscale steakhouse in Des Moines.
It’s hard work. You walk Amish miles with no breaks, juggle a dozen or more time-sensitive tasks at any moment, and you’re paid based not based upon a set wage or percentage of sales, but whatever the customers decide you deserve. And dealing with the public means encountering some rude, snobbish, and generally miserable folks.
But I can handle that. For me, at least, it was difficult for another reason.
I never wanted to wait tables.
I went to college and tried to pursue a different path in life. I immersed myself in extracurricular activities, got a great job with Teach For America, and was even accepted to law school. Waiting tables was not a logical progression of that chain of events.
But things didn’t work out as expected. For me, law school was never more than a vague concept–a logical next step for a smart kid who wanted a respectable job and a high income. The sort of “oh well, I guess I’ll do this” decision made by someone who didn’t understand himself or the world around him. And since law school had, by the time I finished with Teach For America, become a ticket to high-debt and low job prospects, I decided not to go.
I became just another social sciences graduate with a useless, unmarketable degree. Fast forward five years and various jobs later, and there I was: applying for a job at a restaurant, trying to bury my self-pity and negativity.
But I was wrong. Working at the steakhouse turned out to be a fantastic experience, and it helped me to become a better person.
So in the event that you haven’t–or don’t plan to–get a job waiting tables, pay attention as I share what I learned.
Lesson 1: I Can’t Control Everything, and That’s Okay
A steak is overcooked, a crying baby is disturbing a couple during their anniversary dinner, and a four-top reservation turned out to be a group of comatose, old ladies who want to order the cheapest items on the menu. They’ll probably tip a few dollars in total.
I like being in control. Who doesn’t, right? But much of what happened at the restaurant was out of my control. Busy evenings when I struggled to accomplish everything in a timely manner, tables with rude customers, and mistakes that occurred in the kitchen but were reflected in my tips–I don’t control that.
But that’s okay. It is what it is.
Failing to accept it, however, results in becoming bitter, angry, and resentful. I’ve watched it happen. A person can improve the situation to the best of his abilities–upsell with cheap customers, apologize for problems and explain the situation, move low-paying tables through dinner as quickly as possible–but it’s not worth getting upset. Things will always happen that we can’t control.
That’s just life.
Epictetus wrote something to this effect in Encheiridion, his manual for living.
Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.
In other words: accept what is.
That means accepting the bad as well as the good. And really, the bad is only bad insofar as we interpret it as such. I could become frustrated and angry that I got cheap customers while the next waiter got a group who spent hundreds of dollars on wine, but it’s just part of the job. But that just happens. There’s no reason to dwell on it or let negative emotions control my outlook.
Ironically enough, I found that when I accepted things as they were and controlled my emotions, my tips were often larger. Customers can tell when you’re having a bad day, and let’s face it: when we go out to eat, we don’t want to deal with our waiter or waitress’s problems.
Lesson 2: I Can Control My Integrity
Call it integrity, virtue, morals…whatever. We have the ability to choose how we respond to the situations and people around us.
Restaurants require teamwork to function–especially on busy evenings–but there’s a problem: servers have a financial incentive to focus on themselves. Customers don’t see everything that goes on behind the scenes, and they don’t tip you because you helped your coworkers.
Let’s say it’s a busy night and my food comes up in the kitchen window. I’m busy taking an order for a party, so I can’t bring it out. That’s when someone else usually runs it to the table for me.
But that takes time from their own responsibilities, and on busy nights they may not have the time to do so.
If everyone ignores my food, however, then my customers are going to be unhappy.
Likewise, all servers are assigned sidework–tasks such as stocking the salad cooler, putting ice in the soda machines, and brewing coffee. Sometimes it detracts from helping your customers, but ignoring it places additional burdens on your coworkers.
This is where a person’s integrity matters.
Employees often belonged to one of two groups: 1) those who worked hard to help others, and 2) those who rarely, if ever, helped others. And sometimes the second group expected you to help them even though they didn’t reciprocate.
I wasn’t perfect, but I sure tried my best. If I expect teamwork from others, then I have to be a team player myself. And that’s what it’s about: deciding whether or not to conduct yourself with integrity.
I can’t control everything, but I sure as hell can control that.
Lesson 3: Only be Ashamed of What’s Truly Shameful
A lot of people look down on wait staff.
Of course they still go out to eat. In a way, it’s like people who denigrate aspiring musicians and writers even though they consume plenty of music and books.
As a waiter, you see it in the expressions on their faces, hear it in the tone of their voices. It’s obvious in the way they talk to you, and some even come out and say it.
At first, I didn’t need anyone to tell me it was shameful. I already believed it. I started dating my girlfriend around the same time I got the job at the restaurant, and I waited to tell her.
I hated going to JCPenney to buy black pants that I’d never wear under any other circumstances, and I didn’t like wearing non-slip shoes. I felt cheap. Unlike in the past, I couldn’t hide my insecurities behind Brooks Brothers and J Crew. Wearing a twenty-dollar, original-cut shirt and a plain black tie…well, I felt exposed.
And to take orders from customers who were my age, who seemed like they’d succeeded where I’d failed–it was hard at first.
An older gentleman even complained to his friend about a daughter who was “still waiting tables” and needed to “get an education”, even though I was standing a few feet away. Of course I had an education, and I’d even been an educator myself.
I felt ashamed.
But that was stupid. I quickly learned that there is nothing shameful about working in a restaurant.
It’s actually quite pretentious to think otherwise. I worked with great people who, even now, I count amongst my friends. Do I think less of them because they work in a restaurant. Of course not. It’s hard, demanding work. It requires exceptional conversational and customer-service skills, and those who know what they’re doing can earn a good income. You learn a lot about food, wine, and how to contribute to a complicated and fast-paced operation. Your friends and family turn to you for advice when choosing restaurants. Customers who are new to town value your advice on where to go, what to do, and, more importantly, what to avoid.
The problem was never the line of work, it was me: I was ashamed because I was insecure.
Cato The Younger, a senator in ancient Rome, made a habit of regularly dressing in unfashionable clothes to remind himself of what’s truly shameful. As Plutarch wrote:
Seeing the lightest and gayest purple was then most in fashion, he would always wear that which was the nearest black; and he would often go out of doors, after his morning meal, without either shoes or tunic; not that he sought vain-glory from such novelties, but he would accustom himself to be ashamed only of what deserves shame, and to despise all other sorts of disgrace.
Wearing cheap clothes, working a job that doesn’t fit the conventional view of success–that’s not shameful.
What is shameful, however, are the behaviors I witnessed from a certain customers: looking down on those who help them, boasting to hide insecurities, becoming irate when food was slightly overcooked or undercooked, demanding that an employee is fired or reprimanded for perceived slights or minor inconsistencies with service. Or, in the case of one elderly man, calling over both myself and a manager to bitch about a minor detail with the sauce and the utensils provided which, apparently, should have been more numerous than just two forks, a knife and a pasta spoon.
Shameful is also feeling ashamed of something that’s perfectly fine.
Lesson 4: This Too Will Pass
On our busiest nights, one of my favorite coworkers liked to say this:
It’s going to hurt at first, and then it’s going to hurt really bad. But then it’ll start to feel real good.
At about five-thirty to six o’clock, the restaurant would often fill up quickly. A person might go from one table to four in a matter of ten minutes, and that would continue for another three hours. There was rarely a chance to go to the restroom or have downtime–just constant hustling and five, six, seven or more tasks that needed completed at any given moment.
Until you’ve worked in a restaurant, it’s difficult to understand just how stressful it gets.
But imagine this.
You have four tables in your section: 1) a couple having an anniversary dinner, 2) an eight-person table celebrating a college graduation, 3) two elderly couples out for a good time, and 4) a snobbish woman from the hotel.
Let’s say that Table 4 wants her food boxed up. So you make your way towards the kitchen, when you notice that Table 1 is finished with their appetizer–which means they’re ready for a salads and it’s time to send their dinner order through. You take their plates, start to leave, and then they ask for another martini. So you go to the computer terminal, order the martini, send the dinner order through, and then go into the kitchen to get a box for Table 4.
But now Table 2’s dinner is ready.
So you start pulling plates from the window, placing them on trays, and–unfortunately, since three people have loaded baked potatoes–spending valuable time putting toppings on sides. You have two full trays, and you take a moment to find someone to follow you with the second.
You drop off their food, and then you discover that two of them need refills on water. You walk over to get the water pitcher, but you notice that the woman at Table 4 has her arms crossed. She’s ready to go, and she thinks you’re incompetent. Okay, let’s help her next.
But you refill the water glasses, and now the grandfather asks for steak sauce. Great. You rush back to the kitchen, but you notice that Table 3 is ready to order. The menus are laid flat, and one of the old ladies is looking impatient. Fuck, okay. You get the steak sauce, pull salads from the fridge, check your notes about who has what dressing–if you delay this any longer, they’ll still be eating the salads when the food arrives, and that doesn’t look good–and you grab a box.
You drop off the salads, and the husband asks where the Martinis are. Shit. You forgot. You tell him that the bar is really busy and you’re about to check on them. You drop off the steak sauce, and then you face a choice: box up the food at Table 4, or hurry up and take the order at Table 3. Well, Table 4 wasn’t that nice and didn’t order much food. She probably won’t tip much. Table 3 has four people and although one looks irritated, you might make some money on those folks.
So you take their orders, and Table 4 looks even more irritated. “Sorry about that,” you say, when you finally get over there. “And are you interested in any dessert this evening?”
It’s stressful. Every second counts.
But there’s value in enduring it. It teaches you that you can handle more than you realize. In a small way, you learn what you’re made of.
Of course you can be like many of the dishwashers who passed through the restaurant–work for a month or two, walk out on a hectic night and say “screw this”–but where’s the value in that?
I see this in my current job as well. There are times when I have to work on a telecommunications tower in cold weather. I’m uncomfortable, tired, and I have another hour or two of work. I’m hundreds of feet in the air and the wind leaves your fingers and toes too cold for comfort.
But then it’s over. I’m finished. It feels good to look back and know that I did a great job and kept it together.
If I’d just given up, I’d regret it.
Lesson 5: There’s Real Value in Serving Others
Restaurant servers love anniversaries, birthdays, and any other special occasions. Those people usually arrive in a great mood, ready to spend plenty of money.
But sometimes they aren’t big spenders.
Case in point: I had a couple arrive one evening for an anniversary dinner, and they were stereotypical Southside folks. Polite and well-mannered, but a bit rough around the edges and dressed far below what’s normal at the steakhouse.
My first inclination was irritation. It’s an anniversary, so they’ll probably stay a while, but if they don’t order much then I’m missing out on more lucrative tables. In other words, I could easily get a four-top that would tip me more than double what I’ll earn on this.
As the evening went on, we chatted often, talked about their anniversary, and I recommended a few glasses of wine and brought samples out after noticing that the wife wasn’t well-accustomed to certain varieties. We had some laughs, and at the end of the night, she surprised me by leaving a tip that although wasn’t as large as I could have made with other tables, was quite large for the amount of their bill. She made a point to hand it to me personally.
Tables like that made me realize something: there’s value in serving others regardless of whether or not we’re rewarded.
That couple came there for an anniversary dinner, and I created a memory that will stay with them for–hopefully–the rest of their lives. They’ll look back fondly and remember the nice, romantic dinner they shared. If I’d given them paltry service or tried to rush them in and out as quickly as possible, I might have spoiled an important day of their lives.
It’s unfortunate that the value of so much of what we do in life is reduced to finances, but let’s not forget that doing good for others is, to a certain extent, its own reward.