The Double

Managers and corporations like to call it a “split shift,” but waiters always call them doubles. You work lunch, then later, dinner. It’s no fun for a waiter to work that much. We’re sort of like sprinters: we gear for our race, give it our all, and then rest and relax with a cold drink and rehash how everything went down.

A double screws that all up. Instead of notching down after lunch, you immediately start thinking about dinner a short time away. When you start dinner shift, your energy is nowhere close to what it should be. If you’re lucky, you’ve grabbed a bite, put your feet up, and relaxed a bit. If you’re really lucky, you’ve even gotten an hour’s nap. But you’re still not the same as a fresh-for-his-shift waiter.

We work them because we need to. We need the money. There are only seven dinners in a week. You’re not going to work all of them. If you work as many as possible, and there’s still not enough money, you can:

  1. Move to another restaurant, hoping the money is better.
  2. There is no #2 because you cannot create more nights in the week.

Therefore, the double. You add lunch shifts. If you are a dinner server and you work lunch shifts, you will not make it unless you understand in advance that you will not make as much money at lunch for even harder work. Sorry, that’s the nature of it. These are two different animals here, and you can’t make a donkey buck like a bronco.

However, even at reduced rates, it can still be a pretty good deal working lunches. Consider how much you still make per hour, compared to many, many people in the ‘real’ world.

Take a four hour lunch. You walk with $40, which is not stellar, but probably pretty common. I’d bet Chile’s or Denny’s servers make that or more at lunch, typically. So, in California, minimum wage is $8 an hour. The easy math is you’re making $18 an hour for this. (And don’t forget that a lot of waiters don’t declare all their tips, so $10 of that is mostly ‘take home pay.’ For those of you in ‘real jobs,’ what would you be making per hour if your take home pay was $18 an hour? I’d guess $20-22.)

That’s good money. Take that logic up several notches for working the dinner shift, especially in an expensive restaurant.

So I’m rambling a little about Doubles and pay . . .

What happened today was $126 at lunch and $150 at dinner. That’s a poor night for Friday, but then, it’s Halloween, one of the worst nights of the year for restaurants. We felt lucky to do that well.

I noticed a disturbing trend during the night. I kept hearing: “We’re going out tonight to hide from the Trick or Treater’s.”

Although it’s good for restaurant business, it represents a breakdown in the fabric of society and family. This is a subject you will be subjected to later in the blog, no doubt, because it runs through the core of restaurants and holidays (always a point of contention among servers).

I don’t like to see ruined a great thing like kids canvassing their local neighborhoods, meeting the homeowners who live amongst them, and getting a sackful of candy that they will remember spilling on the floor when they get home for the rest of their lives. These social events are what makes a society. Yet I perceive Halloween is drying up. It’s a lot like Major League Baseball. All of us who remember it as a big thing from our childhood are still into it, but as adults, in adult ways. We don’t buy 10-cent baseball cards or put posters on our bedroom walls. We get together with our same-age (middle-aged) friends and get drunk in a sports bar. We bet at the sports book in Vegas. But the kids today aren’t doing the kid things regarding baseball.

Likewise, Halloween. The adults are still having their Halloween parties like nobody’s business. I saw more adults dressed up in Carney’s Corner bar than I would likely have seen coming to my door tonight (had I been home and not working – another problem). A diner I talked to tonight about this said it’s becoming much more common for kids to do organized functions, such as church or school gatherings, than to hit the streets as we did. Parents are worried about safety.

Well, I won’t digress into that subject . . . for now.

Instead, let’s leave it at a $286 day, where I had a nice time with my people, and now I’m home enjoying a beer. I guess that’s life for most everybody.

Typical Banquet Serving

Depending on your demeanor, banquet serving can be tolerable or outright brutality.

As I define it, Banquet Serving is working with a team on a large party with a very small menu (perhaps three entree choices). For waiters, it’s the equivalent of ditch-digging. You have your job – lots of purely physical labor – and you do it, till you’re done. Running drinks, serving food, clearing plates and glasses, breaking down and resetting tables, etc.

The key is that you don’t interact with the guests.

Many servers say it’s all about the money. But it’s not. At least, not if you actually enjoy your job. If you don’t enjoy your job, then, sure. What’s the difference between six hours of drudgery dealing with people and their emotions and personalities vs. six hours of breaking your back?

But for some of us, it’s not drudgery dealing with people. That’s actually where the fun is.

There may be exceptions, but what other job puts you in a situation where your client is there to have fun? Most diners come in with the expectation of having a great time. They are excited about going out for dinner. They want to like you, to like your food, the ambience of your restaurant.

As a waiter, if all you do is just not screw up, you’ll get an A-grade from the guest. That’s pretty nice.

So there was a banquet I worked today, as the lone waiter for seven guests. The people were having a meeting about vetrinary drugs and dog food. Powerpoint presentation. Big conference call at the end.

This party was somewhat different from regular banquets because it was smaller, and they ordered off the menu. But the rest was the same. And the end result was also the same: the ‘house’ took more than 25% of my tip.

I picked up a couple other tables on the floor, and turned in an $82 day.

Tip-Out Rundown

Lunch shift today. It’s a 30 minute drive to the restaurant. I usually down a cup of coffee, read the news on the net (or the paper if it’s Thurs or Fri), and head off. I don’t mind the drive time. Traffic has been excellent the last couple years – 80 mph the whole way. I spend the time thinking about the day to come, somewhat meditating, listening to the iPod. It’s actually relaxing.

Slow day. Just two tables for me. Walked with $42.

“Walk with” is the operable phrase for servers. It indicates what you had in your pocket in tips at the end of the day, after tipping out. Tip-outs vary everywhere. I’ve worked places where you tipped five (!) people (busser, bartender, cooks, hostess, pantry/salad guy). Additionally, some places you tip a wine captain, maitre’d, manager (illegal but that doesn’t stop them), banquet coordinator, even the corporation (I’ll tell you about that another time).

Michael’s, my lunch job, has a small tip out for lunch, large for dinner. At lunch we only tip 10% to the busser, 5% to the bar.

One irritation more serious servers have is the neophyte (or maybe he’s just an idiot) who, when you ask how much he made, tells you, “Two hundred twenty dollars.”

“Wow! After tipping out?”

“Oh. No. After tip-out I made $170.”

Who cares how much you made before tipping out? All that matters is how much you have at the end. If you’re going to look at it that way, you might as well include all the cash checks you banked. Then you could say, “I had $750 bucks in my pocket tonight before I cashed out.”

Big deal.

Got a bad tip on one table. Four people, they ordered pretty solid and the check was $236. The guy tipped $34.

It depends on the restaurant, and perhaps the part of the country, but around here, in fine dining, we expect 20% when things go well. And we’re thrilled to get it. I’d say I get 20% on about half my tables, 15% is about one in seven, with the rest falling at 17-18%. Yes, you do get 10%’ed or worse, but that probably only happens about once a week or less.

The other table was pleasant and uneventful. Though it was a little interesting to hear the guy say he didn’t want to have more than one glass of wine because he had to go back and teach. I assume he taught college, as prep school hours would be over by the time he got out of there and back to the school. Nevertheless, after his glass of Zinfandel, he finished off the meal with a cognac. He’s probably a fun professor.

The drive home takes 10-15 minutes longer. And, still, I mostly enjoy it, despite the heavier traffic. After working five or so hours, it’s nice to decompress and let your mind and body relax.

Did some shopping on the way home. Bought a micro-fiber miracle cloth for polishing the fancy red wine glasses at both jobs. You should get some for yourself if you have decent glasses. They just wipe out spots without no effort at all, leaving zero lint. I also bought a pedometer. I’ve been wondering my whole career how many miles I log walking at my job. Now I’ll know.

The Waiter’s Weekend

Everybody’s heard the phrase, “This is my Friday.” A waiter’s Friday is usually Saturday or Sunday. The quintessential waiter weekend day is Monday. That’s why enterprising restaurants have “Industry Night” on Mondays, sometimes Tuesdays. Industry nights typically (around here at least) 50% off for employees of any restaurant – just bring your pay stub. Sometimes the deals involve drinks and a late-night happy hour.

In a lot of respects, Mondays are a pretty crappy day to have a weekend. For the rest of the world, Monday is viewed as a great opportunity to close up shop on the slowest day of the week. It’s a little like roaming a ghost town when you’re out and about on a Monday, expecting to get stuff done, or simply have fun. If places aren’t closed entirely, hours are often shortened. It’s a regular occurrence to be stymied in an errand or two and dinner plans when I’m trying to do stuff on Monday.

Also, your ‘regular job’ friends are out of your loop and you’re out of theirs. Whenever I want to do something, I plan it for Monday-Tuesday – they’re working and have to get up early. When they plan something, it’s Friday-Sunday – I’m working.

On the other hand, never being available weekend nights is an incredible money-saver. When I was younger, especially, my friends used to do a lot of partying, going to clubs in L.A. and such. They’d spend a couple hundred a night just drinking and eating Taco Bell when they struck out. I’ve probably saved $50,000 by not going out on weekends.

And that ghost town vibe can also be pretty cool. Traffic is light. If you do find an open restaurant, there’s plenty of free tables; you get great service (usually) because it’s not too busy. If a regular weekend day is mellow, it’s waaay more mellow to have it on Monday.

So today I slept in till noon (I was up till about 3:30 last night fussing on the computer and playing guitar). I paid a bill at the bank, went to Starbuck’s and read the paper while listening to John Prine and Jeff Beck, respectively, on the iPod.

Home again, more aimless fiddling on the computer with email and fave blogs to read. Checking my Fantasy Basketball teams to make sure the lineups are straight before tomorrow’s season openers. Changed strings (finally!) on acoustic guitar, sang a Bob Dylan song to the now shimmering sound. Finally settled down and wrote more outline revisions on the script for over an hour. And now here we are.

Later I’ll probably shake up a martini and dick around more on the computer. I have Forgetting Sarah Marshall on DVD, so I might watch that. Last potential activity: using some ‘trade-out’ gift certificates I have for a local restaurant. (Trade-outs are when one restaurant owner/manager trades certificates with another, typically to give away to employees as ‘thank you’s’ or as sales contest prizes.)

Don’t worry. This will get entertaining soon. What do you expect, anyway? It was a day off. How am I supposed to get new stories away from the restaurant?

Tip Pooling and a Couple of Jackasses

Worked the Saturday night shift at Carney’s Corner (not the real name) in Beach City.

It was a pretty good night. Carney’s is a small steakhouse – just twenty tables, and half of those are in the bar and patio. As such, the waiters pool their tips, meaning we all work our stations, collect our tips, and at the end of the night pool the money and divide it evenly. The benefits of this system (my guess is less than 10% of restaurants pool tips) are:

  1. It levels out the highs and lows of income. Take a $100 a night average job. Without tip pooling, a waiter will frequently swing between $20 and $200 nights, trust me. It sucks if by chance you string together a few $20-30 shfits in a row. Likewise, it can go to your head if your really kill it for a week straight. You might go out and blow a lot of money you don’t really have.
  2. It benefits teamwork greatly. When you’re all pulling for each other, moneywise, there are no stops on helping out your fellow server.
  3. It creates a strong camaraderie with your fellow servers.
  4. It eliminates ‘Table Hogging’ and ‘Guest Sniping.’ I coined the last term. It’s where a server by force or cunning ‘steals’ the best tipping customers for his section. A Sniper could be cajoling a hostess into giving him the high rollers, or sneaking peeks at the reservation book and slyly engineering to have an open table when a roller comes in, or even just bum-rushing the poor guy when he walks in the door and escorting him right to that server’s section.

There are downsides to pooling. The biggest is when you have some dead wood on your staff who is either incompetent or simply unwilling to do the work. These people contribute little money and/or effort to the pool yet walk with the same as the hard and competent workers. People get bitter. However, the peer pressure usually works quite well in whipping people into shape or else figuring a way to ship them out.

So anyway, it was good at Carney’s last night. We made $260. My best table was Mr. Zoloff and his wife who I’d servered several times. He actually knows me from my lunch serving job. He’s a big wine guy. He orders $100+ bottles. Last night he brought two of his own ($25 corkage fee), and they were both $100+ retail. Restaurant prices would be around double that.

An interesting thing happened on a previous visit. Carney’s was running a Special that was a 26 oz. lobster tail with a 16 oz. rib eye, with vegetable and starch, as a dinner for two. The price is $140 total. (Side note: In fine dining, ‘Specials’ are not specially-priced. They are special items that are not on the menu. Some diners used to low-scale restaurants – Blue Plate Specials – expect price breaks.)

The Zoloffs ordered the special. They had an expensive wine. We had marvelous conversation. They enjoyed themselves, left in a good mood, and tipped me more than 20%.

The next day, however, Mrs. Zoloff called Carney, the owner, and complained about the price of the Big Lobster special. She was irked that I hadn’t told her the cost before they ordered it.

(Side note: I do not mention the prices of specials unless asked or unless I deem the guests clearly would have an issue with the high price. I opt to very graphically describe the dish, so it should be quite obvious that this special is not just a regular old entree. Incidentally, on a pure ounce-for-ounce basis, the specials at Carney’s actually do offer a price break. However, the portions are much larger, so the final cost will be more than average.)

Well, Carney adequately defended my actions and the pricing of the meal and more or less defused the situation without capitulating with an offer of a free dinner or something else.

So interestingly, last night, the Zoloff’s ordered the damn Big Lobster special! A little strange that she would call to complain about the price, and then the next time, knowing the price would order it anyway. People can be strange.

Last night was a really fine night for me. I personally brought in $340 to the tip pool; my guests were really great and fun; and I got to leave early.

Another server, Dory, had a jackass though. Part of a 4-top with his wife and her parents (aged somewhere in their 70s), the folks were buying dinner. Jackass wanted to act the big shot by buying the wine. So he caught Dory in the hallway, ordered a $45 bottle of wine and gave her his credit card. He drew a line through the tip field and totalled out $45.

Enough already to make him a jackass. But then he came back to the table and started crowing about what a great bottle of wine he bought them, and how it was the least he could do. Well he was right on that count.

Finally, it turns out it’s Jackass’s birthday. Dory brings out free cake with a candle in it. And Jackass demands that she sing to him.

Dory just looked at him, smiled,  said, ‘Happy Birthday,’ and walked away.

We also had a little fun with Frank, the bartender. Mojitos are a great drink, but they’re pretty labor-intensive. You have to muddle sugar cubes, mint and limes, then shake it all up with the rum, top with soda and garnish with mint. Sounds fast there, but it’s not like pouring a gin and tonic.

Frank hates making these kinds of drinks, so sometimes we try to sell a lot of them to our tables, just to torture him. Last night was a great one for mojitos. I sold one, another table saw it and ordered one. Then the first table had another. Then someone else at that table switched to a mojito too. I came back five separate times with mojito orders.

“The funny thing is, I’m not even selling ’em,” I said to Frank. “I overheard one table saying she read about how great the mojitos were here in a review in the paper. She said it was true, she’s telling all her friends about it, too.”

I laid it on as thick as I could. I got Kim, the other server, to sell one and parrot the same story. We started laughing about adding it to the sign out front: “Carney’s Corner – Steaks, Seafood, Mojitos.”

Frank is pretty much a jerk. He loves to belittle people but he just cannot take a joke on himself. He was seething – so much so that he wouldn’t even complain like usual. Instead he maintained that he didn’t care at all. But I noticed that instead of his usual prompt service, after the fourth mojito, he really took his time making it.

But us three waiters were loving the hell out of it.

These are some of the ways we amuse ourselves.

Restaurant Owners Are Crazy

This is a truism I’ve discovered in my career. I’ve worked for, let’s see, four independently-owned (non-corporate) restaurants. Corporate restaurants are another topic for another set of posts, and a rich topic indeed.

I believe owners are crazy because they’ve chosen this business. But also, they’ve chosen the business because they’re crazy. It’s impossible to separate the two. Further, elements of their business make them crazier.

Paranoia. Imagine owning a business where every day, on multiple ocassions, you have to witness your supplies and product being ruined. Broken glasses, silverware thrown in the trash, returned entrees, mis-poured cocktails, items being left off checks, guests returning food and drink just because they ‘didn’t like it,’ etc.

The voices in their head (and they all have them) are backed by a sound effects track of a chiming cash register, marking every dollar and cent that is being wasted or thrown away. This is a day-after-day reality for them.

And what about their overall financial condition? Three of the independent restaurants I’ve worked at were quite successful. Two of those I happen to know have nevertheless had problems on ocassion meeting payroll. Perhaps the third did too, but I wasn’t close enough with him to find out.

And the drinking. Half of my four independents were alcoholic owners. I’m talking serious, every-single-day drinkers. It definitely affected their behavior.

There’s also constant theft. Everywhere, in every single restaurant in the country. The most ‘honest’ restaurants will still have employees eating forbidden food, or getting free drinks from the bartender, or servers ‘forgetting to ring’ coffees and salads and other items they prepare themselves if waiting on friends or good customers, they’ll also clock-in early and clock-out late. And these are houses whose employees are predominantly ‘ethical.’

Of course the other group goes from bartenders scooping cash checks straight into the tip jar, all the way to cooks leaving through the back door with hundreds of dollars of product.

It’s no wonder they’re crazy. I would be too.

Welcome To Waiternotes!

When dining out, have you ever wondered just how much of your conversation your waiter has heard? What is he thinking? What is he saying about you back in the kitchen? Why does he think you’re an idiot?

Well, you’re about to find out.

A little background:

I’ve worked as a waiter for more than 20 years, almost exclusively in upscale restaurants. It’s been my ‘real job’ since I graduated from college. The original plan was to have a decent-paying gig that wouldn’t take too high a toll on my energy and psyche so I would be able to pursue my dreams of writing for a living. Part of this equation has been successful. While I have not acheived a successful career writing, I have been able to do it all these years. About ten of those twenty years I spent focusing more on being a musician than on writing, but I still kept my hand in with the digital pen. I’ve written three novels, four or five teleplays, and a few feature scripts. And, no, haven’t had any sales. But I’m still doing it.

Through the course of this blog I expect to relate many anecdotes that I might otherwise forget. I’ll also drop in old stories that I do remember.

Foodserving is a pretty unique occupation. You are often dealing with people who have a few drinks in them, so they loosen up to reveal their true selves, for better or worse. It’s an emotional environment for the guests – breaking bread has always been an important (and sometimes sacred) component of relationships. People are being fed, rather than feeding themselves – it’s a dynamic that puts the diner psychologically back in the role of a child. They are grateful when the experience is a happy one, and oftentimes petulant when they don’t get their way or something goes wrong.

As a waiter you have a special opportunity to make your workday go very well, and it usually depends little on the ‘product’ you are selling. If you can win over your guests on a genuine emotional level, they will put up with an overcooked steak, a forgotten salad order, slow drink service, and a high check total – and still leave with smiles on their faces and a warm feeling for you and your restaurant. While of course all is better if the above typical problems do not appear, you are still making a good life for yourself and your employer. These people will be back.

So enough background, etc. Let’s do a first typical post and get it on!