My First Waiting Job

Not much going on restaurant-wise the last three days. Off Sun-Mon, on-call Tuesday (today) and they didn’t need me. Last weekend turned out to be outstanding. Made almost $500 for the two days. It was busier than virtually any day during the holiday season. Go figure. Hopefully more of the same in store.

Since that pretty much covers current news, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a little of my food serving history.

I was 24 years old, and had worked as a leather salesman, pizza parlor guy (three different chains), library assistant, and nightclub floor man. They all paid about minimum wage, excepting the sales job I had in high school which was based on commission – and I did very well at that. It was time to make more money as I finished college. My goal was to be a writer. I’d received much advice to avoid jobs that used up a lot of your time and/or left you mentally drained at the end of the day. You needed a certain freshness to be able to be productive writing, so the wisdom went. That sounded good to me. So aside from dealing drugs, the obvious choice was to become a waiter.

Going straight into food serving with no experience is a Catch-22. The usual track is hostess or busboy, leading into serving. I had no desire for that. I asked a few waiter friends what to do and they recommended that I simply lie.

So I augmented my stated job history with a waiter job from a restaurant in No. California which I knew to be defunct. I found the old phone number and listed that, made up a fake boss’s name and let ‘er fly. I applied at Red Robin, answered a few questions. And they hired me.

You bet I was green. On the other hand, I’m relatively bright, and a quick study. I really paid attention during the training. By the time I hit the floor, I was ready to be a sub-par yet just-adequate-enough-not-to-be-fired waiter. I jumped right into my Peter Principle position.

I was working lunches. The location was adjacent to a lot of shopping, and a pretty sizable cluster of high rises, so it supported a good lunch rush. Once I got my act together to where at least I was comfortable (my guests probably weren’t so well off!) I mostly enjoyed the job. A check for two people would be $12-15. I got a lot of $2 tips. I would typically make $20 for a 3.5 shift. Add that money to minimum wage at the time, and I was making almost $10 an hour!

Red Robin had a pretty cool employee meal program. They devised a limited menu of their burgers – like five choices – and let us order them for $2 each, including fries, and of course free soda. I ate a lot of Banzai Burgers (teriyaki marinated patty, with American cheese and a thick slice of pineapple). I was light as an Australian tip, and playing hours and hours of full court basketball, so I never got fat, thankfully.

Every now and then they put me on a dinner shift, or else I would cover for someone at dinner. I remember making $70 one night! Mostly though the dinners brought around $45. This was serious money.

There were a lot of hot girls working there, too. Which shouldn’t be surprising, considering the level of the establishment. They were all going to under 30, most college students like myself. I had the biggest crush on Leticia, a Latina (back when it was perfectly PC to be called Mexican) with the best rear end you could imagine and a lovely face and blue eyes. Despite a lot of effort, I made no headway at all. She liked bad boys, the kind who wore a lot of black and were seriously into live music.

In fact, the only date I got working at Red Robin was when I asked out a customer. She left her number for me and we went out on one date. Of all things, it was a Pyramid Party. This was a phenomenon of the times for which money-grubbing Orange County didn’t even bother to invent a less bald-faced euphemism. Two things happened on the date.

The party was at a big house in Anaheim. There were at least a hundred people there. A big barrel was stocked with iced wine and beer. You could smell the greed and desperation in the air. There were several large display boards showing the status of the main pyramid and a couple of others that had already split off. The host was championing how the way things were going, if you ‘invested’ tonight, you’d probably be able to split off by the following week and begin to earn your payoff. I took my date aside and recommended that she not join. I was sure she’d lose her money. She did anyway.

Later, getting a bite to eat at a burger house, she spotted my license in my open wallet as I paid for our meal. As young people are wont to do, she asked to see it and look at the picture. ‘You’re twenty-four years old,’ she said. ‘Why did you lie?’

I couldn’t believe it. I took my license back and studied it. ‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘I am twenty-four. I lost track I guess.’ It was true. What a knucklehead! I’d really thought I was 23 for the last seven months.

Anyway, back to Red Robin. I didn’t really improve my game much there, but I did get two nuggets of wisdom from a server named Victoria (I think) that have stood me in good stead. 1) To avoid spilling portions of drinks like coffee and martinis as you carry them to the table, the trick is not to look at the glass as you walk. Try it yourself if you didn’t know this already. Works like a charm. 2) I asked how it was she got such great tips all the time and I didn’t? She said, ‘I just don’t even think about it. There’s something about it – maybe the guest can tell somehow, maybe you’re distracted, whatever – but if you make yourself just totally forget about it till they’re gone, you get better tips.’ Again, this proved to be true immediately.

Despite my improved tips, things were not all well at Red Robin. I had a problem. I was always late. Usually five, ten minutes. The danger of tardiness is especially amplified at lunch, where for most shifts a crush of people barge in to eat at 11:30 sharp. It really screws things up when you’re not in your station ready to go.

I got written up a couple of times. I vowed to improve. I kind of did. I was usually right on time or just one or two minutes late – never more than five minutes. Then one day I got a speeding ticket on the way to work. I was 35 minutes late. I thought you couldn’t have a better excuse. After all, it showed you were really trying to be on time . . .

I finished my shift and got fired. I had some words with the manager, told him he was making a mistake, that I was doing a good job, that I didn’t deserve this. He said he disagreed. But he would allow me to reapply for employment after three months. Gee, thanks. I’ve got to say, I was crushed.

I would like to say I learned a really good lesson from that. Instead, I can only say I learned a fair lesson. I’ve continued to be late – never on some jobs, occasionally on others, and nearly all the time on yet others – but what I’ve learned is exactly how far I can stretch the tardiness tendency without incurring wrath/termination. I wouldn’t call it a problem any longer, but I’d be a better employee if I would only be five minute early all the time.

But the Red Robin experience served me well (pardon the pun). I now knew how to wait tables. It’s really the same all over. Every new job simply requires an adjustment in style, manner, technique, attitude. But those Steps Of Service don’t change, no matter where you go.

I decided not to reapply to Red Robin. Instead, I took my new authentic resume to some other places, and eventually got a job at a more expensive restaurant. I was on my way . . . to wherever it is I am now.

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4 thoughts on “My First Waiting Job

  1. MiketheWaiter Thu, January 15, 2009 / 2:33 pm

    Hey Dude!
    I was around back when Red Robin opened it’s first store near the University of Washington. An interesting tid-bit that not too many folks know … since you alluded to drug dealing in your third paragraph … is that the start up money for that chain came from cocaine sales … now I won’t use names … but …
    mTw

  2. waiternotes Thu, January 15, 2009 / 3:53 pm

    Hey Mike! That’s incredible! Was that their investors, or the restaurateurs themselves?

    And anyway, where have you been? I’m not getting anymore Google Reader alerts about new posts to your blog . . .

  3. waiternotes Sat, January 17, 2009 / 1:16 pm

    I don’t know the current state of the chain. When I worked there, it was a pretty tight organization (aside from myself).

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