I guess it’s gonna be a series. Coming up, the latest installment on my career waiting tables. But first, a recap from today’s news . . .
Last night (Thursday) at Carney’s turned out to be pretty good. There was only one reservation on the books when we opened, but as usual lately, everything came as walk-ins. The first few years at Carney’s, the owners had iron-clad rules regarding reservations. It was most unfriendly. They absolutely blocked out 7 & 7:30 reservations. The theory being to force people to 6 or 6:30, thus freeing the table for an 8 or 8:30 seating. Business was such that this worked the first year I was there. But increased competition chipped away at demand, and soon we were always full at 6:30, with only a couple of 8:30s on the books. Further erosion led to even the early seating being less than full most nights. This caused some uncomfortable situations where guests who’d sought 7 p.m. but were shoved to 6:30 would be sitting in the dining room at 7:30 looking at empty tables and wondering aloud why we wouldn’t give them their original requested time?
Finally, the economy tanked enough that Carney and Harry lifted the blackout and started accepting reservations any time people wanted to come – if the tables were free. But it was too late to make much difference. In the meantime, people had been taught that if you wanted 7 p.m. at Carney’s Corner, you just walked in – and more often than not, you’d get your table, or get it pretty quickly. So now, way more than half our business is walk-ins, even on weekends. In squeezing too tightly to control, the owners about lost it completely.
Anyway, we rallied from the weak reservation sheet to pull in $161 each, take home. Which is good for a week night these days. Frank the bartender was a snake as always. There’s a certain group of daily drinkers who bar-hop along a circuit. When they alight, they’re always good for 3, 4, 5 rounds, plus are the types to pick up tabs of women in the vicinity. And they’re good tippers. Because we’ve become friendly with them – Richard Mountain especially, the best of them all – we have schooled them not to sit at the bar, but instead at the tables, where they become our (the servers’) customers. But that doesn’t stop Frank. As soon as Richard Mountain walks in the door, Frank’s pouring his VO rocks and running it out to him directly. Through the evening, Frank is somehow able to get out from behind his bar and troll the floor, furnishing new rounds for Richard and his cronies – despite that we (the waiters) are constantly patrolling our tables and very available to service them. Frank even starts tabs himself, rather than the proper method of letting the server know what he’s brought Richard and friends. The coup de grace is at sign out. Frank will try to force another drink on them, and when they refuse, saying they want to check out, he will rush to tally their tab and run the card himself. Fortunately, we have some ballsy girls working the lounge who read him the riot act when necessary. Ciera, in particular, will let him have it. ‘Stay the f— away from Richard Mountain! He’s not sitting with you. You have a full f—ing bar and he’s all I’ve got.’
So, now back to my illustrious job history. Next up: Olive Garden.
It’s 1986 and the chain is just starting to roll out. I saw the new restaurant being built on the big thoroughfare in town and put in my application. True to form, I returned and called several times to show my eagerness. The call came and eventually I was part of the opening crew. A word of advice to those who’ve never opened a restaurant before: Don’t.
The feeling is that you’re getting in early on the gold rush. You wait till the place opens and starts filling seats, it’s already too late – you’ll never get in at that point. That’s true only to a degree. And when you hear what I’m about to say, you’ll understand that opening a restaurant is usually the wrong thing to do.
There are a lot of things wrong with being on the opening crew:
- Training. It’s not the usual, follow someone around for a few days, pass a test or two, and hit the floor to start making money. For my Olive Garden experience (and most others, I’m sure), you’re subjected to more interviews than normal. Once hired, you have two weeks of training. And this is full-time training. You show up at 8 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. The first week is ‘classroom’ only. The brown-nosing and competition is almost intolerable, as everyone wants to be recognized as a gung-ho go-getter, maybe even get anointed Shift Leader. You’re fed so much rah-rah propaganda you feel like you need a shower at the end of every day. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: You’re getting paid minimum wage for this.
- Staffing & Money. Once you get to the end of the training rainbow and open for business, the pot of gold is more like a tin thimble. Server staff is double what it needs to be. Management is playing two games: A) Get everybody shifts so they can practice and improve their game, and B) Over-staff so service for all the first-time guests is as good as it can be. These are fine strategies. But what happens is that instead of 5 or 6 table stations, you get three or even two. You also get cut earlier because of over-staffing. Also, despite the over-staffing, it’s not uncommon to have less than a full weekly schedule. Obviously, all this boils down to much less money than you could be making. As an aside, management at new restaurants also often try to institute unreasonable tip-outs. Where bar and busser is all that should be required, you might be getting pressure to send money to the kitchen and hosts. They also might set the percentages too high.
- Patience is not rewarded. Soon enough, that is. The real pot of gold appears when the staff has finally thinned out, when station sizes finally inflate, when servers are recognized for their strength, when tip outs get adjusted fairly, when your shift includes two or three turns. But it takes months for this to happen, and it doesn’t occur all at once. Let’s say things finally settle out in six months and you’re making the money you always expected. That’s six months of making 50% of normal income. How do you make that up? Assume you took the job because you expected to be making 20% more than your previous job, and assume that happened eventually. If your old job got you $100 a shift, you’d be down $4800 from that after six months. Once you finally started making $120 a shift, you’d have to continue that for 12 months to make up that $4800. That’s 1.5 years just to get to scratch even if you’d never left your old job (or in my case, taken a comparable job at an existing restaurant).
The sole benefit from opening a restaurant would be if you were a complete greenhorn. As a novice waiter, you wouldn’t be losing anything, because there was no previous job to compare it to. You’d also gain a lot from the in-depth training and ‘training wheels’ approach. But then, even new restaurants hire almost solely people with prior experience. So the one benefit is realized by very few.
I went through all the above at Olive Garden. The training honchos came in and puffed us up with tales of $100-150 shifts, about how having fewer tables translates into more money via better tip percentages. He said in his experience, 20% was the minimum tip.
Not so, in practice.
If you’ve been to an Olive Garden, and I assume everyone has, you know they emphasize their unlimited Soup, Salad, and Breadsticks. It’s even a menu choice (at least it was then). Unfortunately, that’s because it’s the best they have to offer. The food is unimaginative and mostly bland. Fettuccine Alfredo, which could be a garlicky, cheesy delight, is overcooked and pasty. Lasagna is just a stack of blank filler.
Those Breadsticks though . . . Mmmmmm!
I left Olive Garden after just a couple months. I had decided to move to Northern California and write a novel with a high school buddy. I never made more than $50 at Olive Garden, and usually walked with $20-30.
I did get one nugget that continues to guide me in the profession, however. At one point in conversation with a busboy, he was telling me about his job and how it related to waiters. ‘You waiters have to know how to use us bussers. These people can get good service and nobody has to work that hard. You ever notice Sydney (a heavy-set waiter in his mid-twenties)? You ever seen him walk more than two miles-an-hour? That’s ’cause he doesn’t have to hurry, ’cause he knows how to let us help him. And he gets killer tips.’
In other words, Delegation.