Advancing In The Industry – Quick Follow-Up

Waiterextraordinaire responded quickly to my last post. Based on his thoughts, it seems I’m probably off-base in the focus of my advice:

Great post waiternotes! Just as a follow up on the degree the girl is going for. Good for her and if she can learn a couple of languages work in Switzerland or better yet take some of her education overseas that would be even better. I am sure she has better plans than working with a corporate chain. Hey how about a spot in the Cayman Islands , Dubai , Australia , France. Get a degree and learn languages then the work permits will drop in your lap. Be pretty exciting.

Obviously, WaiterEx has a completely different concept of the breadth of opportunity in the hospitality business than I do!

And he’s right. The fact that our industry knows no boundaries allows us to potentially go anywhere in the world. Using some skill in ‘the business,’ we can transplant ourselves into a whole new life in nearly an instant. All it would take is some serious brass balls, a connection here or there, maybe a little money saved, and a plan for the future.

We get bogged down in our lives, feeling boxed in from all angles, seemingly fighting just not to lose ground . . . But who knows what any of us could make happen if we just pulled stakes and landed in, say, Australia (with a job, of course)?

WaiterEx emphasizes using multiple languages. That would no doubt make it easier to get taken on by an international resort (or resort town). Perhaps it’s common for ‘outsiders’ to have an edge over the locals in this scenario. The USA has a reputation as being the best of the best in a lot of areas. A hotshot, multi-lingual transplant might well be granted a sizeable ‘grace period’ in a new job ‘over there.’ He/she would ostensibly have a lot of knowledge to impart to the local staff.

I’m just guessing here, but it’s possible.

Thanks, WaiterEx for the perspective.

At the same time, I still believe my narrow take on this issue is fairly complete by its own standards. Still, if you haven’t read it yet, please do so and let me know if I missed something.

Advertisements

Advancing In The Restaurant Industry

Jeanie, in a comment on the blog, recently mentioned that after 18 years in the business as a waiter, she’s going to attend a college (University of Phoenix online) to get a Hospitality Degree. She wants to ‘do something else in the industry.’ I commented on her comment, but I thought I would expand on that comment here. It’s a very good topic for a restaurant blog.

Unlike most of my posts, where I expound as if I know everything there ever was to know on the subject at hand, I admit in advance I don’t have complete data here.

I do have a complete subset of data, however: my own.

The restaurant industry, for better or worse, is very old fashioned. You get your first job by meeting someone personally (usually multiple times), and it’s that contact that convinces your employer that you’d be a good hire. From there, it stays old fashioned. If you want to be a waiter, your best bet is to do your time as a host or a busser, impressing your bosses whenever you can, and wait for something to open up. Restaurants prefer to promote from within.

Likewise the jump from server to manager. Yes, all restaurants hire managers who have managed previously elsewhere. But those managers almost always get their first management job by being promoted from within their current restaurant. I’d also say a majority of GM’s come from the assistant manager ranks in the same company, if not even the same store.

Taken even another step, I’ve found regional managers are usually plucked from the best GM’s in a company’s stable.

Beyond that, I have no idea – though I would guess that upper level management spots do get filled by headhunters more than promoted from within.

The obvious moral to my story is that it’s probably more effective to dedicate ones time to climbing the ladder within the business, rather than getting a degree. At the very least, you’ll be getting paid for your ‘education.’ You’ll also have the ability to make more contacts as you move up.

Another factor is the consideration of where you’ll be after you get your degree? Likely, you’ll be applying for assistant manager jobs, just like you would have been getting almost automatically through working in the restaurant. The advantage of the degree is it’s possible that you’ll be ‘fast-tracked’ to a GM promotion – more so than the working slug who just traded in his apron for a $99 suit.

All that said, you’re still mired in the same hierarchy as the rest of the managers trying to get promoted into the corporate side . . .

But then, maybe I’m missing Jeanie’s point. Maybe she wants to get into banquet coordinating? Or hotel management (which is a whole other huge can of worms compared to running merely a restaurant). Or maybe she wants to become a chef? There, it would probably be imperative to have culinary school experience if she aspired to more than being a garden variety cook or head chef at a mom ‘n pop place.

If anyone has more firsthand information about the upper corporate echelons, let me and the rest of us know.

* * * * *

I’d like to thank the writer of the So You Want To Be A Waiter blog for giving me the Gold Standard of Shout-Outs: an actual blog entry commending Waiternotes and linking to the blog.

I poked around his/her site and couldn’t find a name, but I did try. Incidentally, the blog (fairly new) is excellent. The premise is ‘THE BEST BOOK ON WAITING TABLES THAT YOU HAVE NEVER READ – YET.’ As such, it covers in concise fashion a lot of basics about the food serving profession. There’s even been a ‘Glossary’ post, defining waiter jargon like ‘deuce, roll-ups, crumbers,’ etc.

He’s really on to something here. And it’s not a dry textbook in the making, as he has plenty of regular-style, more conversational blog posts as well. Not to mention, he/she was smart enough to recommend Waiternotes.

* * * * *

Yesterday at Michael’s wasn’t much of a day. I walked with $58. I’d had just two tables, and was down on covers, but Mickey was saving me for the 7-top reservation.

At one p.m. three ladies congregated at the front desk. They were in their sixties, dressed like dance hall tramps from the Wild West years, the ‘cherry on top’ if you will being gaudy wide-brimmed Crimson hats laden with feathers and ribbons. I had no doubt this was to be my 7-top.

Mickey led the three ladies to my meticulously-buffed table for seven, and handed me the reservation chit. It read like one of the best waiter practical jokes ever:

Party Size: 7. Table 12. Web Reservation. Notes: 1st time diner. This is a group of Crimson Hat Ladies – our request is for separate checks. Some of our ladies do not drink. Thank you. REQ A ROUND TABLE. Ms. P’s bday. Has cake in fridge. Please don’t cut until the table sees it.

I would have looked around to see the other waiters and manager laughing at me, wondering if I was buying the gag . . . But here they were. The Crimson Hat Ladies!

Yeah, Just Like This, But This Lady Is A 10 Compared To Mine

Four rhetorical questions: Separate checks? Their own cake? Not drinking? Are you kidding me?

Perhaps they also expected to pay with an expired coupon, and intended to order just two entrees to share buffet-style. And brought their own hot tea bags?

It actually turned out they were just fine. Three of the seven had wine or cocktails. They all ordered entrees. They were very polite and easy to work with. Even the separate check thing wasn’t a big deal for two reasons: A) they let me know in the beginning, so I could make sure each item was on its proper seat, therefore making it a simple computer maneuver to print up the checks; B) They each paid in cash, with exact change. Frankly, because of those things, paying out the table was no more difficult than any other table.

Lastly, the final aggregate tip was right in the range of 20%. Thanks Crimson Hat Ladies!

Cover Counts

Counting covers is the practice of trying to give each server an equal number of guests per shift, thus ensuring in the long run that waiters have opportunity to make the same amount of money. Simply alternating tables doesn’t work because a table of six is not the equal of a table for two. Tables would be even at 1 to 1, but one server gets six customers to two for the other.

Because waiters are a naturally greedy and jealous lot, the system of counting covers is imperative to allay paranoia about management favoritism towards select waiters. Counts might vary a few guests either way, but because of the effort, these variances even out over time.

Many restaurants don’t use cover counts. They are bald-faced about their system of favoritism. Usually it has to do with seniority, and often who is sleeping (semi-secretly) with the manager. And that’s fine, too, I guess. If you know going in what to expect, you can decide if it’s okay with you, making below average money for a year or more, so you can eventually make above average money on the back end. People who complain about restaurants like this kind of bug me. Anywhere you work, the system being employed should be obvious to you after just a few months – if you didn’t know it already from Day One. Waiters have the option of being transient. If you don’t like it (and it’s working for the restaurant, as evidenced by its many years of operation), you should leave.

Michael’s, my day job, employs cover counts. Carney’s doesn’t, and it doesn’t matter because we pool tips there.

I’ve had an ongoing beef with the particular cover count system used by Mickey, the day manager at Michael’s for the last two years. It’s a small tweak she uses regarding the shift closer. My experience in every restaurant has been that the closer stays later, has more responsibility, and often has more work (checking other servers’ sidework, closing sidework, etc.). The reward for this is that he/she gets extra tables (and therefore, more money) after the rest of the floor has been cut. The other waiters almost never have a problem with this, as they recognize the extra work and later hours involved with closing, and because 95% of waiters always want to get off early. Meanwhile, the closers like it because they are the other 5% and enjoy making the extra cash, and don’t mind working for it while the other jackasses are out spending their earnings on cocktails.

Well, Mickey’s tweak – she believes, an improvement – is to manage the covers to take into account the late parties the closer will get. For example, she’ll cut the floor with Waiter X at 15 covers, Waiter Y at 14, and Waiter Z (the closer) at 9, because she knows there is a four-top coming in later, and she expects another possible table or two to walk in.

The first problem is obviously that this eliminates the ‘Closer Bonus.’ The second problem is that nothing is guaranteed. Reservations don’t show up; in fact, late reservations are more likely to no-show than any other. Expected walk-ins are just a roll of the dice. You could get five tables and run your ass off, or you could be chasing tumbleweeds for two hours.

I only close one day a week at Michael’s, so percentage-wise her system might serve me better because of my more numerous non-closing shifts. But I just don’t think it’s right. I’ve talked to all the other waiters about this, and they agree too: This is not the way it is done anywhere.

I (and at least two other waiters, separately) have addressed Mickey about this issue specifically. She won’t change. So we have had to accept it.

But it still doesn’t keep us closers from getting mad watching the other waiters get loaded up in a 4-to-1 ratio vs. the closer.

It happened today. Three on the floor (incidentally, as the closer, I nevertheless opened the restaurant as well). I got an early 3-top and that was it. The other two got numerous tables, finally totaling 8 and 9 covers each by the time it was 1:20. A slow day, obviously, with only one six-top reservation left on the books. I figured at this point everyone was pretty much cut, and I would get the six-top, and any walk-ins.

Sure enough, a quality walk-in comes in, Mr. Corelli. I had him last week. He’s a regular, good for a 30% tip. Another waiter normally gets him, by his request, but last time I did such a good job he said he wanted to sit with me whenever she was not working.

Because of the cover count and floor-cutting situation right then, and because his usual waiter was off, I immediately went to his table as he sat down. We said hello and chatted, I got the cocktail order, I referred to a dish he ordered last time that wasn’t made quite right (for him), and how we’d get it perfect this time. He was glad to see me and things were rolling.

I ring the cocktails, deliver them. These guys like to start slow and finish abruptly, so I leave them alone to talk and drink. Back in the side station I’m just dicking around, pretty much killing time. After a few minutes, Mickey comes back with a chit (for each party seated, a chit with a name and other instructions/info is printed and given to the server). She says, ‘I’m going to give this table to Chrissy, because you have the six-top reservation coming in later.’

I say no problem. I assumed another table had walked-in while I was back there. This would ultimately put me with at least 13 covers and Chrissy with 10 or 12, depending on the size of the ‘new’ walk-in. Fine.

After another few minutes I return to the table. Chrissy is chatting up Mr. Corelli, which isn’t unusual because he’s a regular, a nice guy, and a great tipper. As I get closer it becomes obvious that this is the table Mickey was giving her. It was awkward at the table because Mr. Corelli looked at me like, ‘What’s going on?‘ In fact, he even said that out loud. ‘We thought we were getting you.’

‘Yeah, well, Mickey has a way she runs things,’ I said, knowing better than to bring internal stuff to bear on the guests. I just told him this is the way it was, and Chrissy will definitely take good care of them.

But I was freakin’ flaming. Nevertheless, I immediately transferred the table (in the computer) to Chrissy. You need to obey orders or the whole system breaks down.

So now I was back to 3 covers. Back to zero customers currently in the restaurant. It’s 1:40 and the other waiters are doing their sidework. I complained to Chrissy herself, not because I wanted action or blamed her – just that she’s a friend and we all disagree with Mickey’s management of cover counts. She said she understood. She even said I could have the table if I wanted. I said no because I’m not a strong-arm guy. I didn’t want to steal the table; I was just upset because it should have been my table.

Mickey came back to the side station a few minutes later. I was fit to be tied.

‘I just can’t understand how you can do that to me,’ I said.

‘But you’re getting the six-top. They’re in the bar.’

‘Right, but now Chrissy is up to 12 covers and the six-top only puts me at nine. I’ve had three covers.’ If you can’t tell, I was super upset. ‘And the worst thing about it is you know Mr. Corelli is an $80 tip. And you gave it to her and she was already ahead of me on covers . . .’

Unfortunately, Mickey became upset and frustrated. She offered that if it was okay with Chrissy I could still have the table. As I said, I didn’t want that. So, having said my piece, I went back out to stand sentry over a (nearly) deserted floor.

Mr. Corelli looked over his shoulder, spotted me, and waved me over. ‘I hope you won the coin toss,’ he said.

‘Well, I wish I had too, but I didn’t.’

‘But we wanted you. You were already working with us. She hasn’t done anything,’ he said. ‘Isn’t there something you can do?’

‘The only way anything would happen is if you talked to Mickey, because it’s what you want that matters,’ I said, coming pretty close to, if not actually, crossing the line. But then, he did ask. And I certainly wouldn’t want him to think I didn’t care, which would be insulting to him. I continued, ‘But you if you do, you have to let her know I had nothing to do with it. You called me over here.’

At that moment, Mickey swung by the table, asked how it was going?

Mr. Corelli: ‘Oh, it’s fine. You know I called Waiter over here to find out why you were switching Chrissy on to us. She’s a great girl and everything, but Waiter has got us going. He’s been doing everything for us.’

Mickey quickly capitulated, putting me back on the table, making it seem like that was the reason she was coming over anyway. It’s possible that was true.

After that, Chrissy transferred the table back to me in the computer; Mickey pretty much didn’t talk to me the rest of the day; and Chrissy left without saying much. I went on to get the six-top and wait on the two tables.

The issue got a little more sticky when the six-top ordered a bottle of Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet – $350. They proceeded to order appetizers, salads, and dinner entrees, and multiple bottles of water. Their check was $930 and I got a $200 tip.

Mr. Corelli had a big day even for him. Despite bringing his own wine (VIP’s don’t pay corkage), his party of four rang up a $450 bill. He tipped me $150.

So I felt even worse for all the ‘greedy’ drama. I wasn’t able to psychologically fall back on the fact that Mr. Corelli was the only saving grace of my day. Still, intellectually I have to realize that the good fortune of that six-top was just that. It would have been more likely that a random group of six people at lunch would run up only a $250 bill and I might get a $40 tip off it.

The real problem I felt I had to address was the screwed up logic employed in giving Mr. Corelli to someone else, at that exact time, place, and situation. It wasn’t consistent with even Mickey’s flawed concept of fairness; and it became more egregious – less acceptable to just let it go – when the table in question was a well-known big tipper.

I suspect I’m going to have to chat about this with Mickey when I return to work on Friday. My instinct is to apologize, but thinking it through, I can’t really do that. Although I am sorry a conflict and some hurt feelings resulted, the situation wasn’t my fault. I was initially victim to misapplied rules. I got upset and emotional, and merely voiced my frustration to the manager. What happened after that was kind of an uncontrollable snowball effect.

Final wrap-up: I walked with $350 for the day (I got a couple of piddly tables much later – score a half-a-point for Mickey, I guess – for an additional $30 tips. Whereas I broke out of my three-month stretch of $60 shifts a couple weeks ago, this marked breaking the $200+ drought that had been going on since December. And what a way to break it.

Our Inaugural Q and A!

We have a special event today here at Waiternotes blog: Our first question to answer! Ivy asked:

. . . what would you do when you saw a lot of food left on the plates , and your guest gave you an ugly face and ask for check, and as a wait staff ,you ask if they want a to go box, they commented the food is too spicy. At this point, you will just bring them the check , or see their comment as a complaint and make a deduction of the bill or anything to compensate your guests ???

Waiters – and I am one – love this kind of question. There are variables here; this guest has presented a bit of a challenge; it’s definitely a judgment call; and we get to show off some of our narrow expertise.

Since all my readers are good, professional waiters (if they are waiters at all), we must assume he/she has done the ‘Check Back.’ This is one of the universal steps of service. No matter what level of dining, if a guest sits at a table and a waiter takes his order and delivers his food, the Check Back is part of the program. Check Back is, once the food is delivered, returning in a few minutes/bites to check that the meal has been prepared to the guest’s satisfaction. If not, steps are taken to remedy the situation before the meal is completely over. For the ‘problem’ to get to this stage Ivy describes, the Check Back checkpoint was passed successfully.

Now. I’d give 50-50 this guest is bucking for a free dinner. The alternative is that he is resigned he’s going to have to pay, and wants to take home the food anyway – maybe someone else will eat it. The server, first (and maybe later the manager), must make a judgment call. Is the guest a lowlife, a sleazy operator? Has he demonstrated other shifty behavior, like complaining about prices or the strength of his cocktail? Was he apparently eating and enjoying his meal up until the end? Is it likely he just got too full (from eating two loaves of bread), and that’s the real reason he didn’t finish? If so, he’s trying to scam you.

What you do with a scammer depends on your restaurant and how it’s run. If you work at TGIFridays or Outback Steakhouse or some big corporate chain, then you will most assuredly notify the manager. The manager, feet up on his desk, will look up at you through a haze of cigarette smoke and tell you, ‘Comp it.’ Chains don’t f-around with possible complaints. A complaint that gets into the corporate hierarchy is like a virus that incubates and multiplies at each stop. When the local manager hears about it again, it’s been blown so out of proportion he’s lucky if he has a job when things get settled. And the guest gets a bunch of free food anyway, when all is said and done. So they just buy the food and move on, living another day in the rat race.

If you work at a Mom ‘n Pop restaurant, as I do at Carney’s Corner, there’s a good chance that guest is going to eat that food – with his wallet if not his mouth. Carney would go to the table and say, saccharin-sweet, ‘I wish you had told us when we came back and asked how you liked it. We could have made you a new one.’ And she would walk away. Maybe she would try to buy them some after dinner drinks . . . but maybe not.

The waiter is going to get a crummy tip, but in this case it doesn’t feel that bad, because A) you feel satisfied that this jackass didn’t get over on you guys, and B) the tip would probably have been bad in any event. Mom ‘n Pop places don’t have to worry as much about BS complaints. As the saying goes, ‘If this is the way you behave, we don’t want your business.’ End of story. Guest never returns; Mom ‘n Pop get no more fake complaints from this a-hole.

On the other hand, sometimes spicy food builds up on you. By your fifth bite, your mouth is burning, and you can’t taste anymore. This guest might be being honest. If the guest passes the bullshit test, and has otherwise behaved well, the first step is to apologize. Pack it up to go.

At this point, I personally probably wouldn’t comp the entrée. After all, you did proper diligence to make sure things were okay, with the Check Back. Plus, he ate some, and is taking the food to go. I would be inclined to either discount it (if the system allows) or give away a free appetizer voucher or free drink chips (if your restaurant has such things) for their next visit.

After all, chain restaurants aren’t misguided in everything they do. Repeat business is what sustains restaurants. Making a guest happy now with a free $10 appetizer might well mean $500 or $1000 more business from him in the next 12 months.

And, also, let’s not overlook the human aspect. We all know what it’s like to be disappointed in a restaurant. If this guest is a good guy, he deserves some real sympathy. It sucks to go out expecting a great meal and a great time and have some aspect of it go sour (or spicy). Hell, I’ve never worked a place where there weren’t ‘Nice Guy’ perks given out just because people were cool – and they had no complaints at all. Hey, we’re in the business of fun and good times. Let’s do that.

Thanks for the question, Ivy.

Waiting Tables Can Be Bad For Your Health

Very good night at Carney’s. Walked with $269. This was partially on the strength of a $100 tip ($140 check) Jacqueline received, but we also had some pretty good wine drinkers, good spenders, good tippers, and an employee celebrating her birthday with her husband and another couple. Add it up and you have great revenue.

Don’t know if there’s some trend at work here, with the busy Friday. Actually, hopefully there isn’t a trend, as the earlier part of the week was extremely slow.

Michael’s was nothing much at all. I had but one table – an 8-top. But they left me $60, so I walked (a little earlier than normal, which was nice) with $51. That put me at a respectable $98 average per shift for the week. The only problem of course, as written last post, was that I only worked two shifts instead of my historical four.

Update about my knees and ankles. Previously mentioned in this post. It’s obvious now that in addition to my old habit of cracking my ankles (as you might crack your knuckles or your neck), the shoes have a lot to do with aching ankles. As I recall now, I got a new pair of work shoes, and shortly thereafter, my ankles became sore and creaky. The same time as I decided to quit cracking the ankles, I also ditched those shoes. The ankles improved.

Well, that ‘good’ pair of shoes finally wore out. So I went to a new pair. And guess what? Absent my cracking habit, the ankles have started to ache again. Nothing like before, but there have been similar twinges. Nevertheless, I’m going to ride this out for a bit and see what happens. The shoes I have now are high quality (as compared to the Payless-quality of others in my past). I actually feel like they’re supporting my ankles and foot better than most I’ve had. As I’ve recounted earlier, I played a lot of basketball in the old days. I remember having ankle aches at times when I would break in a new pair of shoes. Maybe that’s what happening here.

About the knee, it has improved a lot. I’ve been paying attention to my gait, my balance, my hips. I feel that I had somehow adopted a funny way of walking, and then when the knee pain started to appear I modified it to be even funnier. I’m back now to my regular balanced walking.

forward lean

Remember I said I had developed the habit of planting forward? This puts undue weight and inertia on your knees, compared to keeping your center of balance above your hips which spreads the impact throughout your body as it should be.

A funny thing happened when I started correcting myself. I noticed a lot of other waiters and bussers walking the same way, planting forward, their torso leaning slightly ahead of the rest of their body. Why in the world would so many of us walk like that? And also, why had I started to walk that way, when I never used to in the past? Waiting tables must be bad for your health.

As usual, I’ve come up with a theory.

I blame management.

This should be no surprise because waiters blame management for everything. But hear me out.

Have you seen people walking with their upper body pitched forward, ahead of the rest of them? What does it look like?

I think it looks like they’re hurrying. Of course it doesn’t mean they really are, but that’s what it looks like.

That’s why I blame the managers. Restaurant managers over the decades have a penchant for instilling fear in their employees. One way they do this is the stated or implied judgment that workers aren’t hustling. If you are concerned about what your manager thinks (and who of us isn’t?), you want him to think you’re working hard.

It may well be that you are working your ass off, but just like an elegant and efficient centerfielder in baseball, you are making it look easy. A bad manager can’t see that you are creating an aura of calm for your guests (and the rest of the staff, incidentally), by remaining collected and not hurrying. The bad manager just sees you aren’t sweating, hauling around at a breakneck pace.

You find yourself under fire, if only because you know in general management wants ‘hustlers.’ So at some point you subconsciously notice another waiter who looks like he’s hustling. And, subconsciously, you begin to emulate that person – the pitched forward, foot-planting guy.

And of course it works. Someone leaning forward looks busy and fast. You are taught, again subconsciously, that this is right because you will feel the negative attention about your lack of hustle disappear.

This is what happened to me. Once I started walking normally again, the pain began to disappear. God knows how long I was walking that way – probably about as long as I have been at Michael’s, which is a testosterone-charged, competitive, typical multi-manager corporate restaurant. It just took this long to wear down the natural padding in my knees. Now I’m having to rehab.

I recommend: Don’t fall into this trap. Walk normally – like you would cruising the mall on Sunday afternoon. You can still walk fast with a good center of balance.

And damn those idiots who might say or imply that you’re not hustling. If the issue comes up, just ask them to assess your performance, not your appearance.

Restaurant Industry Contraction

A little-recognized benefit of being a waiter is that the job has a sort of built-in protection from inflation.

In a nutshell, when overall prices rise so too do restaurant prices. Tips are more than not calculated on the ‘bottom total’ of the check (the figure that includes food and drink, plus taxes). If a waiter was generally getting $20 tip on a $100 two-top, then when prices rise to $115 for a two-top, he’ll be getting $23 tip. It’s easy to see. Likewise the tax effect. California recently jacked sales tax up an additional 1%. Of course that is reflected in the new bottom total of every restaurant’s checks. So in a way, that’s another raise for us.

Obviously, this is not a cut-and-dried mathematical equation. People are free to tip whatever they want. If things become more expensive they just might take the extra out of the tip, so the previous example of $100 + $20 tip = $120 final outlay, might actually become $115 + $15 tip = $130 final outlay. Consumer’s costs rise less, waiter eats most of it. C’est la vie.

That said, I believe tipping on the bottom total continues to be the most common formula.

In the face of inflation, this makes waiting tables an extremely attractive lower-middle class profession. Most jobs don’t have automatic cost of living adjustments. If you’re an office manager and prices rise 5% in one year but your pay raise schedule only gives you 2.5% annually, you’re either out of luck or else you have to screw up the courage to ask your boss for an additional raise you probably won’t get. For us waiters, it’s just automatic.

Twenty years ago at my first actually good serving job, I was making $70-100 a night. Aside from the incremental increases in minimum wage, I never asked for, nor received, a raise. It just happens as you go along. I wouldn’t say my current night job is any more high end than that job 20 years ago, but now I make $150-200 a shift. When the economy is good, I make $200+.

Now that I’ve explained my take on inflation as it affects the waiter, let me point out another pay benefit people don’t often recognize. Waiters also get automatic (effective) pay raises when the economy contracts (as opposed to an inflationary economy). This is what we’re going through now.

Restaurants close. If you’re lucky enough to still have a job, that means there are fewer competitors taking your money.

Fewer people go out to eat. Restaurants will almost immediately adjust staffing so fewer servers are on the floor. Again, if you’re lucky enough to be in good standing in your job, that means fewer fellow waiters taking a bit of the aggregate tip pool. I hope it’s obvious I don’t mean, necessarily, actual Tip Pooling. Simply, if a restaurant rings $2000 in a night, that would mean $400 in aggregate tips. If there are four waiters on the floor, everyone makes $100; if only two, each makes $200. All things averaging over time, of course.

This is what’s happened at both my jobs. If done properly, contraction takes a while to kick in for you. The immediate effect is usually getting fewer shifts. If done properly, the management will let water seek its own level: As servers leave, they are not replaced; as servers take additional jobs to compensate, they end up stuck with three shifts instead of five permanently because they’re working elsewhere, which leaves those remaining able to nickel-and-dime pickup shifts to get back as close as possible to their usual full schedule.

Here’s how things have contracted at my day and night jobs:

Three years ago at Michael’s I was working 4-5 lunch shifts a week. The floor was routinely staffed with a minimum of four waiters, more if there was a lot of business. Today, the template is 2 shifts a week plus an on-call that’s about 50-50. The floor is staffed with two waiters as default, the third is called in about half the time. So currently I have fewer shifts each week, but at the same time, the smaller floor plan has propped up my daily take to a slightly better average than I used to make. With time (and assuming we remain open for lunch) I hope to get back to 4 shifts a week, as staff attrition has its effect.

Three years ago at Carney’s I was working three shifts a week. Today I still have three shifts, but there is one fewer waiter scheduled each night. And again, my daily take home is about the same as it used to be. I don’t expect to be able to add a shift at Carney’s, but I do expect to make significantly more money as the economy comes back.

It is a hard time. Yes there are significant negatives to a career in food serving (lack of benefits, wear and tear on your body, poor job security, etc.); it is not an ideal profession by any means. But, as detailed above, there are some overlooked positives that make it better than a lot of working-class jobs.

How would you like to be an auto mechanic right now? These 3000 closed dealerships all have a staff of mechanics. I’m sure business was down already. Now it’s totally gone.

Tivo, The Lakers, And Smug Idiots

I’m guessing many of you think I’m the idiot for including the Los Angeles Lakers so often in my ‘Waiter Blog.’ I know it’s completely off-topic, but the Lakers are such a large part of my life (a little embarrassingly) I just can’t avoid it.

Well, this time the Lakers and Tivo do have waiter-relevance.

I’ve been a Lakers fan since 1979, when Magic Johnson was drafted by Los Angeles. Magic hails from Lansing, Michigan, where he won the state championship in high school and later won the NCAA championship at Michigan State, also in (East) Lansing. It happens that during that same period of time, I also lived in Lansing for my grade school years and one year of high school. I even almost went to the same junior high that Magic attended, but my family moved to a different district before the year started.

I moved to Northern California in 1977. Because I was already following Magic, and because he, as a rookie, immediately won the NBA Championship in ’79-’80, I became a permanent Lakers fan. Coming from Lansing, I had one of the few legitimate excuses for rooting for Los Angeles while living in Northern California.

After graduating high school, I moved with my family to Southern California, and from that point, it was really on. I could watch every televised game. I could listen to all the others on radio. I spent many an evening in the garage with a portable radio, listening to Chick Hearn while I practiced writing on a Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Before cable television lines were planted in the ground in our neighborhood, I leaned on my step-dad to subscribe to ON-TV, which carried all the Lakers home games. ON-TV was a crazy idea that most people would have a hard time understanding. It was a set-top box that decoded a scrambled over-the-air broadcast signal, UHF channel 52 in Los Angeles. The station carried mostly local sports and movies, like an early HBO. There was also soft-core porn after midnight. If memory serves, you would put the TV on channel 3, then flip the big black knob on the box to ON. I assume the box was permanently tuned to channel 52. Just like that, Lakers!

Around this same time, we got our first VCR. And around this time in the post, we finally get to the relevance of Tivo and the Lakers to the life of a waiter.

I started recording Lakers games to be able to watch them later. In those days, I played a lot of basketball. I would head down to the lighted courts around 5:30 or 6 p.m. and play till about 9 p.m. I would do this like five days a week. It’s not like there were games going all day and night at those courts – those were the prime time hours. No one played earlier, and the lights shut off at 10 p.m.

As you can guess, I needed to have my cake and eat it too. Lakers home games started at 7 p.m. in those days (if I recall correctly), and many road games much earlier. So I learned how to program the VCR and taught the family how watch TV without screwing up the recording. I would return sweaty and salty, have something to eat, and periodically snipe flashes of live TV (with the sound off) to see if the game was over. Usually I would stare a few feet above the set so I could kind of only see the colors and shapes but definitely not make out a score or a particular play. When I saw Chick and his color man (Keith Erickson at the time – and by far the best partner I heard work with Chick) doing a ‘stand-up’ in front of the camera, I knew the game was over. So I’d wait another ten minutes, rewind the tape, and settle in for my fix.

At that time, I was working at pizza parlors for my money, living with Mom and step-dad for free, going to community college.

Fast forward to the mid-’80s. The hey-day of Showtime. I’m now working nights as a waiter, making more money than anyone else my age that I knew, and I’m taping every single Lakers game of the season. Even games I could have watched live. I had gotten to where I preferred the extra control I had (not to mention the time savings by being able to FF commercials). Pause, FF, Slow-Mo. I even archived a few particularly great games every year.

Of course, most restaurants have bars, and have TVs in the bars. And the most popular (almost exclusive) fare for those TVs is local sports. I should mention here that I watch the games because I love and follow the team. But my greatest joy is rooting for the victory, enjoying the rollercoaster of hope/despair over whether the Lakers will win or not.

I went through a lot, trying to avoid learning anything about the game that was being played that night during my shift. Failing that, I was absolutely desperate to dodge learning the outcome. Sometimes it was unavoidable. I come up to the bar and the eyes reflexively jumped to the TV, and sometimes I’d see a mid-game score. Damn! That much suspense ruined! Other times a guest would yell something about the score or the nature of the game or describe a play. Nothing you could do about that.

I trained (and pleaded with) my co-workers about how serious I was about not learning about the game. They mostly all cooperated. I had a lot of fun nights coming home with $100 in my wallet and settling in with my VCR to watch the Lakers at 11 p.m. It wasn’t the icing on the cake, it was the whole thing.

The intermittent and aggravating problem came with the garden variety public when I was off work. After a shift I would not infrequently end up having a drink or two in our bar or some other bar. Also not infrequently, there would be game highlights playing on the silent TVs. And again not infrequently, this would lead to desultory conversation with another guy at the bar.

‘How ’bout that game?’ he would ask.

‘Wait,’ I would caution as I held up my hands, ‘please don’t say anything about the Lakers game. I recorded it and I’m gonna watch it when I get home. Please. If you don’t mind.’

The Grin appears. If it’s possible to get a sick feeling in your spine, I start to get it.

‘Oh yeah? Okay.’ The eyes shift a bit. He’s thinking. Here comes . . . ‘You won’t want to watch it anyway. They lost. Ha-ha-ha!’

‘Why did you say that?’ I ask, pained and sad.

‘Okay. They won! Ha-ha-ha! Now you don’t know!’

But now I do know, you jackass. They won. You’re so stupid you can’t figure out that to ‘fake’ tell me the real outcome would make you just a cruel asshole who ignored my polite, earnest plea. So your cagey mind master-stroked: Tell him the opposite!

Except for a few scattered seasons in the last 30 years, the Lakers generally win about 2/3’s of their games. I know this. I know, as above, that whenever a jackass tells me with a retarded, thumb-up-my-ass grin, that the Lakers lost, it means they won. Big surprise here, but I’ve never been outsmarted on the matter by one of these idiots.

Then there’s the opposite – which isn’t really any different. ‘Ha-ha! It’s a great game. They won!’

These buffoons think they’re doing me a favor. He’ll get to the end of the game and Wow! It doesn’t end like he thought it would!

Thank you for orchestrating my evening of entertainment, numbnuts.

Then there are the ones who just can’t resist showing off. Though they don’t reveal the eventual winner, they insist on telling you some significant aspect of the game.

‘Kobe makes an amazing play in the 3rd quarter.’

‘Wait till you what happens just before halftime.’

‘You’re going to be surprised.’

I say they’re showing off because these people are the same ones who once they learn something, absolutely must show off what they know. Ever have to share a newspaper with someone and they hand you the section they’ve just read?

‘Check the obituaries. The Skipper from Gilligan’s Island died. Did you know he was a minor movie star before Gilligan’s Island?’

It’s almost as if these clowns are proud of the play they saw in the Lakers game – as if they had some ownership of it.

Hearing these snippets of their real life experience is about half as bad as hearing the ‘fake’ result of the game. Though I don’t know who wins, I do have a significant landmark to anticipate. So if I know, for instance, that something big happens just before halftime, more often than not I get a good idea of what it will be, based on what’s happening in the game. An obvious example would be that nothing cool has happened and Kobe has the ball, dribbling down the clock as the half is about to expire. Well, when he drains a long 3-pointer, I’m not really that surprised.

Or the guy who said simply, ‘You’re going to be surprised.’ Well, now I’m not, because that 25-point Lakers lead at halftime is almost certainly going to be eaten away and the Lakers will either lose or narrowly win. Because, after a 25-point halftime lead what else would be surprising?

My strategy for the threat has evolved over the years. I used to plead and explain nicely. Then I started making a firm and concise statement, and immediately walking away. Later, I would literally put my fingers in my ears and hum loudly. Eventually I discovered the best approach was nothing at all. If I hear talk of the game, I leave quickly (humming so I can’t hear). If there’s no talk but highlights are on, I don’t watch and I don’t mention. This works best because it doesn’t put the forbidden fruit out there for these bozos to impulsively snatch at.

Yet, many times every season, especially in the playoffs, I have to make the mini-speech about how I’m recording on Tivo and plan to watch the game when I get off.

It happened to the wife last night. She was off early and stopped at a local watering hole for a glass of wine before heading home. She had to make The Speech to an adult man and his mother.

‘Oh, they won,’ said the jackass.

‘Why did you say that?’ the wife asked. ‘I asked you not to say anything.’

‘Well . . . ‘

‘I hope you realize that you have actually ruined my evening. I was going to go home, make dinner, have a glass of wine, and watch the game. Now, because of you, I know they already won and all the excitement is gone. Thanks.’

He apologized. Better still, his mom verbally beat the crap out of him for a few minutes. A grown man in a public restaurant, being called rude, inconsiderate and immature by his mother.

I was impressed to hear her tell this story. There’s a lot to learn from women. I should listen when the wife tells me things.

Maybe that’s what I’ll do next time I get one of these smug idiots: ‘Thanks. I bet your mom would be amused and very proud of you right now. Have a great night. I’m leaving.’