Demoted To Busser

Rachael wrote (edited):

I’m a server and without my consent our restaurant decided each server would have to be scheduled as a busboy. The woman making the schedule says she’s splitting the shifts but I have seen a ‘top’ waitress only have one bussing shift in one week and haven’t seen her do it since then. … this has been going on for a few months, and … I’ve only seen her do it once, while … I’ve been scheduled to do it 3 times, and this week I was not given any serving shifts. I feel that this is somehow not something I should have to deal with since I was hired as a server, not a bus boy. Please help!

Thanks for your question, Rachael.

I had a similar experience to yours (though yours is decidedly worse).

Then, I was being forced to work banquet parties (something I was not hired to do) vs. regular floor-serving. Admittedly more a lateral move than being demoted to busser.

It’s not comforting, but if you brainstorm for other professions where workers can be shuttled back and forth between positions, you will come up with lots of them. If your boss in the sales department of XYZ Widgets decides to move you to telemarketing, you kinda just have to do it. Likewise if she shifts you to a crappy territory. Regular companies do it all the time and it is framed this way:

‘We’re moving you to <blank> at a <blank> cut in pay. You can have the job if you like. If not, we’re going to have to part ways.’

You have three options:

  1. Do/say nothing and just suck it up, grateful for (or bitter about) the job you have.
  2. Get another job and then quit your current place. Very few restaurants practice the BS you are encountering.
  3. Sit down with someone high up in management and have a calm, reasoned, cooperative conversation about your objections. Including offering a suggestion to fix things.

I recommend #3. But be prepared to find another job. They won’t fire you as long as you continue to cover the busser shifts, yet if they don’t change the system you will be miserable and resentful.

What I didn’t know when I wrote my post, was the fallout from my confrontation with management. The rest of that holiday season – and in fact forevermore – I was not asked to work another banquet. I was lucky. Management took to heart my considerations and objections and apparently decided I was right.

I don’t expect you to have the same luck.

You could try making a stand based on the principle you were hired to be a server, and you chose the job because of that. You could, by all means, play the money card for sympathy – tell them the cut in income makes it impossible to pay your rent, child care, DUI fines, whatever.

As for possible solutions, the most obvious is hire (more?) bussers! Or what about eliminating the position and having all waiters bus their own tables, fill their own waters, bring their own bread, etc? That way no one gets preferential treatment like the ‘top’ server you mention. Or start a tip pooling arrangement where you do cycle through busboy shifts, but the busser position gets the same cut as the waiters?

I’m not hopeful about any of those solutions besides hiring bussers, and I’m guessing that’s not on the table (pardon the pun). So you should reconcile yourself to working at a different restaurant if nothing happens from your communication efforts.

However, before you take any steps, consider whether it will be wise to change jobs.

I don’t know what kind of money you make (i.e., how desirable your serving job is). It matters because if you are pulling $300 a server shift along with $100 on the busser shift, that would still add up to a great bank deposit at the end of a 5 shift week. Your pride might feel better in another job where you didn’t suffer the indignity of bussing tables, but it’d be a hollow victory at $150 a shift.

On the other hand, if you’re in an average-paying server job, then just get out and into another average one (or better!). Just don’t quit till you’re out of training at the new restaurant.


Why Can’t Busboys Become Waiters?

I got an interesting comment about my last post, My Busboy Is A Dick, from someone calling himself Xavier.

Sorry, as enjoyable as your post was I’m afraid I’ll have to take a defensive position. I work at a very large (100+ tables) restaurant in the middle of downtown. I am a food runner/expo and one of my good friends is a busser. We are both young ambitious guys who will outwork a horse if challenged but due to the way things are designed there has been somewhat of a falling out…..not so much with me, but with him. He is entirely fed up with the fact that oftentimes we will both do more work in one hour than most of the servers do all night yet we still walk out the door with 65$ in tips when the servers walk out with 250$+. Sure, servers have a higher ranking job and there’s more volatility in their tips but it sort of seems as if the system is flawed. At parties/buyouts, for instance, everyone does pretty much an equal amount of work yet the servers still walk out with far more. Top this off with the fact that even if we go above and beyond our call of duty for the servers we will get not one dollar more than what the servers are required to tip us. For all those reasons, my friend, the busser, has sort of become like the guy you mentioned in this post. He does the very minimum amount of work to get by and quite frankly I understand where he’s coming from entirely. I would do the same but I just happen to hold myself to a high standard.

I’d appreciate your thoughts on this…

It was a thought-provoking comment – and hit on some things I’ve thought about before. I’ll respond in more or less in the order he laid it out. Of course, I’ve no choice but to take it on faith that Xavier’s numbers and characterizations are accurate.

One question that needs to be answered is whether Xavier and his buddy are getting ripped off, or are they are just not understanding how the money actually breaks down (the problem Lencho had in the anecdote towards the end of my last post).

So, let’s break it down, using my best assumptions.

With 100 tables there will probably be 20 waiters (Michael’s only allows 3 tables per waiter, so I think 5 tables per waiter is a reasonable guess). Total tip-out for waiters is anywhere between 15% and 40% – meaning between bussers, bartenders, expediters and whoever else – that’s how much of their gross tips they give away. So I’m going to put the tip-out for Xavier’s restaurant close to the middle, and a bit higher than the median of my various restaurant experiences (about 12 restaurants) because he’s in a very busy, very large restaurant: 30%. Next, because servers are walking with more than $250 a shift, that must mean they are grossing in the neighborhood of $375 in tips.

Don’t worry, I’m going to put this in a table in a minute. Just follow the words for now. Next, we have to guess who is getting tipped, and what percentages. I’ve just got to go with what I know to be true more often than not. Bussers get 15%. Bar gets 10%. Expediter gets 5% or a flat fee of some kind. And there might be a Maître’d or Wine Captain mixed in there too, but we’re going to say there isn’t.

So here’s what we’ve got.

Server Tips (Gross) $375
15% Busser $56
10% Bar $38
5% Expo $19
Server Walks With $262

That means that servers are tipping $1120 to the bussers. The next question is the crucial one for the bussers: How many of them are there? Here’s where you might blame management for staffing too many bussers, which of course dilutes the money they receive. But I’m going to assume normal staffing.

So, plowing ahead, let’s say there’s a busser for every 3 waiters. And let’s make that 7 bussers on the floor, rounding up. That means each busser should receive $160. So Xavier’s friend is getting shafted. But wait. Many restaurants policy is one busser per station. So, of course, that makes for $56 for that one busser. That also makes for 20 bussers on the floor. I don’t know, but it sounds unlikely. Let’s split the difference and say there are 12 bussers. That still leaves a supposed $93 for each busser. It sounds like they are getting shafted. But remember, they might be getting only 10%. In which case, the individual busser tip would be $62.

As for Xavier, as expediter, every place I’ve worked, the expo got a flat fee – $5 to $20 per waiter. Though I have heard of a percentage being used. The key question, again, is how many expediters are there? If there’s only one, then even at $5 per server (an expected $100 per shift for the expo), Xavier is getting royally screwed. Of course, start dividing things by multiple expediters, and the numbers fall into line with Xavier’s account.

If the numbers are fairly cut-and-dried, there’s nothing to be done about it. Each restaurant has its system, and it’s each employee’s decision whether he/she wants to work in that system. I’ve always said, if the system sucks, don’t work there and find one you like. It’s like getting hired at Disneyland and complaining you can’t wear your nose ring. It’s just how they do things. You can work at Starbuck’s with a nose ring, so go ahead.

To address the point about the discrepancy in pay when there is a banquet-type situation, I must say even I (as a higher paid waiter) have a difficult time reconciling that situation. It is a scenario where people are doing the exact same things: delivering food and drink, cleaning, resetting. It is unfair to pay a busser less of the tip pool just because the waiters ‘outrank’ them. My day job, Michael’s, handles this fairly. When server ‘skills’ are not called upon for a banquet-type job, bussers are cut in for full shares. When server ‘skills’ are required, they don’t use bussers at all – so no tip for the busser.

Which leaves us with the emotional heart of Xavier’s comment. It just doesn’t seem fair that they should work so hard compared to the waiters and make so little. And that further, working extra hard does not seem to result in any extra pay.

This is the sadness of most laborers. And waiters are laborers too.

Most managers I’ve worked with have not impressed me with how hard they work. Yes, they all put in more hours, but those are desk hours, chatting up customer hours, walking guests to their tables hours. And that’s when they’re working, not sitting in the bar with their buddy having a scotch, or smoking in the office with their feet up on the desk. General managers at big (and small) restaurants make six figures a year. And they don’t all work “hard.”

Men and women making widgets in factories work hard and earn $40,000 a year. While a salesman selling them flies around the country, staying in fine hotels, eating on the company’s dime, driving a company car, and earns $200,000 a year.

My take is that specialized positions are rightfully rewarded with more money. There are workers in that factory who could do the same or better job of selling as that salesman. But by far, most of them couldn’t.

There are bussers who could (and eventually will) be good waiters, but most of them can’t.

I used the salesman analogy for a reason. Waiters are the salesmen of the company. Even a waiter who doesn’t know how to up-sell or pitch an expensive bottle of wine in the right way to the right person can do an effective enough job. This is because he has or has learned, the skill of communicating with the guest.

The sales paradigm in restaurants is unlike most other businesses. Customers don’t accept your pitch, your data, your fine personality, and then go back to their office and hash it out (pun not intended) with the boss before making a decision. They make their decisions right then.

And then . . . and then, your company (the restaurant) has to deliver the goods right away. Not take the order and deliver in 5 to 10 days.

This is why it’s so hard, as a waiter, to break into serious restaurants. There is an essential part of the skill set that is being able to connect with the customer so he/she knows exactly what you mean and what you offer. And the other side of that – equally important – is that you in return understand exactly what the customer has communicated to you about what he/she expects.

There are a lot of people, and unfortunately a lot of waiters, who fail miserably here. And they are simply dullards, or high, or both. For these waiters to have gotten the job in the first place, they must have been way overachieving during their interviews.

And then there’s another contingent. Treading lightly, I qualify that in my own career, 95% of my bussers have been Latino. Most of them have had good English – that is, good enough to converse with me somewhat in English. But being generous, I’d characterize only about 10% as being capable of detailed, nuanced communication in English. Again, this is the sample from my career in Southern and Northern California.

There is a large factor of public relations in the job of waiting tables. Being able to shoot the shit with people, being able to detect subtle verbal clues as to their demeanor or true intentions, is very important. It is the big difference in saving a table that is ‘on the fence’ about whether they’re pissed off or not. It’s the difference in knowing the dude is in a bad mood and his second cocktail needs to come before you do anything else. It’s the difference in knowing that never mind what she said it, how she said it actually means she wants it this way.

And then there’s the exactitude of the communications. When you’re making a sale that has to be delivered as expected in 20 minutes, you need the ability to be very precise in your communication. Imagine a salad order where the guy wants romaine only not the mixed, his Ranch dressing (a substitute) light, the tomatoes chopped but not tossed with the salad, add anchovies but on the side, and the chicken needs to be blackened in the pan and not on the broiler. Yes, these nuances can be learned as they have been by most waiters, but without a total command of the English language, that salad will probably not come out the way the guest communicated.

I’m obviously heading in the direction of that oft-heard statement: ‘If you hate bussing tables so much, then get a job as a waiter.’

It’s not just my opinion, it’s borne out in the real world – most bussers would not make good waiters. However, as readily evident in Xavier’s prose, he’s got a good command of the language. And he claims to have a strong work ethic, and a well-developed sense of ethics in general. I have no doubt if he so desires, he will be able to get a food serving job, and thrive in it.

His friend, doing the bare minimum and grumbling about it all the way, however, is doomed. Even in the unlikely circumstance that he has adequate English communication skills, his shitty attitude and unremarkable work will never inspire a manager to promote him to waiter (or even expediter). The stink of his shitty attitude would also raise the hackles of ‘fresh meat’ managers were he to apply for server jobs at other restaurants. That’s why Lencho hasn’t been able to get another job since leaving the Prime Rib joint.

Xavier stated that doing ‘extra’ hard work doesn’t result in any more than the same prescribed percentage tip as normal. That’s too bad – he’s in a bad restaurant. I don’t know how common it is, but it’s definitely not unusual for waiters to kick down extra when their busser is kicking ass.

What do I do? I deal out extra, but not tons. Maybe I’m cheap, but I reward good bussing by rounding up come tip-out time. Using the previous numbers, if my busser was busting ass, I’d make that $56 tip $60. The macro aspect of the house should be remembered too – as managers are always telling waiters. If excellent work is being done, that will result in higher tips for the waiters, which of course means more for the bussers because they are tipped on a percentage.

So finally, my advice for Xavier is to keep up his good attitude and work ethic. But don’t just wait to be recognized by management as ‘waiter material.’ Badger the managers regularly about the desire to be promoted. Likewise, go out and try to get a serving job somewhere else – lying as much as necessary about previous serving experience. (That’s how I got my first waiting job.)

Walking A Mile In The Manager’s Shoes

Even though I’m kind of an a-hole as far as criticizing/stereotyping restaurant managers and owners, I hardly get any hate mail from them. Or any mail at all.

Maybe that’s because writing a waiter blog is, ironically, like stripping down naked and walking a mile in the manager’s shoes.

Let me explain. There are so many similarities.

Bad predictions and bad solutions

Managers are notorious for overstaffing – predicting more business than materializes. Conversely, they will under-staff to save labor, and the restaurant will get buried. Managers decide Server A can handle being triple-seated, and Server B can’t take another table, with the result that A gets pounded with complaints while B pounds the manager with complaints that she’s bored and poor.

Managers also provide stupid solutions to problems. Like recently when Michael’s waiters complained that employee of the month awards weren’t fair. At the time, management nominated a handful and kicked them around during a manager’s meeting to decide as a group. The “solution” to this problem is that now the employees vote on it, with the managers getting an equal weighted vote. Stupid. Now it’s just a popularity contest. Not to mention that as a lunch server, I will never get the award again, as I am totally off the radar of the more populous dinner crew.

Another example? Michael’s instituted a Running Sidework list for dinners, wherein servers are responsible for ongoing, during-the-shift tasks, like stocking silverware on trays in service stations, making coffee, etc. Nice idea. Except the problem arose because servers were too busy during the shift to handle these things in the first place. Now, in addition to the tasks themselves, they are expected to be monitoring each other’s effectiveness on running sidework . . . like they have time to do that, in addition? So now there is a dry erase board on the wall, with the names of 3 servers assigned their running sidework . . . from a Sunday a few months back. Hasn’t been updated since.

Well, us bloggers aren’t much different. We make bold, provocative predictions – about business volume, cash flow, interoffice politics, even the direction of the nation (with regards to foodserving). And we’re constantly wrong.

Likewise, our blowhardy solutions to the problems we gleefully present are quite often stupid. Thankfully, nobody listens to us, or else we’d see our ideas backfire in the harsh world of reality, rather than blossom and flourish in the rose-tinted universe of our dreams.

No More Convenient Amnesia About Failures

Speaking of backfiring in the real world, of course us waiters are always there to remind the managers of how retarded they were when their appetizer sales contest got gamed and ended up discouraging everyone (except the cheating winner) from trying. Or that their new cover count system actually ended up making everyone more petty and self-absorbed, rather than freeing the staff from obsessing about their own money.

No, we would never allow that. No disgrace is big enough that it can’t be amplified just a bit more.

Same for waiter blog writers. People read and love to point out the folly of our ideas/solutions. When our house-of-cards “improved” systems collapse in the real world, there’s always someone out there to point out what idiots we are.

Limited Audience

Managers don’t have many people to speak to. A large restaurant will have 20 waiters. And of those, maybe only 10% will actually listen.

Waiter blogs do not have massive audiences – unless you’re willing to go public and tell all your friends and co-workers, notify on Facebook, and of course risk getting into deep shit or getting out of a job when you tell too much truth.

So it can be a little dispiriting for us both drop our pearls of wisdom (self-perceived) and have them lapped up only by the few swine who are even barely listening. Not that my readers are swine . . .

The Swine Don’t Know

As a manager you’ve got those two waiters who will actually hear you (listen, maybe not). But even those two are preoccupied with the chronic waiter affliction of not really caring beyond what it means to their tip revenue. They are more concerned with their child with the sniffles, or finals coming up, or that their other job won’t give them Sundays off. So they will gobble up your nuggets of management, swallow, and completely forget. Not important.

While I will compose a post over a couple of days – or in this case 6 or 7 months – it will be read by 30 to 50 people who respond with . . . silence. Next blog. Or next shift. Or, ‘What time does Happy Hour start in this one-bedroom apartment?’

People Are Happier When You Don’t Say Anything

For me, refer to the aforementioned silence after a laboriously-crafted post. My hits have actually climbed steadily in these months of total silence on the blog. This leads me to believe readers are glad that I’m there when they need me, but are just as happy that I’m not continually bleating at them about cover counts and my arch-enemies.

Like when you need a problem smoothed out at a table – thank god for that manager! But otherwise, please, dude, just stay in your office in front of the computer monitor. Or at the end of the bar with your Johnny Walker Black on the rocks drinking friend.

Pander And You’ll Lose Their Respect

When a manager starts trying to be your friend, it’s great at first. It’s happened to all of us. It might start with your massive computer mistake that he secretly voids to protect you from a catastrophic disciplinary action (or even having to pay money for it, in the case of Mom and Pop restaurants who try to get away with that). Then there will be after hours drinks in the restaurant, followed that night or another time with drinks away from the restaurant. Then kibitzing privately about other waiters, managers, or confidential restaurant business. And later still you might play golf, or see a concert, or just more drinking together. Okay, it’s almost always just the drinking.

But the time comes when you take for granted that manager will always have your back, even when she shouldn’t. You lose respect for any of those pearls of instruction cast before your swinish self – she means everybody else, not you. And then the final domino falls when the rest of the staff susses up that the manager is toothless and their respect (what little existed in the first place) fails as well.

Writing a post that panders to my audience by taking an indefensible position regarding, say, being late to work, and it becomes immediately clear that the blogger is just a blowhard hack (in waiting and writing). Mind you, most of are anyway, but it’s not necessarily immediately clear.

I’ve read blogs like that, myself. When I read about the guy who thought the owner was an a-hole for not letting him off on Valentine’s Day because his ‘girlfriend’ of two weeks is expecting a date, I can’t help but complete the picture of this swine: wrinkled, untucked shirt, shoes that look like mud-cast fossils from Bigfoot, cell phone ringing in his pocket when standing at the table, and drinking a bar mat shot at the end of the shift.

This is the guy I’m reading for food serving enlightenment?

Blackie And The Pretense Of Competence

If you’ve been reading, you know my nemesis at Michael’s is Blackie. Is it fair to say you hate someone?


Hell, why don’t I digress right out of the chute?

I say it’s okay to hate someone. It’s all semantics anyway, but here’s what I think.

Real hate is not productive. It consumes the hater. And in fact, that’s probably a primary tactical objective for the ‘hated.’ If you’re worthy of hate, it’s because you’re a despicable person, trying to destroy other peoples’ live for your own benefit. So if, as a ‘hated’ person, you can generate the kind of all-consuming obsession of hatred in someone, then you’ve won. Because the person who hates you is severely diminished, spending vast precious psychic resources on the activity of hating you. That person is definitely not functioning well. And it’s all because of you. Nice job.

But I hate Blackie. Because she is this person. She’s completely selfish. And, as stated above, she thrives by creating disturbances in her rivals (who are everyone), thus backhandedly kicking her up a notch because everyone she touches becomes less effectual. Because whenever Blackie touches you, there is something wrong with it.

‘Hi, Blackie. How’s it going?’

‘Fine. But I’ve about had it. When I left home this morning, Larry said he wasn’t coming back unless I apologized to him about going to the Raiders game without him . . .’ and on and on.

Another typical one. Blackie: ‘I made these brownies because I just couldn’t sleep last night so I figured I might as well do something. And then I didn’t have enough flour, so they were sitting there, half-made and I didn’t know what to do. But then Larry was being a bastard and I woke up and couldn’t sleep so I just decided, I might as well go and get some flour at 6 a.m. and finish those brownies. I mean, right? Why not?’

Is it just me, or do you also feel the need to take a shower?

So to get back to the digression, I say it’s fine to hate someone when you just realize they f’n’ suck. Give the devil his due, right? These are people who obviously don’t want to be loved or even tolerated. Or else why would they be the way they are?

Okay, so anyway. On to the topic of this post. I made this note awhile back: ‘Just saying something doesn’t necessarily get the job done.’

Naturally, Blackie spurred this thought, causing me to scribble it on a chit-sized piece of thermal printer paper.

Here’s Blackie telling the specials: ‘. . . freshalaskanhalibutcomeswithcucumberrelishandgarliccroutons . . .’ And no, that’s not some unwieldy URL. That’s the way she talks to her guests.

A guest will order the steak salad. There are two official steak salads on the menu at Michael’s, not to mention that you can add steak to any other salad (or for that matter substitute it for the meat on a chicken- or seafood-themed salad). Instead of clearly and politely explaining the differences between the two steak salads, and asking which the guest is ordering – or even instead of pointing physically to the two menu items to get clarification – Blackie does this: ‘Hotsteaksaladismedallionsonasiangreenswithsoygingerdressing. Newyorksteaksaladisoverchoppedlettuceandvegetableswithredwinevinaigrette.’

It’s practically asking the guest to order the wrong thing. Please order the wrong thing! If there’s any way I can help make this complicated enough so you order the wrong thing, let me know.

I truly believe that on some level, this is because of what I wrote above: she wants to create disturbance and chaos in others.

Then, when there is a problem and the kitchen is scrambling to get the right dish in front of the guest, and the manager is called into action to deliver the corrected entrée, Blackie explains to the irritated manager, ‘I told her the Hot Steak Salad had medallions and asian greens, and she said yes, that’s what she wanted.’

Just saying something doesn’t get the job done. No more than an insincere ‘Thank you,’ or a sarcastic apology, firing off technically proper verbiage at the guest without taking care to connect is a waste of time, offensive, or both.

The waiter has to take full responsibility for the delivery and receipt of his communication. Hell, just the waiter? Everybody in life.

This classic Blackie move exhibits what I mean by the title of this post. The Pretense of Competence.

I suppose I could define true competence as the ability to get the job done. Easy enough to agree on, isn’t it?

Well, for those masters in the performance art of the Pretense of Competence, there are lots of great moves. Like watching Andrew McCarthy furrow his brow, clench his jaw and look hard to the left, in the Pretense of Internal Frustration.

Here are the ways Blackie (and your own personal Blackie), mounts her façade:

  • Ask A Lot Of Questions
    • Have you ever noticed the fakers at the Saturday employee meetings who have to ask a question after every managerial proclamation? And not necessarily only at employee meetings – any time someone in authority gives information to her, this server (hell, why not call her Blackie?) comes back with 2, 3, or more ‘clarification’ questions. She is pretending to be competent. In other words, I know my job so well, I need to know from you exactly how this is going to fit in with everything else I’ve learned perfectly. More to the point, however, this is my chance to show you how much I already know about my job.
    • Ironically, this same server becomes a close-minded know-it-all when a peer says something similar to what the Big Wig would say. If I said to Blackie, ‘Hey, you know, from now on, let’s just keep the dessert tray in the walk-in during lunch instead of out on the floor. There’s only three or four of us, and it’s not losing us any steps, and it saves a whole tray of desserts from being ditched between shifts,’ she would respond, ‘Well maybe, but I really need it to be out on the display table next to #147. It’s always been there and I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t there.’
  • Talk A Lot
    • Of course, all kinds of people talk a lot. And many of them are perfectly competent. I’m speaking of Blackie dealing with her tables. Words, torrents of words, cascading streams of uninterrupted words. Verbal waterboarding. From the Tommy Gun delivery of the specials, to responses to questions, to any other stock verbalization required during the meal.
    • Then there’s the ‘personality’ aspect of the job, wherein talking a lot makes up for being interesting (such is the subconscious computation in Blackie’s head). Ever see a guests with a fork mid-air, loaded with a delicious steaming bite, and that fork stuck in a holding pattern above Airport Pie-Hole? All the while Blackie bludgeons them with the details of her vacation to Rancho Cucamonga?
    • Yes, the job description unofficially includes making the guests like you. Blackie is operating under two misunderstandings: 1) the guest will automatically like anything he/she hears about you; 2) the only way to get them to like you is to get them to know you.
      • Of course, getting to know Blackie will inevitably lead to hating her. More interesting, however, is that for a restaurant guest, they can come to like you plenty if you just stay out of their way and give them great service.
    • Click the above heading for my full post on this.
    • Maybe a finer point I can put on it for purposes of this topic, though: Maybe call it activity for its own sake. A busy person is generally perceived as a good worker. Blackie mines this concept like thar’s gold in them thar hills!
      • First, she pretends to be busy when she’s not, by doing things like fine-tuning table maintenance at the exact time when real work (like delivering entrees) needs to be done.
      • She even engages in Fake Anti-Hustle! She will ask for help doing things she could easily do herself – just to prove that she’s in tune with the teamwork aspect of the restaurant. (Now you may think I’m going overboard here, but it actually happened to me today, with Blackie. She had three tables. Two were eating entrees, and she was seated her third. I had no tables so I was able to understand what was going on in her station. She had only one current task on her ledger: get initial beverages for the new table – the other tables were completely contented and serviced. I happened to be standing in the waiter station when she was getting iced teas . . . ‘Can you get me a 7up for postion 1 on #36?’ I dutifully get her 7up and bring it to her as she is preparing her tray of iced teas [we get sodas from the bar, iced teas in the server station]. ‘Oh, can you drop that? I said position 1.’ So I drop on position 1, moments before she arrives behind me with her tray of iced teas for everyone else. Sheesh. Did she just invent Fake Anti-Hustle?
  • Over-Refinement
    • I invented this term initially as Over-Courtesy, specifically for driving situations when car drivers are too courteous and thus gum-up the expected workings of gears and driving.
      • A pedestrian is standing on the sidewalk, at a crosswalk (this is California where drivers legally have to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians whenever demanded by said pedestrians). A motorist will see this guy standing there and screech to a stop inches before the crosswalk, and motion the totally-surprised pedestrian to cross. Meanwhile, there might be other lanes unaware that this jackass driver has set this deathtrap in motion. Other lanes of traffic might not be aware of this over-courtesy and that pedestrian might well get his clock cleaned once he clears that first car. But more practically, the problem is that the pedestrian was not actively soliciting traffic be stopped. He’s happy merely (and properly, I believe) to wait till traffic has cleared enough for him to cross. Now he’s forced into a maelstrom of steaming, grinding metal, hoping ‘the law’ will provide enough for him to live through the experience. I’m a pedestrian quite frequently. I understand my place: I’m trying to survive. I will not insist on my ‘right of way’ at the expense of my life. So, that said, motorist fools who practice over-courtesy are actually endangering the lives of those pedestrians.
      • Much more common are the jackasses who defer turns at stop signs and lights where they are the ones entitled to the right of way. Come on, people! Just do your job. Understand, I’m the one who’s deferring to them when I say this. I approach a stop sign and another guy is just settling to a stop. Two beats and I stop. Jackass looks at me, I look at him, he motions to me to go ahead . . . Jesus! You were there first. Just go when you’re supposed to, and we’ll both be where we want to be sooner!
    • It’s the same in restaurant work. Same as the Ask A Lot Of Questions waiter. There are no instructions simple enough that won’t be met with over-refinement questions. Teamwork things like, ‘Run plates 1, 2, and 3’ get hammered with a retort like ‘Who’s #1?’ (even though positions are standardized). Or, ‘I didn’t clear the side plates because someone was still chewing something.’ Or, ‘Do you have the dessert silverware down already?’ Look, dude, if I ask you to run desserts, just run the desserts.
    • In Rules and Regulations, Blackie will figure out ways to gum up the works because of perceived incongruities. Like, ‘Chicken dishes always come with lemon and parsley, just like seafood, but now seafood is only coming with lemon . . . what am I supposed to do?’ Or, worse, the guests’ meals are coming out late, but Blackie will make them later still because she refuses to deliver the entrees without the table first being ‘marked’ with fresh silverware . . . Argh!
  • Narrating Aloud What They Are Doing
    • ‘Table 7 is just killing me. I’m getting this guy his fifth Diet Coke refill right now, and it’s not like I have the time ’cause 15 is have four courses and I have to keep resetting silverware. Are you having trouble with the kitchen today? I just had a French Dip that took 20 minutes, and this was the table that told me straight off they were in a hurry . . .’
    • Besides the probable explanation that Blackie is just doing this because she knows it’s annoying, there’s also an Implication that by saying everything she’s doing, she is proving herself in control and competent.
    • Here’s what I think of this: Shut up.
  • Too Organized To Participate In Teamwork
    • Every time you ask Blackie for a teamwork-type favor, you get this: ‘Okay. I have to make two cappys for 12, and then run salads for 13, then I can refill your coffees for you.’
    • Similar to Narrating Aloud, she’s feigning competence while accomplishing the parallel goal of avoiding work. Actually, Not bad; this is the most efficient you’ll ever see Blackie.

Red Lobster Blog Comment, Expanded

Earlier I touched on a wonderful post I read on Red Lobster Blog. It was about Fairness and Merit in corporate restaurant. At that point, I went back to read it again and couldn’t resist dropping a comment. But then the comment got way too long and I had to pull it and produce this current post instead.

So, please read the post on Red Lobster Blog first. It’s great writing. And it’s funny. If you’re a good waiter (and I know all of you are), you’ll love it.

Are you done reading reader-writes-in-stupid-store-policies yet? Please just read it. I don’t care where you work. If you’ve worked for corporate, you will love it. Haven’t worked for corporate? Then you’ll be blown away by how corporate approaches matters of employee competence and fairness.

Oh. It’s Red Lobster, so you don’t care? Well Red Lobster is, NUMBER TWO, part of the fraternity. What’s NUMBER ONE? Number One is:

The job/essence of waiting tables is the same no matter what money/class/region echelon you’re in.

Come on, just read it!

Also, note that I’m writing in a bit different voice than my blog. (Hey, I have a life outside this, you know!)

Here’s my addendum:

I guess this comment is really for the original letter writer. First, kudos to you, dude! Awesome essay.

I read this 6 months ago. I returned 3 months ago and read it again. And now I’ve written about a tangential topic on my blog, and I couldn’t help linking to it and reading it yet again. This post is brilliant.

It is something I agree with deeply. Regarding doing my job: I don’t believe I have the personality of the letter writer, but I believe I have all the ‘game.’ On the nuts and bolts stuff, I’m like a worker bee (protocol, ‘spec,’ sidework, etc.). With the guest, I connect and they feel good about things. I have many request parties. I have many guests who leave 30-40% tips (and of course not because I’m giving them free stuff – they spend big money at the restaurant). I solve problems and I prevent problems and I ignore problems that aren’t really problems – all so the managers can go on doing productive managerial things instead of having to kill all the little tiny scary spiders so the waiters (or guests) don’t squeal. Or even so the managers can just relax for a freakin’ few seconds in the midst of their 12 hour day.

So anyway, I also feel a vested interest in this trend. I experienced it myself. A manager at my restaurant spent two years slavishly imposing exact equal cover counts on lunch shifts. Including the closer who often would stand around (or expedite-/teamwork-around, in my case) the entire shift while still short 6-10 covers because a table was coming in at 2 p.m. Do you get it? When that late table comes in, finally the Closer gets back up to even in the cover count. Yet every 4th shift that table doesn’t come in at all. Or it’s a 4-top instead of 8, or deuce instead of 4 . . . right? And this is your Closer who you’re treating this way. The one you trust to be around and handle with aplomb whatever comes up, regardless that there’s no server help around to provide ‘teamwork.’ Your Closer has the game to get the job done.

Do you feel my compassionate pain? A great point has been made by the writer. Digressing just a little to drive it home, I’ll mention that back in the last Dallas Cowboys golden era (and I’m not a Cowboys fan, for what it’s worth), Jimmie Johnson, the coach at the time, fielded a question about preferential treatment for his stars. Paraphrasing, he said it would be crazy not to cut more slack to your biggest and most reliable producers (at the time referring to players like Emmett Smith and Michael Irvin). They had earned it, and it also provided a carrot/reward for lesser players to chase to improve themselves.

Waiters come and go, in vast herds. The best places I’ve ever worked rewarded excellence and competence – even the incompetent understood their place. And either they (the incompetent) were just hanging on, or they were trying to improve to reach the next rewarded level. The barely-hanging-on’s usually became the never-quite-made-it’s. The improvers usually worked their way up to respectability and self-respectability. And I agree with the writer: this kind of thing would never have happened if it was institutionalized that every heartbeat-positive body on the floor got equal treatment. And to further support his point, those great restaurants would never have happened under those conditions because guests would have stopped coming long ago because of offensively bad service.

If you recall my previous post, I had suddenly found myself in this enviable position at Michael’s – being trusted with more and ‘better’ covers. Well, that has continued. I pretty much crushed the last few weeks. Except for last 10 days ago Friday, when Eric (the new manager) loaded everyone else before I got my first table. He took me aside and said, sotto voce, ‘I’m kinda loading everyone else up because you’ve been crushing it last couple weeks. The cover counts are ridiculous.’

I was in no position to complain. And in fact, I still felt perfectly fine.

The downside here is that who knows if I’ll be allowed to keep ‘crushing it’ moving forward? All it takes is some malcontent incompetent like Blackie to make some noise, and next thing you know, they’re measuring cover counts like grains of sand again.

Proper Waiter Language

No, I don’t mean to be final arbiter on semantics and diction in the restaurant. We all have our pet peeves, our preferences.

In fact, someone has done this column already. There’s a fantastic blog called Sorry Not My Table, the post I refer to is I’m Still Enjoying Working On This. The author manages a fine dining restaurant in Napa, CA. He appears to be a great manager/ex-waiter. I can say for sure, however, that he’s a very talented writer; his writing is about as good and humorous as anything you’ll read in a ‘real’ magazine or book. Actually, it’s a lot better than most waiter featurettes that appear in the local newspaper or in-flight magazines. Please check him out. You’ll like it.

So it happened I read Sorry Not My Table’s post and it inspired me. This is not a rebuttal. I just want to add a few things of my own. First, the reason for even caring about how we express ourselves in the restaurant.

‘The Customer Is King’

The goal of word choice in the restaurant should be to make the guest feel comfortable. A large part of this process is establishing a pecking order, where the guest, frankly, gets to peck on your head if he feels like it. Sure, we keep our self-respect; we don’t put up with bullies; we demand some decorum in return. All of that. But we are ‘serving.’

This is why all these ‘waiter rant’-type blogs are so ridiculous in their righteousness that the ‘guest is no better than we are.’ That’s just not the point. The guest is dining out to enjoy the experience of having servants. What, not to eat? Of course, but (we’re assuming finer-ish establishments here) the desire to eat can be satisfied quite easily any number of ways. Why spend double, triple, or ten times the money to eat? Because you can be served like the wealthy person you are, or wish you were. This is the service we provide. If you don’t believe that, then you must believe there’s no difference between your restaurant/job vs. the hot dog counter at Target.

Because people are basically decent, most guests don’t abuse the fact that you place yourself below them. The nicest ones resist this hierarchy, instead working with us as equals as much as possible.

If all this is causing your skin to prickle maybe you should stop reading. You obviously have control and self-esteem issues. We’re just doing our jobs. It so happens this is the arrangement between worker and customer in our industry. But it’s like that in every job everywhere. Bob Dylan has a great song that says it all, Gotta Serve Somebody. Have a listen while you read (10 second commercial at beginning).

What I’m working up to is shaped like a doughnut. A lot of calories and flavor, with nothing in the middle.

There is no hard-and-fast rule for how to make a guest feel comfortable. One waiter’s stiff formality works on certain guests in certain circumstances; another waiter’s ‘How y’all doin’ tonight?’ is effective for her. I worked one restaurant where the owners forbade waiters to ‘talk to tables’ (in other words, converse outside of taking orders and asking necessary questions), while another restaurant made it a requirement to engage the guest in conversation. Both were in the fine dining realm, more or less.

I guess, with my pet peeves, I take issue not so much with the manner as much as the precision of the words.

If you’ve been reading even one post here (let alone the whole year+ I’ve been writing), you’ll know that for better or worse I let few details go unexamined. And in the brouhaha about restaurant language, this tendency is evident: We spend so much time on repetitious tasks (greeting a table, asking if we can clear their plates, etc.), we over-analyze.

But then, that’s the fun of the whole thing.

‘You Better Not Have A Problem With It . . .’

This is the one that galls me the most.

Me (as diner): ‘Say, do you think I could please get a side of ketchup to go with my lobster?’

Waiter: ‘Not a problem.’

Even writing it now I want to scream, ‘Aarrrgggggghh!

This one kills me because it takes an innocuous if irritating colloquialism, ‘No problem,’ and turns it needlessly into an offensive response. ‘No problem,’ I can understand because it’s deeply-embedded shorthand used across the country. Like, ‘Hey, dude’ for hello. Like ‘Take it easy,’ for goodbye. ‘No problem’ is practically a reflex that really means, ‘Yes, I will.’ No, I don’t like the practice, but I understand it, and don’t really take offense.

On the other hand, ‘Not a problem’ (and it’s on-the-rise slacker cousin, ‘No worries’) is about 10% colloquialism and 90% bald statement. When I hear it, my mind goes, ‘And if it was a problem . . .? I don’t care if it is or is not a problem for you. It’s your job and why you’re getting paid and why I’m tipping you 20%. I don’t need to hear a running commentary on how difficult I’m making your life. You could always just say, ‘Yes,’ and go do it. I do have the number of a good therapist you can call on your day off if you need someone to talk to. Meantime, I’ll just tell you what I need, and you can get it for me if physically possible. Is that going to be a problem?’

No, it doesn’t bug me that much.

‘You Guys . . .’

I’ve had a plan for about a year now, but the wife won’t let me do it:

A young female waiter says to us, ‘I’ll be right back with your guys’ drinks.’ When she returns and gives me my root beer, I say, ‘Thanks, guy.’ And then I proceed to call her ‘guy’ for the entire rest of the meal, as often as possible, or until she starts to cry.

Here I concur with SorryNotMyTable. It sounds low-class, coffee shop. But most of all, it’s usually not accurate. We are not all guys. Unless the waiter means to say hello only to the guys, and ignore the girls. Maybe he’s saving kisses for them?

‘Yes, Thank You, You’re Welcome’

Really, we’re just so damned bored and/or sick of the repetition in our job, we’ve invented these alternative ways of saying the same thing. Won’t just Yes and Thank You do?

If you’re having trouble, I’ve designed a chart to help out.

Directions: Use words in column headings. Shun using the substitutes in body of table.


Thank You

You’re Welcome

Will do! I appreciate it My pleasure
Not a problem Have a good one No problem
No worries Take it easy Think nothing of it
Right away! Take care Sure thing
My pleasure Come again No, thank you!
Absolutamente, Señor! Is that all? Yo! Holla!

Order vs. Selection

A long time ago, a trainer told me it was low-class coffee shop to say, ‘Are you ready to order now?’ She said it was much more refined to say, ‘Have you made your selections?’

I tended to agree, so that became my standard. When I train people I don’t make too big a deal out of it (like my trainer did), but I often mention it.

The thing is, though, is ‘order’ really that bad? It’s actually pretty accurate, in a number of ways. The guest is ordering me around; he is placing an order just like he would for a book from; he’s even putting order into his dining experience by telling me what he will eat and drink for the next hour or two.

Still, I’m not going to switch back. But the contrast between the two words is illuminating:

Familiarity and Contempt

I’m sure ‘order’ did not have poor connotations even in most fine restaurants 40 years ago. It probably replaced, ‘So whatcha want?’

A word becomes wrong when we finally get sick of hearing it and using it. Somewhere along the line, fine restaurants lost all their ‘customers.’ They were replaced by ‘guests.’ Customers are fine for hardware stores, gas stations, beauty salons, and even Tiffany’s Jewelers. But not for restaurants. Maybe we’re thinking too hard about this stuff.

The Trap Of Political Correctness

The whole thing ends up like a game of tag. Once one word or phrase is saddled with a negative connotation, like ‘enjoy,’ suddenly you’re a jackass for using it. Follow the progression of words/labels for various ethnicities or minorities: 1) Mexican to Mexican-American to Hispanic to Latino. 2) Crippled to lame to handicapped to disabled to physically challenged. To name a couple.

I don’t know who decides when a term starts to stink of negative stereotype. All I try to do is switch to the new term as soon as I find out I was an asshole for using the old one.

Of course it’s not nearly as critical in the restaurant whether we ever use the word ‘order’ instead of ‘selection.’ But that’s what happens. When I read NativeNapkin’s (Sorry Not My Table blog) post on this subject, he hated the overuse of ‘enjoy.’ I was mortified. I use the word constantly. And I can’t seem to stop using it. Even when I’m standing at the table, having just delivered entrees and checked that there’s nothing else anyone needs at the moment, and I’m telling myself not to say it, a kind of narrow, specialized Tourette Syndrome kicks in and I back away and say emphatically, ‘Enjoy!’

NativeNapkin has ruined a perfectly good word for me.

But that’s just how it goes. ‘Enjoy’ has been tagged, and it’s only a matter of time before the only place you’ll be able to hear it is at Denny’s.

Challenging Conventional Wisdom – Round Two

I enjoyed writing the last column about Challenging Conventional Wisdom so much, I realized I have a couple more arrows in my quiver. Please, keep in mind, I’m having fun here.

Without further delay, here a couple more etched-in-stone restaurant industry standards that I think are pretty much BS.

‘Never Scoop Ice With The Glass!’

I’d like to apologize: To my first trainer at Red Robin. To all subsequent trainers at every new job along the way. To my managers. To my restaurant’s owners. To my mom. And to anyone who’s generally just a tight-ass about safety.

I’m sorry.

I always scoop with the glass. I only use the ice scoop when it’s faster and more convenient (say it’s a big scoop and I’m filling multiple glasses), or else when the glass I’m using is something unusually delicate, like a wine glass.

For the non-waiters reading this (are there any?), you are never supposed to fill glasses with ice by digging the glass itself into the ice well – an act which is, of course instinctual. Instead, you’re supposed to used an ice scooper, and transfer the ice from the scooper into the glass. So that’s one reason for the rule, correcting what’s otherwise natural behavior.

Others reasons/justifications are:

  • Sanitation, supposedly. Your hand goes into the ice, possibly transferring waiter germs.
  • Eliminating time-consuming accidents. ‘Oh, shit! A glass just broke in the well! Now we have to burn the well (melt the ice with volumes of hot water till the well is clean and the glass is picked out).‘ If it’s your only well, you’ve got some serious hoops to jump through to keep serving – never mind the labor and time involved with burning the well and refilling it. Even if it’s not your only well, it’s a big pain in the ass.
  • Finally, probably the biggest reason (or at least the most politically correct) is safety. It’s virtually impossible to spot broken glass in a sea of ice cubes. You think you found all the pieces . . . well if you’re wrong, you might end up serving a piece of glass in someone’s drink. I believe swallowing a shard of glass would be very harsh on the digestive system.

But I still do it. You know why? Because modern glasses do not break in ice anymore. Today’s water glass is approximately as durable as stone. Have you ever examined a well-used water glass? It is a serious piece of engineering. The lip is beaten and scuffed and worn down, but not chipped or cracked. It is probably made with some silicone or plastic mixed in, much like shatter-proof windshields. Yes, it can be broken – for instance if you dropped one from 10 feet onto a cement floor (I say 10 feet, because I’ve dropped many from 5 feet – shoulder height – or less and had the damn things simply bounce). I’ve actually had dropped water glasses break plates.

Over the years, in my career as an irresponsible, selfish, public-endangering waiter, I’ve broken maybe five or six glasses ‘in the ice.’ I’ve been waiting tables since 1986, and I’ve certainly been a glass-scooper since at least ’88. That is not a lot of broken glass. In the interval, I’ve saved tons of accumulated time and movement . . .

‘. . . and made my guests happier with my prompt service and in the process . . . made more tips!’ – This message brought to you by every script-reciting, ‘motivational,’ monthly-Saturday-afternoon-Staff-Meeting corporate manager I ever had.

[Incidentally, I just mimed both actions: 1) grabbing a glass and scooping. 2) grabbing a glass, grabbing the ice scoop, scooping, dumping scooped ice into glass. Using the scooper (#2) takes twice as long. It took about 2 seconds to complete #1. How many iced teas, sodas, and waters do you think I’ve served over the years?]

How To Be A ‘Safe’ Glass-Scooper

There is a technique to glass-scooping, but I hesitate to espouse that if everyone learned proper technique we could, as a nation – as a planet – eliminate all dedicated ice scoopers. Instead, I say simply that this works for me:

  1. With a supple and not-firm wrist, slide the glass into the ice. Take care to dip into the center of the well, not at the metal edges of the bin, where you might encounter . . . the metal edges, or else refrozen and hardened blocks of ice. The center is where the loose – safe – ice resides.
  2. Do not scoop boldly. Think ‘dip,’ not ‘plunge.’ Consider it more like gathering ice, almost as if it were liquid you were collecting.
  3. Do not scoop two glasses at once as they might bang into each other.
  4. When you’re done, glance at the rim of the glass. If something has broken or chipped, you should be able to notice it.
  5. If there is a crack or a chip on the glass, step away from the well and be very quiet. Wait till the area clears of personnel, then tell the next busser you see that someone has broken a glass in the ice, and ‘we’ need to burn the well.

But, as I say, a beaker has been known to break in the dark practice of glass-scooping. What happens? Well, I catch it. I examine the glass, see that it has broken, and, damn! . . . where’s that busser?

And then I wait another four or five years for it to happen to me again.

**I would also add that I’ve seen many a glass broken by the heavy lead (or aluminum) ice scooper itself. Are we actually saving, net, any broken-glass-over-ice incidents here?

Now, were I a bartender, and that was all I was did – make drink after drink after drink – I would use the scoop. A busy bartender doesn’t have time to be doing visual checks on all her work. It’s like a touch-typist copying a letter – you don’t keep looking at the screen to check your work, you just trust your fingers and go.

Regarding the sanitation aspect of the rule, I have no patience for the idea that putting your skin in contact with ice is much of a health risk . . .

. . .

. . . hmm . . .

(I’m just debating whether to go on a rant about the suspension of disbelief the general public, and perhaps corporate restaurant honchos, engage in concerning the pristine path of hygiene that restaurant food travels before it ends up in front of the guest . . .)

Okay, I’m gonna do it. And I might as well make it my next item challenging conventional wisdom:

‘They Wouldn’t Do That At Home!’ – Round Two

Wherein the general public rails at exposés of poor restaurant kitchen hygiene. We’ve all seen the local news Hidden Camera reports showing Bill’s Bistro dropping food on the ground, picking it up, dusting it off, and starting all over again. And all the other stuff.

Some of us have seen the movie Waiting…, which is actually pretty funny and quite honest in most ways. It is, however, overly-weighted towards the disgusting and filthy apocryphal (kind of) tales of restaurant worker revenge (spitting in food, etc.).

Indeed, egregious and dangerous habits are practiced; there’s no limit the depths of human carelessness and disregard. This is not about those dregs. Instead I refer to the average or better Bill’s Bistros who are just going about business as usual, where mistakes are made.

I’m not here to say all restaurants are cesspools and people aren’t willing to acknowledge it. I’m saying that, yes, We Would Do That At Home!

  • We’re at home, breading a chicken breast and it slips – oops! – and hits the floor. Yes. We’re picking it up, rinsing it off and getting back to the business of making dinner.
  • We’re at home, and notice some lamb chops have been in the freezer quite awhile, probably too long, but we can’t be totally sure . . . Well, better hurry up and cook ’em. And make sure to slather on a lot of sauce. Even mint jelly!
  • We’re at home, ready to toss a salad (this is before dinner, remember), and the salad tongs are in the dishwasher. Hey, no kidding, we actually grab it with our hands and toss it up!
When You Were A Kid (or Even Now) You Pick This Up, Don't You?

The short-hand justification I’ve heard most recently (from waiters inside the restaurant) is, ‘They want me to make their martini extra dirty with the same olive juice every waiter in the restaurant is dipping his fingers into?’

Even if your restaurant uses ‘virgin’ juice (kept in the well by the bartender, as Carney’s does), you can still get the general sensation of disgust by considering any bar garnish dropped into the cocktail you’re drinking. Fingers, fingers, fingers!

Well, I’d like to give the finger to anyone who has a problem with mine or any of my co-workers fingers. Please, people, release the clutch on your sphincter and instead grip reality:

People are handling your food. Why does it not bother you watching Iron Chef? You know it happens.

Even if in some hermetic dream you are in a place where the chefs all use tongs and spatulas, change rubber gloves after handling each new item, and use hand sanitizer after they snap their fingers (after all, the Thumb might have infected the Middle Finger!) . . . even if . . .

What do you think has been going on further up the ‘Food Service Chain?’ How ’bout the guys at Sysco? Or the meat purveyor? Or the truck drivers who might or might not have cleaned their semi-trailer properly between shipments? Or the boys and girls in the slaughterhouses in Kansas City and Chicago? Or even the damn cow or chicken or pig or head of lettuce itself?

Food is prepared by humans. (And if it’s not, then it’s a plant that’s probably been pissed on by animals.) It’s been that way since the dawn of man. Somehow, civilization has advanced lo-these-many-years with human beings touching the food all the time.

How have people survived?

I have no idea. Must be some sort of built-in defense system in the human body . . .