From Waiter to Server

In 2016 I moved back to the United States after living and working in Bolivia. I burned out hard. I was working as Sommelier and Restaurant Manager at a top restaurant in South America and it became too much. I promised myself I wouldn’t go back to the long hours and low pay of restaurant management. I wanted to create my own business so I could share my knowledge and skills in a way of my choosing. I still had to pay the bills though, and as many artists, writers, and students can tell you, the best way to make good money part time is to work as a waiter. 

I shuffled through a series of jobs as a waiter, working in an upscale casual restaurant in a ski resort town followed by a gig in a gastro-pub in Portland. Neither was very challenging so I tried a in a sustainable sushi restaurant. I enjoyed the challenge of a new set of vocabulary and of learning sake pairing instead of wine. Once the novelty wore off, I was bored again. I kept asking myself: “why wasn’t I satisfied by any of these jobs?". Eventually I landed in a little farm to table restaurant no bigger than my living room. Here I had no corporate manuals to memorize and more freedom to take care of guests in my own style, not having to fit myself into someone else’s uniform policy or use the vocabulary of their choosing. The freedom was satisfying. 

Then the monotony returned. After a few months, especially during the slower winter season, I was becoming bored again. Was this job below me? Was it not challenging enough? Am I going to be a waiter the rest of my life? I couldn’t shake these thoughts. I couldn’t let go. It was then that I noticed that I had been living my life based upon avoiding what I didn’t want, instead of listening to myself and understanding what it is that I truly want to create in my life. When I clocked in at work, I chose to begin my shift not as a waiter, but as a server. I changed my focus at work from waiting on people to serving them. 

Why was this change in vocabulary so important? The words that we use have power. When you say you are a waiter, you are giving up your power to the demands and desires to someone else, but when you are serving you are helping someone and being useful to them. This perspective shifted my attitude; I moved away from worrying so much about my wants and desires and focused my energy on fulfilling the wants and desires of others. I will not pretend like this shift was instantaneous and final, it took practice persistence, and awareness. When I found myself in the side station complaining with the other employees about this or that, I could feel the negativity. I would notice it, set it aside and go and find someone to serve. I stopped participating in the negative talk, the complaining, and talking behind people’s backs. 

When I caught myself at work focusing on my needs or complaining, I would immediately ask myself: "how can I be of service?”. I would go out and find a way to take better care of one of the guests in the restaurant, maybe by surprising them with an extra wine to sample, or by asking the kitchen for a small treat to share with them. The guest would fill up with gratitude and I would replace my selfish feelings with a sense of satisfaction. 

Recently, while working a busy Sunday dinner, we finished serving all of our reservations by 7:00pm. We don’t have a fixed closing time, so we thought we could call it early and go home. We all decided to wait a little to see if anyone would show up, and make the call an hour later. Shortly thereafter we noticed a reservation came in online for 8:30pm. Immediately we all complained! So quickly we were focused on our desire to go home early and rest, and we forgot about those two people. I saw the behavior, and I reminded myself to focus on service. I was going to give these two people the best Sunday dinner that we could offer.

They arrived, saw the empty restaurant, and sat down. I greeted them, offered them the menu and we got started. They mentioned they were in town to do some wine tasting in the Willamette Valley. When I asked if they needed recommendations they smiled and said yes. I helped with a few wineries, some favorite restaurants they showed excitement and gratitude. We had a lot of wines leftover from the previous night’s tasting menu and wine pairing, so I offered to pour them some as samples. They were happy to try them and purchased a few $14 wine glasses instead of the Sunday $7 glass special. They had some questions about Portland, and I offered my insights and my experiences. At one point they asked to slow down the pace of the meal, and I happily obliged, even though it meant I would have to stay longer. We chatted a bit during their meal, touching some deep topics about the city. I became so interested in the conversation that I didn’t even realize the time. Just an hour before I was staring at the clock and now I couldn’t be bothered.

The couple paid, thanked us for staying open for them and went on their way. I collected the receipt from their table and closed the restaurant. When I began my paperwork, I closed their check and noticed that they had left a 50% tip! Now it had definitely been worth it to stay open late. My decision to focus on others instead of worrying about my needs was immediately affirmed. When I decided to give a five-star experience in a three-star restaurant, and focused on the needs of others instead of my own, the experience shifted from an awkward meal in an empty restaurant to a fun and engaging meal with a dedicated staff worth over-tipping for.

At its core, the restaurant business is a repetitive one: every day we open the doors, we invite people in, we offer the menu, they dine, they pay, and they leave. As a person who tires quickly of monotonous tasks, I understand that we can easily get bored by this repetition. Instead of becoming lazy, chatting with the rest of the team during service, ignoring a section, or dreading the start of a shift, why not focus our attention on serving our guests instead of waiting on them. I assure you that this small shift in attitude will make a tremendous difference in the quality of your work. Stop being a waiter and start serving the needs of others.