How waiting tables prepared me for business

It’s been years since I’ve brought anyone a beer in exchange for a tip, but working at a sports bar taught me some valuable lessons about being professional.
Me: The Server Years (Halloween 2006)

I waited tables in bars and restaurants for years. When people were shitty to my coworkers and me, we used to joke (but not really joke) that everyone should have to spend time serving to learn some humility. To learn what it’s like.

Let me start by explaining the stress and chaos that reign at many restaurants and bars. If you’ve never worked in a busy restaurant or bar, you may not realize that, behind your server’s calm facade (if your server presents a calm facade) — she is trying to do 10 things at once. She might be on her feet for 12 hours, trying to remember a million orders at a time, sprinting in and out of the kitchen to grab food and argue with the cook, putting out fires (sometimes actual fires), and possibly screaming and panicking because nothing is going right, all just to get food and drinks on tables in time. After all this, she will try to gracefully glide to your table before your second bite, and calmly and smilingly ask whether you’re enjoying your burger, need more ketchup or would like another iced tea.

More than once I had to clean up warm puke that was not my own.

Also behind that calm facade are the thick skin and great sense of humor that enable the server to bounce back from challenging customer interactions. I don’t mean you, of course — you’re a delight (See? I’m smiling). But once I had to laugh it off when a customer said my haircut made me look fat. I had another table tell me they didn’t like my name (Jennifer, which isn’t really up for debate at this point), and that they were just going to call me Esmerelda. More than once I had to clean up warm puke that was not my own. I had customers who said I was their favorite server of all time and then not tip me. I chased people for blocks after they walked out on their tabs. A thick skin is a useful thing.

It’s been years since I’ve brought anyone a beer in exchange for a tip, but I still rely on the lessons I learned waiting tables. Namely:

  1. Hard work pays off.

    As a server, there’s a direct correlation between how hard you work and what you earn. The more tables you serve in the shortest amount of time, the more money you will make. You can capitalize on less enterprising coworkers by taking the next table if they don’t feel like serving, or by picking up their shifts. The payoff is not quite as literal in my office job nowadays, but an extra dose of elbow grease has been the key to growth throughout my career.

  2. You catch more tips with honey.

    People tip better when you’re nice to them, even if the service isn’t that great: it’s a fact. I’m not advocating doing subpar work or using your charm to cover up for providing shitty service. But be nice to people. Invest in your client relationships. I work in client service now, and this is just as true for me today as it was in my serving days. Even when the pressure is on (do you know how hard it is not to yell “FUCK YOU,” when a stranger tells you your haircut makes you look fat in your place of work?), keep your cool and conduct business with a smile.

  3. It’s OK to ask for help.

    Waiting tables is fucking stressful. It’s fast and it doesn’t stop. I’m a self-sufficient person, but there is so much going on at a restaurant that you will fail if you try to do it alone. Waiting tables is the only job I’ve ever worked where people get so stressed out they literally scream for help (it’s usually in the kitchen, that’s why you don’t hear it — servers are really smart at knowing where customers can and can’t hear them). Shouting isn’t part of my professional life anymore, but knowing how to identify challenges and ask for help before shit gets dire is crucial. Asking for help is just as important to me now, when I’m drowning in client work, as when I was drowning in five tables who all desperately needed to place an order at the exact same time.

  4. Compromise makes the world go ’round.

    A restaurant is like a living organism — it only functions properly if all of its parts work together. Servers depend on cooks, cooks depend on dishwashers, dishwashers depend on bussers, etc. — and vice versa. With everyone depending on each other, you have to give at least as much as you take. So while it’s not unreasonable to ask a cook to speed up an order you forgot to place, you’d sure as hell better go grab the ingredients they need when they are super busy. I’ve seen people straight up refuse to help someone who was a jerk to them in the past. As in all negotiations — in the business world or the restaurant one — asking for a favor is fair game, but should always come with consideration of what you’ll give in return.

  5. Teamwork makes the dream work.

    The team dynamic is invaluable in a service job — in everything from playful banter to get you through a long shift, to partnering in your end-of-shift cleanup work (known as “side work”). Rarely in a job will you like all of your coworkers, but keeping things civil, fair and supportive is key to maintaining a positive work environment — and your sanity. And as an added bonus, shared work experiences can ignite lifelong friendships and bolster your professional network: Sarah and I became fast friends over a pitcher of Bell’s Oberon after our first shift together. That was 13 years ago, and we’re still going strong.

Jen & Sarah at our old place of employment, back in 2005. So much eyeliner.


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4 thoughts on “How waiting tables prepared me for business

  1. The Brown Jug taught me endless life lessons as well Jen, including how to yell at men and manage groups of people. Thanks for this hilarious and TOO TRUE article.

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