“Will you marry me?”
“How did you lose your thumb?”
“Could you send that girl a pink lemonade from me?”
“Can I have your phone number?”
“Have you seen my dentures?”
Along with tips, these are just a few of the tidbits servers at local restaurants have collected from customers over the past few years.
From the other side of the table during recent interviews, Applebee’s servers, Sharon Croshier, Joshua Crawford and Brett Jalbert, along with Zucchini’s employees Todd May and Crystal Czerno, dished up their experiences and a few embarrassing moments in the restaurant business.
The National Restaurant Association estimates that four out of every 10 adults have worked in the restaurant industry at some time during their lives, and 27 percent of adults got their first job experience in a restaurant. The restaurant industry, employing an estimated 12.2 million people, is second only to the government as an employer, according to the association’s Web site, http://www.restaurant.org/.
Crawford, Jalbert and May are full-time college students, working to pay tuition. Crawford and May are business majors and Jalbert is studying structural engineering. They all plan to keep their current jobs on a part time basis after graduating. Croshier, mother of an 11-year-old daughter and 6-year-old triplets, appreciates the flexible schedule and being able to go home in a good mood every day. Czerno, whose mother is also a food server, has worked in the restaurant industry since she started bussing tables at age 13 and hasn’t yet decided on a future career.
None of the five is pursuing a career as a singer. Their most embarrassing moments in their current jobs include singing happy birthday to customers.
“None of us can sing,” May said.
Crawford admitted to a lack of singing abilities as well, but one of his most embarrassing moments came when he took a stab at comedy.
“I went to take a plate from a customer, and he said he wasn’t quite done,” Crawford said. “Holding my hand up with my thumb tucked into my palm, I said, ‘Oh sorry, good thing I didn’t take it. I already lost one of my thumbs.’ And [the customer] said, ‘that’s funny, I lost my thumb ice fishing; how did you lose your thumb?’ He really had lost his thumb, and I felt like the biggest idiot. I excused myself to go get my foot out of my mouth and apologized profusely for the next half hour. At the end of dinner, his wife gave me a hug and said it was the most fun she’d ever had in a restaurant.”
“Josh is a bit of a goofball,” Applebee’s general manager, Billy Greer, said, “but we encourage that here because we want our customers to have fun.”
With over 900,000 eating establishments generating an estimated $476 billion of sales every year, restaurant patrons must be having fun. The National Restaurant Association estimates the average household expenditure for food away from home in 2002 was $910 per person. Food servers typically earn $2.63 per hour.
“It doesn’t sound that bad until you say it out loud,” May said.
“But at least it covers income taxes,” Croshier added.
“Some weeks their paychecks are so little they don’t bother to pick them up,” Greer said.
These minders of the tables, servers of food and sometimes finders of the false teeth that are inadvertently left behind after a meal, work for their tips. Though they never know from one day to the next how much money they will take home, they all agree that the instant feedback of a great tip for doing a good job is an incentive to do their job well – and a bad tip merely motivation to make improvements. The hard part, they said, is that they can’t predict or depend on a certain level of weekly income.
Croshier, who admits she lives for challenges, doesn’t think raising wages and eliminating tips is a good idea, however.
“It’s fun to earn a good tip,” she said. “It’s almost like gambling – waiting on tables is a high, and I love it. It’s up to me to make the money I need.”
Czerno said, “When you’re on your own, living in the real world, and it’s been a slow week, you start to stress and say to yourself, ‘I’d better get my game on quick, rent’s due next week.'”
Jalbert said, “Yesterday, I was ruthlessly, horribly sick, but you can’t get sick. I spent my last $10 yesterday, so I got sleep and took [my medicine} because I needed to work today.”
Crawford added, “Tips are everything. Keeping your chin up after you get a 5-percent tip is hard. You want to ask what you did wrong, but you can’t. You swallow it and go on, and maybe the next customer doubles your tip. I’ve seen people who watch another customer giving the server a bad time and try to make up for it with a bigger tip.”
May agreed that it’s hard to predict a size of a tip.
“You can completely misjudge whether or not they’ll leave a good tip, and for the most part, you can’t tell. I think people tip no matter what you do. Some people are brought up to tip 10 or 15 percent; some people bring in their calculators. Others will throw down a $20 for a $40 meal without giving it a second thought.”
Determining the size of a tip may not be possible, but servers do develop skills in evaluating and anticipating what people need and want, sometimes before they ask for it.
“The biggest part of being a successful server is learning to read faces and body language,” May said.
Czerno said it’s awkward when people come in fighting or having a bad day.
“You try hard to give them their space. I don’t see that he’s yelling at her and she’s crying, and they’re choking down their food. I don’t see that.” But, she added, “If there’s something wrong with the food or service and I don’t see that, please tell us.”
An only child, Crawford admits to little experience with young children. At 6 feet 2 inches tall, he has learned that bending down to eye level of the younger customers and giving them choices too, is appreciated, not only by the kids, but also by their parents.
Croshier said she waits on tables the way she would expect to be waited on. “If I’m eating messy wings, I would like extra napkins. If I’m halfway down on my drink, I would like another one before I have to shake my glass around wondering where you are, and I would never ever forget the silverware. Those little things are important, and you remember them when you do it day in and day out – or at least you should.”
Jalbert said learning to read faces has helped him develop his poker skills, but he admits that remembering to bring silverware to his tables is still a challenge. He and his co-workers laugh and excuse his shortcomings with some good natured teasing.
“He’s tall, so he hits his head on the Tiffany lamps a lot,” Greer laughed.
“They’re cast iron,” Jalbert added. “That hurts.”
Because both restaurants serve alcohol, their servers are also responsible to stop serving an inebriated customer. Applebee’s had an incident with a woman trying to hang from one of its Tiffany lamps after a few too many drinks.
Croshier said, “You can’t allow that. This is a family restaurant, and the other customers don’t want to see that.”
May said that, in his experience, people know when they have had too much and don’t usually get upset with the server when they have to stop serving alcohol.
All five agreed their co-workers and regular customers are their extended families and like any normal family, conflict and occasional clashes occur.
“I can be bossy,” Croshier admitted. “Because I’m a mom, I sometimes treat my co-workers like my kids.”
“We’re human,” Crawford said. “There are sometimes problems with a co-worker, but you don’t bring it into the dining room – you put on a happy face and do your job and we’ll talk about it when your shift is over.”
Greer added, “Everyone has off days and if it’s really bad, there’s a soundproof freezer in the back where you can go to scream and punch a box of French fries.”
Problems with co-workers pale in comparison to the stress of dealing with the public. Customers are allowed to be rude, condescending, demanding or just downright cranky, but dropping drinks on customer heads is never acceptable server behavior. Smiling and being polite no matter what is the golden rule for servers.
According to the serves and managers, customer complaints are almost never about service. Customers hate waiting more than anything, which may be a result of a society geared more and more to instant gratification.
Crawford observed, “One customer can’t see that I’m doing 32 other things right now. They only know their glass is empty, and they’re thirsty.”
Because they’re human, servers do get frustrated with customers. Among their pet peeves are customers who yell, snap their fingers, clap their hands or refuse to make eye contact and ignore them. May summed up the main feeling of every server, with a simple sentence, “I’m here to serve you, but I’m not your servant.”
The worst customer, of course, might be a fellow server. They all regularly go out to eat at different restaurants in the county. Croshier said she’s very critical when she eats at another restaurant, always measuring the service against her own high standards. Crawford said he likes to challenge servers by asking for “weird concoctions.”
Czerno, on the other hand, said “I would love to wait on me….it drives me crazy when I get bad service, but no matter what, I tip 20 to 30 percent because I know what it’s like to work for tips.”
Tired of cooking, weary of washing dishes, or perhaps in celebration of a special occasion, every American has probably graced a restaurant table at least once. Balancing drinks and serving food might seem deceptively easy while perusing a menu from a comfortable seat, but service with a smile is only a small part of the job of a server.
Marketing, memorizing, matchmaking, and mind reading are necessary skills, too.
“Just treat people the way you would want to be treated.” Croshier advised. “And don’t take things too seriously.”