The Waiting Game – Dessert

February 4, 2015 – Culture

above: artwork by Sophie Branigan

Dessert (Or Finding the Sweet Spot)

“I know it’s a completely degrading job, but I feel happy you know? There’s just something about knowing where I’m going when I get up in the morning and liking the people I work with and knowing that I maybe might go back there tomorrow and knowing that they want me. I mean I’m happy.”

Roseanne, Roseanne: Season 2, Episode 17.

Now in the last two segments of this piece I’ve explored what has been good about my experience as a waiter, and the times when it’s been less than good for me. The truth of the matter is that although every restaurant is more or less identical on a basic level, even the subtlest differences can make for a vastly different personal experience. If I’ve learned anything though, it’s that the job can be malleable, that you can create the job you need from what is on offer. If you have the skill and the personality, you can come to a job with your own ideas of what it should be – all you have to do is be aware of what you want, what you are willing to give, and not to be afraid to ask for the kind of work that meets your standards – remember that you don’t have to take the first job you get.

This is what I know about finding a balance between making your employer happy and making yourself happy. My time living in America spoiled me somewhat when it came to waiting. In the East Village tea shop I worked in I had realised my life long goal of being employed at a place where you were trained to actually be an asshole. Well, they trained you to be yourself, but if you happened to be an asshole, that was okay. Basically the idea was that we shouldn’t mollycoddle our customers. I remember my manager telling me to watch him. While the customer hemmed and hawed over the menu, he stood poised, pen to pad, like a cartoon scribe in a Disney film. When they asked “What do you recommend between the salad and the sandwich?” he replied “That is not a valid question.”

This may sound strange to us here in Ireland, but in New York, where people want to be served by people, it really worked. In this atmosphere the server has agency, they aren’t merely a living, breathing Lazy Susan. You are being employed for who you are as much as for what you can do. Even the music in the shop was controlled by whoever was working, and depending on who that was it could be anything from an afternoon of The Doors and Radiohead to an evening of Lil’ Kim and Shirley Bassey. I reveled in finally being able to play as much Tori Amos and Bjork as I liked.

Traveling in Seattle last year I found a very similar attitude. Seattle is a city of foodies, and that doesn’t just mean deliciously heaped plates and superb cocktails, but also gorgeous, charismatic servers. What’s different here is the the servers almost everywhere seem genuinely happy to be there. On closer inspection it is easy to see why. The restaurants that I spent most time at seemed to be run BY the staff – these restaurants had tried to hire people who had a good personality and a good attitude, who wanted to work as part of the team because of how awesome the team was. It’s not that being good at the job didn’t have something to do with it too, but the real key seems to be creating a team of great people and allowing them to be your front line. In turn they are happier to be there, in turn they earn more tips, so they work harder, so your business thrives. It’s a very simple equation – trust your staff with your business, allow them to co-create it with you, and you will foster a better working atmosphere and a higher standard of work. Basically, create a family, make them feel like they matter – respect them and they will respect you back.

Let’s look at a very simple aspect of this: the staff are usually dressed very smartly and stylishly – IN THEIR OWN CLOTHES. Gorgeous tattoos and facial piercings are often on display. It’s something we don’t see in Irish restaurants all that often, because as a country we are still afraid of how this image is perceived – that people will think that you’ve hired some punk ruffians who, if met in an alleyway as opposed to at your table, wouldn’t think twice about robbing you blind (the exceptions of course are any of Dylan McGrath or Joe Macken’s establishments, where the difference in atmosphere is palpable). What is really happening here, when a server is trusted to make their own style choices, where they are treated like an adult and trusted to dress themselves, is that they are being recognised as a human being, as a person who exists outside of their job – they are given the freedom to not hide who they really are just because they are in service to other people.

I once applied for a job in a restaurant on Dawson Street and was asked to come for an interview. I remember that rainy afternoon clearly, sitting there, soaked through, waiting to be called to meet the managers. When I was led to the interview, halfway up the stairs the manager turned to me and said “You will not be able to work here if you don’t shave and remove your earrings.” I remember standing there on the steps, a few steps below him, with him looking down on me both physically and mentally and just saying “Well let’s at least do the interview before you start telling me what I need to do with my face.” It was quite a jarring moment for me, to have someone A) disregard what I had to offer based on my appearance and B) try to exact their managerial power over me before I worked for them, before I had even sat down and told them my name. I understand that that particular place had its own style, and that I couldn’t have worked there because I know I look like a mole rat when I shave, but this was a total example of a restaurant that really doesn’t care about who you are.

I don’t want to get bogged down on visuals. I understand that this isn’t going to work everywhere, but it extends beyond looks to service style as well. The more you let your staff do what they are good at, the more you embrace them as people and let them bring what they can do to the table, the more they will deliver a high quality of service, the more customers want to come, the harder everyone works, the more money everyone makes, the happier everyone is at the end of the week. Fostering a sense of trust with your employees is better in the long run for everyone involved.

This is the kind of atmosphere I advise you to look for when you are seeking employment in the service industry, and here are a few more tips that I think might help. Before applying for a job, be upfront with yourself about what it s you are looking for. Figure out what your strengths are. For me it’s my shining personality – that is to say I rock at dealing with customers. I like to laugh and joke, to be a bit of a clown and that is generally not going to work in a silver service setting (I say generally because there are certainly fine dining establishments where people do want that style of service). Before applying for a job try visiting the restaurant as a customer. Sit down, have a cup of coffee and see how the waiters seem to get along, if they are stressed, losing their cool, if there is a manager who is screaming and shouting. This way you will know if you actually want to work in this kind of atmosphere. Considering how much time you actually spend at work, it is good to know if you can deal with the people you’ll be working with before you take the job.

It’s also a good idea to be up front with the employer about what you are good at and what you want. Remember, before you work somewhere, when you are interviewing, these people are just people. The worst thing they can say in reply to your honesty is nothing. So you tell a potential employer during the interview that you are looking for somewhere where you will be hired because of your character just as much as for your skill. If you want to work somewhere that encourages waiters to take an active role in the style of service, then say that. For the most part that is going to make you a more desirable candidate, and if what you have to offer is not something they want then you don’t need to waste any more time on them.

Most restaurants will bring you into do a trial shift. The idea behind a trial shift is that they want to see what you can do, how you work, to see if you fit the place, but don’t merely look at it that way – a trial shift is also your opportunity to trail them, to see if they way they operate is conducive to a good work environment for you. If you go to a trial shift thinking that you are being scrutinised you are more likely to alter how you would work to fit what they are looking for. Don’t do it. Instead show them what you are like. It’s a subtle reversal but one that will be to your benefit in the long run. Trialling is the time when you can be yourself without fear of repercussions. In the last restaurant that I trialled, after a couple of weeks I went to the manager and said “Look, I think this place is great, you have a wonderful team and I like how you run things, but this isn’t the kind of service I want to do and I don’t think working here would make me very happy.” The manager welcomed my honesty, said that she would be happy to recommend me elsewhere and gave me a hug. Just because it wasn’t a good fit, doesn’t mean that we couldn’t appreciate one another for our positive aspects.

It is easy to become over invested in trying to find a job, any job, to the point where you will take a job without really considering what effect it will have on you. By the same token, once you have a job it can be difficult to leave it. I’ve often stayed in a place where I was unhappy because my deeply ingrained Protestant work ethic left me paralyzed with fear over leaving. Remember – you can misdirect a lot of your energy by trying to make a job you hate work, when you could be using that energy to find a job you like. Don’t be afraid of quitting. It could be that the dream job is just around the corner. Keep your eyes and ears open for work opening up in different restaurants. Remember what I said earlier – you are most likely replaceable – it is no skin off your employers nose to hire someone else, not really, so don’t let misguided loyalty stop you from searching for something better or more suitable to YOUR needs.

Let’s be real, besides job satisfaction, money is the main reason anybody works. It’s the reason I’m still working now even though I don’t desperately want to be in the service industry anymore. I did however take the last year off from work, which has taught me a lot. It’s been really good for me because it has proven that I am capable of living on a reduced amount of money. Knowing now that I can survive on a lot less means that I don’t feel the pressure to take a job that will be bad for me, that won’t be worth the number of hours it will take from my life in the long run. If you can live on less you can afford to be more picky. It means that if you need to cut and run, if you really can’t take an employers shit, you can do it – you can make that FU money stretch out and save a few extra shreds of your sanity. If you have to, don’t be afraid to quit.

Now, waiting can be a great career. You can work in the industry for a long long time, and the great thing about it is that you can always go back to it if you need to, but most people don’t want to be a waiter forever. For this reason I try to live by the rule that I will let myself be a waiter as long as I have another project or career running alongside. Because the jobs are plentiful, the skills are transferable and the tips are disposable, you could find yourself at 35 wondering how the hell this became your greatest achievement. It’s fine if you are really dedicated to it, if you are a manager, a caterer, a sommelier, or have found a satisfying career in service, but I like to think of it like this – what if the restaurant closed tomorrow? The danger is that you might find yourself back to the bottom rung, so this is why it’s good to try and find something else that you can work at besides. Don’t forget you can always apply for other jobs, in other restaurants and other industries, while you are a waiter.

If waiting is a stop gap job for you, try to have a timeline in mind for when you want to leave. Have something to work towards, either in the industry or outside it. Even if the money you’re making is ultimately going to translate into fun and travel tokens, it’s easier to focus if you have a plan, something in your future, be it a holiday or moving to another city or country, instead of just slogging away endlessly for the short term goal of a beer.

The last piece of advice that I have is to try and bring the positivity TO the job, not the other way around. I’m not saying that it should fall to you to cultivate a good atmosphere, but if you come in with a good attitude you can add a positive dimension to the gig. Pick somewhere where you can learn about something you like, be that tea, healthy eating or Japanese food. Be present, check in with yourself regularly, be mindful, work smart, demand respect and most of all, have fun. It can be wonderful to work for this industry, but always make sure that the industry is working for you just as hard. You deserve that much – you are totally worth it.

  • Words: Andy Apples
  • Illustration: Sophie Branigan

The Waiting Game has been a three part series written by Andy Apples and illustrated by Sophie Branigan. You can find the other parts here.