People who choose not to work in the restaurant business are probably the rational ones. The hospitality industry in downtown Charleston is struggling with a labor shortfall, in part, because, when offered the chance to spend 80 hours a week in a hot kitchen for low pay and no benefits, most clear thinkers will say they would prefer not to.
And yet, once you acquire the food-and-bev habit, it’s a tough one to shake.
Almost every time I write about the local staffing crisis, part of me longs to tie on a server’s apron again: I miss the close relationships that a restaurant floor fosters as surely as a summer camp cabin or freshman dorm. I miss the collective energy that uplifts a dining room when everyone’s nimbly staying out of the weeds; the crazy amount of money you can make in one night and all of the lessons you can’t help but learn about your fellow man when you’re standing over his table.
I officially abandoned restaurant work so I could write professionally about restaurants instead. But the other reason I didn’t make waitressing my lifetime career is I was only a so-so server.
Generally, I was fast and focused. Hostesses never hesitated to double seat me (meaning I’d get two new tables in my section at once, which is challenging because the parties need the same amount of attention at roughly the same time). I never neglected my side work or forgot to fire an order.
Still, I lacked the instinctive knack for service that wins over regulars and yields 50 percent tips.
But would my bosses agree with my assessment? Or was I too quick to write off waitressing? I decided to ring up my former employers for their takes.
Alpha Koney Island, Pittsfield Township, Mich.
Mere weeks before I tried to get in touch with Nikolaos Stamatopoulos, who owned Alpha’s in the 1990s, the diner shut down. “I worked hard,” current owner Marwan Al-Rabie told The Ann Arbor News in May. “I built a good name, good reputation. ... (But) my landlord called me and said ‘We need the place. We have Old Navy coming in.’”
In this case, though, I didn’t need Stamatopoulos’ confirmation that my performance was mediocre.
Bert, a gruff woman who walked so slowly that the gyro omelets on her tray cooled before they reached the table, tried to show me the ropes. But because I had zero experience, I was prone to rookie mistakes and irritations. I took personal offense when customers left Bible tracts instead of tips, or asked for extra lemons and sugar packets so they could covertly make free lemonade.
And weeks went by before I realized that if I gave a $5 bill and a nickel to a customer who paid for his $4.95 coney combo with $10 in cash, I’d get the coin back as my tip.
In retrospect, that tip may have been calculated correctly. Apologies to the patrons who had to put up with spilled coffee; whole eggs when they asked for egg whites and Greek salads lacking feta cheese, which the waitresses were supposed to apply when they pulled the pre-made salads from a sliding-door cooler. I’m sorry if you’re still wondering where your rice pudding went.
Thanks to Bert, though, I left Alpha’s with something approaching competence. I was at least able to land another job.
Lazy K Bar Ranch, Big Timber, Mont.
Like Alpha’s, Lazy K Bar has changed hands since I worked there. The Van Cleves sold their 8,500 acres in 2012, exactly 90 years after Grandpa Scrumper opened what would become the state’s longest continuously operated dude ranch. The Billings Gazette quoted my one-time manager on the decision: “Carol (Kirby) put her sentiments simply and with an affected country accent. ‘There just taint enough of us,’ she said.”
According to the story, the Lazy K Bar’s employees now hail from Jamaica, Mongolia and Ukraine, but in the 1990s, employees came from the Midwest. We were all keen to work in the shadow of Crazy Peak with wranglers who wore cowboy hats and line-danced without irony.
In fact, the romance of the West may have been my downfall at the Lazy K. I was an impeccable dining room worker, tidy in my red kerchief and quick with the anadama toast. Grateful guests gifted me with smuggled-in Old Crow whiskey and made me promise to save them a reel at the weekly square dance. But I was a nuisance in my off hours.
After coming across a Mel Krieger book in the lodge, I started fly fishing without a license, and later coaxed a friend into accompanying me on an under-provisioned hike up Crazy Peak. On our way back down, we were accompanied by members of the Sweet Grass County Search & Rescue team.
I called a home number for Kirby, but she never called me back.
Chinese restaurant, Columbus, Miss.
Although I can clearly envision the leatherbound menus and plastic tubs of fried wonton strips at this place, I can’t remember its name. (In my defense, I only worked there for a few weeks.) Let’s just say I did a fine job.
Starr Pass Golf Club, Tucson, Ariz.
By the time I was hired at Starr Pass, where I served breakfast and lunch in the clubhouse and drove the beverage cart, I definitely had the hang of restaurant work. Unfortunately, you’ll have to take my word for it, since I’m apparently not the only one with a hazy memory.
“We showed your picture and shared your name with Mac today,” the property’s general manager told me via email, referring to my now-retired boss. “He has no recollection. He said, ‘What do you expect? I’m 80 years old.’ He doesn’t hear well, either.”
Inn on Biltmore Estate, Asheville, N.C.
My first fling with fine dining was at the Inn on Biltmore Estate. Or so I thought until I talked to former dining room manager Suel Anglin, who made a good case I was catfished.
“Everything was geared to wanting people to feel like they were personal guests of George Vanderbilt,” recalls Anglin, who joined Biltmore’s then-new hotel restaurant around the same time I did. “Which sounds interesting, but as far as it really being fine dining? Not so much. It was just push and shove.”
According to Anglin, the massive number of nightly covers wasn’t consistent with fine dining. But neither was the menu.
“I would call it typically country club cuisine,” he says. “We fortunately didn’t have too much chicken. I remember being happy about that.”
What made Anglin morose was the lobster. “Oh lord, I comped so many of those lobsters,” he says. Although the lobsters were shipped live to the Inn, the kitchen had nowhere to keep them, so the standard procedure was to steam them upon delivery, then refrigerate and reheat them to order.
Anglin concedes that customers were correct when they said their lobsters were tough and rubbery, but adds, “I just wanted to look at them and say, ‘We’re 500 miles from the nearest salt water. What made you think that Asheville, N.C., was a lobster destination?’”
Inn on Biltmore Estate’s wine list was in equally bad shape, since the company initially insisted on restricting the selection to Biltmore wines. Employees weren’t fine-dining caliber either, Anglin says.
“You could have six waiters on the floor, and six types of service,” he says, a few of which weren’t very elegant.
“You’ve just got to leave the hillbilly hokum at the door’,” Anglin would regularly tell certain crew members, including one who couldn’t keep his socks up. But so far as he remembers, he never had to give me that lecture.
“You had a very pragmatic approach,” he assures me. “I don’t think you ever had any trouble coordinating your tables and being in the kitchen to get your own food and deliver it. I just remember your energy, and I liked that you had a kind of direct no-nonsense approach to things without being harsh.”
The Lobster Trap, Asheville, N.C.
The best part of working at Biltmore was biking off the estate after my shift. Since I didn’t own a car, I was the only employee then allowed to cycle the paved roads through the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed estate. It was like having Central Park all to myself. But I also biked to work, which meant I had to shower in the employees’ locker room. I ended up twice flooding the facility, which led to my termination.
After leaving Biltmore, I spent a couple of years at downtown brewpub Jack of the Wood before our head bartender committed to a job at a planned New England-style seafood restaurant, outfitted with a proper lobster tank. A number of us followed along.
By that point, I was already contributing occasional food stories to the local alternative newsweekly, which Tres Hundertmark remembers noting when he hired me. Hundertmark is now a North Carolina oyster distributor, but was then The Lobster Trap’s head chef.
“If you were working here, I figured you couldn’t write about us, good or bad,” he says now.
When asked to assess my serving abilities, Hundertmark says he mostly remembers me reading (which frankly sounds like a more fireable offense than mismanaging a shower).
“You’d read a book the whole shift,” he says. “You’d start the book; wait on people and complete the book. I recall you loaned me a copy of Mark Kurlansky’s oyster book after you completed it. You were very interested in new oysters and new dishes and new stuff. You had some fun with the wine list.”
So I may have ended up in the right job, after all.