Thursday, September 11, 2014

Serving: Where Yes Means No

"I think everyone should go to college and get a degree and then spend six months as a bartender and six months as a cabdriver.  Then they'd really be educated." Al McGuire

            Serving isn't a glamorous profession nor one that saves lives.  However, waiting tables is something most people have experienced for themselves and everyone has eaten out at a restaurant. So I'm going to share five lessons I've gained from working in the hospitality business.

1. How to Listen.

             When people sit down at your bar or table you greet them with your smile and then you listen to them.  You listen to hear if they're stressed or trying to relax. It's your job to understand the guests needs and provide an experience that lifts their mood.  After working for a bit I realized that most people want to be entertained or to feel special.  Very few people are there for the food it's the way you make them feel that makes them happy.  That all starts from listening.

2. Teamwork

            Without a doubt you will work with some of the most interesting, unique, strange and diverse group of people put together under one roof in a restaurant.  You all go in the trenches together, while trying to smile, with 15 different orders/things in your head. I was never bored going to work and I'm convinced that after working in a restaurant anyone can work together.  I met people that were aspiring singers, actors, former professionals who were burnt out, students, single moms and, yes, just plain losers. 
             However, I was constantly surprised by how the work magnified the character of a person.  Someone who looked like they were going to be a great employee cracked almost immediately on a Friday night.  Meanwhile that loser I mentioned was handling the rush without breaking a sweat and always had a smile on their face.  They just couldn't apply that outside of work. 
            Because of the nature of the work you form a tight bond with your coworkers, you learn the value of honest communication, how to consolidate your steps and the importance of what problems a smile can solve.  I also experienced some of the most genuine help from people covering each other's shifts when family was sick, a gig came up or they needed a break.  You might only be making $2.13 an hour but they'll have your back.  Oh, just don't try and date a coworker it rarely works out. 

3. Class is unequal to money

            Ahhhh, this is where the server horror stories spring from.  The $30,000 millionaire, the snobby old lady, the bitchy housewife, the "walk in five minutes before close and order the most difficult thing to cook guest".  The celebrity who wants a "special" table.  The regular who thinks they're a celebrity.  The annoying bar guy who talks to everyone.  The awkward couple that never speaks during their meal. The "I just want to take out one ingredient and I'm going to make so many requests so it's like my own dinner". (I really didn't like those guests).  
            You'll see all kinds and eventually you learn that education, money nor status doesn't equal class. It's a person's character that defines their class.  Yes, I've served some very high profile people but it was the regular people who viewed themselves as "special" that required the most patience.  I will say that Robin Williams, Jon Meacham, Bernard Pollack, Ted Danson, Reba McEntire and Patrick Monahan were the biggest "celebrities" I saw/served and all were extremely classy.  Reba was just hilarious and a lot of fun. 

4. Out of Rhythm

            I feel that the hardest thing about serving isn't the guests it's the hours. You're completely out of rhythm with normal society.  You can't hang out with your 9-5 friends because you're working when they're not and vice versa.  Good luck dating a 9-5'er. You'll be sleeping when they go to work and they're sleeping when you get off work.  You want to enjoy a holiday better get that shift covered by the new person weeks in advance.  You're on your feet for hours and hours.  (One weekend I worked a Friday double, Saturday night and a double on Sunday and I walked 26 miles.  I made $1,000 but that's a marathon.  Yes, a freaking marathon. I stopped using my pedometer after that.)
            You most likely will make good money, unless it's dead and that's the worst, but you're not investing in yourself or your career.  It's also emotionally draining. You're constantly handling the needs of other people, other employees and then when you leave work the needs or expectations of friends and family.  If you don't love working in the hospitality business then it's draining and difficult to stay disciplined on your goals both daily and professionally.  With that being said it's also semi-automous and allows you to hustle after what you really want in your free time.  That's why so many actors and musicians work as servers or bartenders. 

5. Yes Means No

            Lastly, working in the hospitality business teaches you how to answer any question or remark from a guest or coworker by learning how to say No by saying Yes.  For example, "Yes sir, I can bring you a delicious steak.  Unfortunately, our ribeye is sold out but I highly recommend our NY strip."  is much better than saying, "Well sir since you came in five minutes before close I can't give you a ribeye steak.  Yes the cooks would love for you to wait 15 minutes before ordering so why don't you just get the NY Strip."  The former is the proper way to answer the latter is how you get fired.  It's like that with almost every question to a guest. 
            This wording of an answer is what anthropologists call High-Context communication.  The answer isn't directly implied, if it was you'd be fired, so it's implied indirectly.  We American's are Low-Context communicators, which means we're very specific with our questions, our answers and we expect a clear response.  That isn't possible in hospitality.  
           Since I enjoy writing, I clearly view the world as a narrative. So I applied that to each and every table that I served.  I applied that to the way I worded things, less is more btw, to consolidate my steps, to smile and to just say "I'm sorry" if everything else failed. Follow the Yes means No rule and everyone's happy.  

Final Thoughts

            I won't miss the work but I will miss the people. I learned some very important lessons from serving and I'm a better person for it.  I've learned a little humility, to carefully listen to someone before assuming you know what they want.  I've learned that anyone can work together if you have a common goal. I've also learned to be flexible and adjust on the fly.  I've also become extremely focused on my professional goals in life. I can always go back but I never want to.  I know that I'll use those lessons and many more in the Peace Corps and beyond.  Lastly, if you've got a great server story or want to share another lesson let me know! 

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