My best friend and I share what we learned by waitressing our way through college
I’ll never forget waitressing at the Ground Round restaurant in Lynchburg, VA where I worked my way through college at Liberty University in the early 90’s.
The Ground Round (we called it the Dirt Circle) served two personalities. The clientele of the Dining Room tended to be a combination of families, college students, church folks (Lynchburg has a plethora of evangelical churches in addition to Liberty) and other “regular” folks from town who would come in for the free popcorn and the famous Ground Round Platter, which was their signature dish consisting of a juicy burger, french fries, and a side salad.
The clientele who were attracted to the Lounge side were the usual range of adults of drinking age: businessmen, groups of friends who came in for happy hour, and what I would respectfully call “very Southern folks.” Others, being less respectful, might refer to them as Rednecks. But that was not for me to judge. I just wanted to make a good tip at every table.
I will always remember the free popcorn (and at some Ground Round restaurants, the free peanuts) that the Dirt Circle was known for. The popcorn maker would run day and night and popcorn was usually scattered all over the floor. I usually worked the Dining Room side and tried to avoid the Lounge as much as possible, as the Lounge had somewhat of a Biker Bar feel. There was this pervading “let’s all order a lot of alcohol and sit around and get drunk” party atmosphere, which frankly intimidated me, especially because from time to time I would peek in at some of the clientele and honestly, some of them looked like they were…
…running from the law.
Especially the loner men in dark sunglasses who were very quiet, serious, and would sit drinking their own pitcher of Bud light, always facing the front of the restaurant and checking everyone who walked through the front door.
Or sometimes, when passing through the Lounge, perverted men would look at me like I was a piece of meat (one guy even asked me if I wouldn’t mind dancing on the table for him!!), and then they would flag me down and start flirting with me. However, as soon as I opened up my mouth and they heard my Northern accent, that was usually enough to turn them off, especially when I forgot to use “ya’ll” when addressing them (whoops) and instead used “you guys.” (That’s a cardinal sin for a server in a Southern family-style restaurant, FYI.)
The bottom line is that I avoided the Biker Bar Lounge and told the management that I would prefer to work in the Dining Room.
But one day they must have been short staffed in the Lounge because that’s exactly where I found myself. I remember confronting Stan, my favorite manager, about this. He kindly said to me: “Sorry Heather. We need strong waitresses in the Lounge. Just give it it a try.”
A few moments later I got my first table.
“Hello! Welcome to the Ground Round! How are you guys doing today?” I said to the older couple with my very best Northern accent.
They looked at me curiously and said something with a very strong southern drawl, which I had trouble understanding. I then asked them if I could take their drink order.
“Yeah,” the petite woman said. “I’ll have a Maaaaaaahhhh Taaaaaaaaahh.” She drawled.
Each word lasted about five complete seconds.
The guy ordered a drink that sounded very sexual (something about “sax” and “bay-ch”) but I didn’t recognize the drink itself.
After I took their order, I ran to the back room to look at the infamous Drink Menu on the Wall.
You need to understand that the Drink Menu On the Wall was a huge construction paper board with every alcoholic concoction on it you can think of written with a black sharpie. It was an 90’s mixologists’ dream come true because it was so incredibly thorough. Parts of it were seriously pornographic in nature and went from bad to worse. Here are the names of just a few of the drinks I can still remember to this day:
- Sex on the Beach
- Slow comfortable F#@%$
- Slow comfortable F%$#@ up against the wall
- Slippery Nipple
- Blow J*&^%b
After I figured out that the guy wanted a Sex on the Beach, I still had no idea what the heck a Maaaa Taaa was so I went strait to the bartender, Shiela. Shiela was great!! Very nice and very good with the Biker Bar crowd, and also good with Northern Christian waitresses.
“Sheila,” I said with stress in my voice. “The woman ordered a ‘Maaaaaaaaaa Taaaaaaaaaaaa’, and I don’t know what that is!” I cried out.
Not missing a beat, she chortled: “Oh Heather, it’s a Mai Tai, honey!” She went on to say: “Now remember, sweetie, the lady can only have up to three Mai Tai’s before you have to cut her off, as it’ a five shot drink.”
Yeeks. Let’s hope petite Southern woman is not hoping to drink more than 15 shots today (she actually ended up having three drinks that night but thankfully did not request a fourth!). And that’s probably the first lesson I learned working in the Lounge – that many of my clientele seriously wanted to get drunk. It was my job to skillfully manage their alcohol consumption in such a way so that I would not have to cut them off, thus killing my tip, and yet still have them perceive that they were having a good time and receiving an adequate amount of beverage.
And that’s how I officially became the following (drum roll please)….
Good Christian Northern College Student by day, and Wild Southern Cocktail Waitress by night.
Because from then on, for whatever reason, I got stuck in the Lounge, usually section 1 (the worst section) about half of the time! The Lounge could definitely be a wild place to work: a drunk man once fell through the full-length plate glass window, shattering it into a million pieces; there was also a shooting in the back parking lot, due to a sordid love-triage; and finally, a woman would come in with a see through white dress on, and there was literally nothing left to anyone’s imagination.
I tried to make the best of my time in the lounge: I perfected my Southern accent, learned how to relate to the Biker Bar crowd (most of them were very nice but you needed to be fun but firm with them) and tried to make the best tips I could.
And when I say Wild Southern Cocktail Waitress by Night, I mean NIGHT! Last Call was at 12:30 am and Light’s Up (when the bar officially closed) was at 1 am. I remember many nights working until 1:20 am, driving back to campus, parking WAY far away from my dorm, walking through the dark, all the while wondering if I was going to get snatched by a Serial Killer. It always took me at least an hour to “settle down” enough to fall asleep, only to wake up at 7:15 am for my 8:00 class the next morning.
Honestly, working so much (sometimes 32 hours per week) and so late, on top of taking so many classes (usually 18 credits every semester) was very challenging and exhausting, and looking back, I regret working so much and taking so many classes during that time. I joked to my friends that my experience at the Ground Round (as well as other restaurants) put “hair on my chest” and made me into a stronger person. I often struggled with jealousy when my college friends would come in to visit me, as they had much more of a “normal” college experience. I loved seeing them, but I struggled with having to work so hard just to afford college. It didn’t seem fair.
The Ground Round was just one of the restaurants I was employed by through high school, college, and post-college. In high school I worked at Friendly’s and Ponderosa (we called it Ponder-gross-a). In college I worked for the Wharf and Appleby’s in addition to the Ground Round (I also worked at a Ground Round in Fayetteville, NY during the summer and college breaks). After college I raked in my best tips ever at Uncle Julio’s Rio Grande Cafe in Reston, VA.
All in all, the Ground Round was a great place to work through college. I made decent tips, learned some valuable lessons, and made some lifelong friends to boot (more on that in a moment).
Before I get into lessons learned, here are a few phrases from the restaurant business that I still remember to this day:
- “I have Campers!” (customers who sit and and sit in your booth and never leave – preventing any turnover and thus preventing any tips)
- “Oh no! They did the Dine and dash!” (customers that order, eat, and sneak out without paying)
- “86 that!” (when the restaurant was out of something)
- “Behind you!” (what we all said to each other so as to not cause a tray/food/dish collision)
- “If you can’t afford to tip, then don’t go out to eat!” (what all the servers said to each other after we had gotten stiffed by a table)
- “I’ve been quadruple-sat!” (when a hostess seats our entire section all at once!)
In addition to the phrases that are still with me, the many lessons are as well. I can honestly say that I learned a lot about people, life, and myself while waitressing and was able to pay for almost my entire undergrad and graduate degrees throughout my nine years in the business.
Below is a list of the top 5 things I learned as a waitress that I still remember to this day…
1. Never judge a table.
I honestly think this was my very first lesson. I must admit that I did judge certain tables in the beginning, but quickly learned that some of my best tippers didn’t look like they would tip me well, and sometimes the nicest, most well-dressed, most put together people completely stiffed me or left me a cheap tip! On a similar vein, a good waitress has to learn how to read a table. There is a delicate dance with every table. Sometimes customers are chatty and engaging, other times they are more serious and private. If you don’t have good people skills when you start your serving career, you will surely develop them as time goes by.
Sometimes people were strange or rude though, and it made it hard for me to not judge them. One time a couple came in and the guy ordered a T-bone steak medium well, and happily consumed the whole entire thing. However, at the end of the meal he flagged me down to show me a patch of bright red blood on his empty plate. Huh? He demanded that I comp his meal (give it to him for free) because he said his steak was rare, and pointed to the blood on his plate. I went and got my manager Lisa and she went to investigate. She thought something was fishy so she refused to comply with his request. He was pissed and left the restaurant without tipping me. Later, Lisa found several wadded up kleenexes shoved into the side of the booth with bright red blood on them! We both surmised that this guy actually cut himself open and dripped his own blood onto the plate, just to try to get a free meal. What a weirdo! I definitely had several customers over the years that did some strange, creepy, rude, or disrespectful things to me. I had to learn to deal with some seriously abnormal human behavior, all with a smile on my face!
2. Be generous and respectful.
I am almost embarrassed to admit this but I used to be very, very cheap. I mean, so cheap that, as a teen and out with my friends, I wouldn’t order any food but would instead pick leftovers off of my friends’ plates. I also wouldn’t leave a tip. Waitressing adjusted that for me big-time. Why? Because, once I became a waitress, it felt awesome to get a great tip, and it felt terrible to get a cheap one.
I will always tip waiters and waitresses at least 20 percent or more because I know how it feels to be in their shoes. Sometimes my husband and I receive bad service at a restaurant and our conversation goes something like this. Erik: “hon, the service is slow.” Me: “yes, I know. Maybe the kitchen is slow tonight. Maybe they are short-staffed. It’s probably not the waiters’ fault.” Then later, Erik: “Babe, our waiter is not very friendly and he sucks. I am not going to leave him 20%.” Me: “Hon, you can’t do that! Maybe he’s a single father, or maybe he’s had a bad day. C’mon, cut him some slack.” Erik generally relents and still gives a generous tip because he’s a good guy and because he married a former waitress. God has blessed us generously and I want to give back. To read my earlier post about my childhood, money and generosity, click here: Blue Collar Girl Trapped in a White Collar Marriage.
One day I was working at Uncle Julio’s Rio Grande Cafe when I walked past a table of three men with a water pitcher in my hand. One of the three men (nicely dressed, wealthy looking) waved at me frantically, calling over to me: “Water girl! Oh, water girl! Give me some more water!” I looked at the two younger men next to him and they both looked very embarrassed. I stopped at his table and said politely but firmly: “Sir, I am much more than a water girl, but I would be happy to refill your water.”
Since having been treated like a mere water girl with nothing to offer the world (not to mention a dumb blond and a piece of meat), I have always tried to respect everyone regardless of their station in life. I try to never look down on anyone, ever, because we are all in this thing called life together. We should try to get along and be kind and respectful to each other, no matter what.
3. Organize your life as if you are triple-sat.
This is probably one of the coolest lessons I learned. From time to time I was triple or quadruple sat. I had to figure out a way to meet the needs of the entire group of people but not take too long doing it. I didn’t have the luxury of going up to one table, doing a perfect job, and then getting another table a few minutes later. I had to learn to prioritize and meet the needs of my entire section. Honestly, that meant some people had to wait longer to get their drinks or their check, etc. I learned to handle the big rocks first, and put them into my jar (so to speak), and then after that I could get the smaller rocks in, too. This caused me to be a more efficient and productive waitress and then later, an efficient and productive career woman. I had to learn how to achieve my main priorities while not losing focus, and still have time for the smaller ones. Here is a slightly cheesy YouTube video that explains this concept in detail: here. Bottom line? I still approach my to-do list with the larger picture in mind, put my top priorities first, and not get distracted by the little things until my top priorities are met.
4. Be steady, but not slammed.
There were times I was extremely busy (we called it being “slammed”), which consisted of me running around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to frantically keep up with my tables. I don’t think I did a very good job for my customers when I was slammed. There were other times when I was what we called “steady,” where I was busy enough but still had time to do a good job with each table. I usually made much better tips when I was steady vs. being slammed. To this day, I work very hard to remain steady with my obligations and priorities, while trying hard to not take on too much on, thus becoming slammed. Why? Because my peace and joy go away when I’m slammed and it’s not like I’m doing that great of a job with juggling so many different priorities anyway. One quick qualifier: sometimes you are just very busy and that’s the way life goes. I just try not to stay in that place forever.
One last comment on this point: you are also capable to do more than you realize sometimes. A waiter named Whit challenged me to stop writing down all of my orders but instead memorize them in my head. I thought “no way!” but I started with a two top, then went up to three top, then four, etc. And then I never wrote down another order in my remaining years of serving. My record was a party of 15 – Whit’s was about 30! I couldn’t believe watching him do this, but I saw it with my own eyes. Lesson: I was capable of more than I realized. And I am glad I stopped writing down my orders. Honestly, once you get into a rhythm of it, it’s not all that difficult. (I promise.)
5. If you pray before you eat, you had better leave a good tip.
As a waitress, I would always try to Never Judge a Table (see point number one) but on Sunday during the lunch shift – I admit – I judged. Why? Because that’s when the Church Crowd came in. They were all very nice, of course. The trouble was that they were usually really cheap! They often left me a Christian tract (a tract is a little pamphlet which explains the gospel message) and a ONE dollar tip. I wasn’t the only one they did this to – all of the servers complained about it as well. What a horrible testimony of what it means to be a true Christian! So, I decided to do something about it. I wrote a note to Jerry Falwell (The Chancellor of Liberty) and left it on his car windshield (a lot of students back in the day would do this) and told him all about this strange phenomena called ‘Christians Who Are Crap Tippers.’ Jerry was a super cool guy (don’t believe what you may have heard about him in the press) and I had waited on him and his wife a few times before. He was always very nice and always left a 20 percent or more tip. Anyway, he actually read my letter to his huge church and told them that if they didn’t leave “at least 20 percent tip, then don’t bother to leave a tract.” (He may have even said “oh, and if you can’t afford to leave a tip, then don’t bother to go out to eat,” as well, but I can’t be sure… 😂 ) He went on to tell them that they needed to be a better witness to the town of Lynchburg and to stop being so cheap! Go Jerry!
The bottom line is that if you are a person of religious faith, my suggestion to you is that you be a good example and leave a good tip. ‘Nuff said.
Before I close, I want to give a shout out to Uncle Julio’s in Reston, VA. We called it “The Rio” and it was a very busy restaurant that served some really good Tex Mex food. The clientele tended to be young professionals and young-ish families and they generally tipped very well. Although it was the most strictest restaurant I ever worked for (they used to line us up and inspect our uniforms, making sure our shirts were professionally dry-cleaned with extra starch), I ended my waitressing career on a high note as I truly made the very best tips of my life in that restaurant. I also made some great friends and made some great memories to boot.
This leads me to the last life lesson I learned through serving. One of the best things about being in the restaurant industry is the relationships you develop with other servers and managers. We partied, went to bars after work (and left huge tips – the best tippers are servers!) went on ski trips together, dated each other, did Bible studies and went to church together, and opened up our lives to each other. We became like family. We got into each others’ business and supported each others’ dreams. We joked around together, ate free food together, and had deep talks together. I’m still Facebook (and real life!) friends with a number of server friends many years later. I met Sandie, my best friend since college, at the Dirt Circle and we are still “together” to this day!!
There are still things I miss about serving. I miss the camaraderie and friendships. I miss the movement and life of a busy restaurant. I miss the free food. I especially miss the huge wad of cash in my apron pocket at the end of my shift. I tell Erik that if he ever loses his job, I might go back to serving.
In the very next post, Sandie will share her perspective on waitressing and what she learned over her eight years of serving and bartending. Sandie and I shared MANY great times together at the Dirt Circle and later at the Rio Grande cafe. She’s also a true Southerner, so be sure to read her story, too.
In closing, as Sandie and I brainstormed topics for this post, we realized that waitressing bonded our friendship together almost more than anything else. In fact, between the lessons learned, money made, relationships formed, and the fact that Sandie are still best friends to this day, those were the best and longest-lasting tips that the business ever gave to us!
And for that, we are forever grateful.
Be sure to check out Sandie’s story, coming shortly!
PS: feel free to comment about lessons learned or anything I missed about working as a server!