By Sandie Brown, guest blogger
I will always remember working my first shift on the Lounge side at the Ground Round restaurant in Lynchburg, VA, where I was working my way through college in the early 1990’s. I was only 19 years old and this was my first job in the restaurant business. Every time I walked past by a set of booths, some guy was cat-calling me (“hey cutie, how ya doing?”), which left his girlfriend threatening me to assault me (“girl, I’m going to beat the sh*&^%$t out of you”), all because I was doing my job and seating people. I began to cry and went to my amazing boss Stan and told him that I didn’t think this job was for me. He calmly reassured me this was no typical night.
I managed to suck it up and lasted a few years more at the Dirt Circle, as the staff called it, moving through the ranks of hostess, waitress, and assistant manager. I had no business being a manager as I had no idea what I was doing! I thought my main job was to count the money and run the reports (and study for my classes at school). The staff would often play jokes on me, and there were many nights I closed the restaurant by myself, walking out in complete darkness at 2 in the morning.
Working almost 30 hours a week and taking a full class load was not for the faint of heart, but waitressing my way through college taught me many valuable life lessons, and below are just a few of them, mostly using the phrases of the business that Heather used in her previous post, found here.
1. Waitressing can be a real “meet” market, in a good way. During my 8 years of waiting tables, the best thing I learned is that it is very possible to make some great friendships with coworkers and regular customers – and those relationships can last a lifetime. I met Heather when we were 19 years old, and we are still best friends to this day!
Sometimes you get regular customers and the regulars are placed in your life for a purpose. It was during my time at the Ground Round that I was working to pay my way through Central Virginia Community College (CVCC). I had been waiting on an elderly gentlemen, Jimmy Sales, regularly for a few years and we had become good friends. He asked me what I would do to further my education now that my years at CVCC were up. I said I had not idea but I knew I still want to pursue teaching. I don’t recall the timeline of that conversation but it became the catalyst for what happened later that summer. At some point after one of our regular weekly lunches, he left me an unexpected tip. It was a check typed out to Liberty University for $1,200.00. I remember staring at him slack jawed. He told me that God had put it on his heart to help me transition to a new college.
For the next 3 years I continued to waitress and Mr. Sale would always ask each semester, “how much do you owe?” He would never pay the whole amount but always gave me a generous contribution to help me through. When I graduated I asked him later how I could ever pay him back. His reply?
“Don’t bother-just pay it forward when you can.”
I had a lot of regular customers who were big tippers and none of them ever wanted anything in return. There was “The Cookie Man” named John who tipped with amazing homemade cookies and breads, the General Manager of a local baseball team named Ronnie who gave me a Bible, and a local car salesman, Eddie, who gave me a cowboy hat and boots as a Christmas gift. No strings were attached to any of these gifts; just kind, genuine people placed in my life. With the exception of Eddie, these regulars are still in my life to this day.
I believe there are people on earth with the gift of generosity and tipping a server is a place for them to use their gift. You never know how God might bless someone with your tip. It might be a standard 20% tip or it may be something a little more surprising like Mr. Sales’ gift of $1200.
2. “I have Campers!” The aim for all waitresses is to get as many customers to rotate through your station during your shift in order to make the most amount of tip money possible because servers do not receive a paycheck. In the 1990’s, the hourly rate was $2.15 per hour, but when you claim your tips on your tax return, you never actually received anything other than the tips you earned – you usually received a zeroed out check stub. The worst was when a table came into your section and continued to sit long after their food was eaten. If you were lucky, that camping table would tip you big by end of night, but most of the time, they didn’t.
But in life, you do want campers – the people who stay by you through thick and thin. I have been blessed with a few campers. Campers don’t give up on your when you are at your low points and they don’t allow others to keep you down either. Instead they cheer you on and they encourage you to be your best. Campers are the ones that have staying power. They accept you for who you are. They give you grace when needed and have the guts to speak honestly to you. I have been blessed with some amazing campers in my life. At this point in my life my campers all live miles apart from me. But I know I have a handful of amazing campers who have my back.
3. “Oh no! They did the Dine and dash!” The worst shifts happened when a table decides to eat and then run off without paying the check. It may not seem like such a huge deal in the grand scheme of life, but it sure makes for a crappy night of tips. That happened to me once at the Rio Grande in Reston, VA. But when the staff heard there was a dine and dash table, other servers chipped in so that the monetary loss was shared by all and the impact on me was minimized.
Just as in most restaurants the dashers leave and the server is left to pay for the cost, I think this is true about life in general with the words people say and the choices they make. They dump on us then leave. It could be a reckless word or a hapless deed. It can be intentional or unintentional. Most of the time we are left wondering ‘where did that come from’ and ‘why am I left cleaning up the pieces?’
I have learned through many hurtful times that although someone may dine and dash emotionally on me, I don’t have to accept their bad behavior. It’s okay to feel the impact, but then I choose not to be offended. I have a saying of recent that is my manta: always consider the source. It isn’t necessarily something they did as much as why they did it, and usually people do things from a place of brokenness. Of recent I am in a place that forces me to put up with a lot of dashing. It is temporary and I have had to remind myself that I am not responsible for fixing someone else’s baggage. I do have a response to be loving, be a light, and at times even be bold and draw necessary boundary lines. We sometimes find ourselves in these hard places but the good news is we don’t have to choose to stay in them forever.
4. “86 that!” When you are in the restaurant business you know what these two numbers mean. An 86’d item is one that is out; take if off the menu- it is no longer available. I hated informing a customer that we were out of the item they desired to order because it would usually be followed up by disappointment. There are things in life that we have to consider 86-ing. Of recent my family and I moved across 5 states to be closer to family. On leaving I had to 86 some things in Missouri that were a part of my life for the past 5 years. Deep friendships, a church that felt like family, an amazing book club and a beautiful neighborhood where my kids thrived and had an idyllic childhood (Heather’s note: we just did this too, and it is very hard.) In making the decision to leave Missouri, my husband and I began purging a year before we even sold our home. When moving across state lines, the moving company charges you by weight. We begin to process what is truly needed. I had phone calls with an organizational coach that helped me sort through the why behind the what. Why do we want the stuff? What do we do with the stuff? In that process, many things were sold, donated or gifted out. We wanted to travel light with only the necessary things.
In life, there are times you need to go through your stuff and 86 the things that weigh you down. I learned a long time ago to minimize. Before moving to Missouri, I had a similar purge where there were just some items I had a hard time releasing. One in particular was a beautiful jacket I had purchased that I had spent a fair amount of money on. It no longer fit and yet I knew what I had paid for it. I have a knack for frugality. I tend to know what can resale and what is not worth the time. This I knew would sell if I stayed persistent and kept reposting it. But time was running out and I had to decide to pack it or donate it. It never sold and I had a hard time just giving it away. I begin to think of verse in the Bible that says “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every hindrance that so easily entangles us…” This jacket was hindering me from joy. I would look at it and regret not fitting into it any longer. I would spend time posting and reposting it on Facebook buy-sell-trade groups. But at the end of the day, it was a waste of time and energy. Once I donated it, I didn’t even think of that jacket again until writing this post. Bottom line? Be ok to let some things go.
5. “Behind you!” Oh how I still use this even at home and sometimes get mad at my husband in our “one butt kitchen” for bumping into me when he should be communicating “behind you.” I can’t stay mad at him because he has never waited tables. But as a waitress, if you don’t speak up and say “behind you!” you will end up with all kinds of spills and mishaps. My worst was once at the Rio Grande where I was balancing a hot sizzling fajita platter on my shoulder and was bumped from behind. The hot plate burned the nape of my neck as it slid off the tray. I bear the scar of that hot plate still today. It is important to keep communication lines open and don’t assume people know how you feel.
Always state the obvious even when you think someone knows what you are thinking. Speak it out loud. To the spouse who needs to hear it say “I love you.” To the dad who hurt you long ago say “I forgive you.” To the coworker or child who needs recognition say “I see you.” And always to your friends who live in these challenging times we live in say “Behind You!”
6. “I’m stuck in the the 111’s” I had to throw this term in myself. It was specific to those who waited tables at The Rio Grande. It was last sat, least desirable section and it was mine for a solid 8 or more weeks until some unfortunate newby was hired and I moved up in seniority. It was a row of tables that separated the smoking and the non-smoking section in the restaurant. Why was it so horrid? Because that section was the separation. It was a row of tables adjacent to the row of smoking tables with a view of the bus boy station. Mostly customers seated there were either “first available” on the wait list or where customers sat when all other sections were filled. It was the last sat and first emptied out. The 111s was the section you DID NOT want to be assigned to. But I was in a tight place. I had just moved to the DC area and needed money. My friend Heather was making money hand over fist at this restaurant but I must have arrived at a time they were fully staffed and I was the last hired in a place that assigned sections according to seniority.
Sometimes you find yourself in a tight place. TD Jakes describes a tight place is a place where you are not there yet. You are closer than you were but you are not there yet. You are closer than you were but you are not sure you have the push to get to the next place. Sometimes in life you are assigned to the 111’s. You will move out of it but for the time you are in it, it’s humbling, it’s hard, and you have to grit your teeth til, something gives. I’ve been in the 111’s since this summer. My husband and I stepped out in faith to leave Missouri and return to Virginia so that we could be closer to family. Things have not YET worked out as we had thought. I know they will eventually sort out and we will look back and know there was a reason for this season in our lives- but we are not there yet. To listen to a 7 minute video of TD Jakes describing a Tight Place, click here: A Tight Place.
There have been days that I feel like I’m in the least desirable section. I wake up, I muster up enthusiasm and joy, choosing to see things through a long-term lens and trusting our faith will be rewarded, but for now things remain the same.
What about you? Are you stuck in the 111’s? Well pull up a seat and sit at the table with me because I have learned it’s just a matter of time until we are assigned a new section. I hope, like me, you will have a story to tell and we can look back and know that God was with us in our tight place. We need only trust his plan and be patient in the waiting. The reason for my faith is that I know that God is my manager, and He will only keep me in the 111s for as long as it’s needed for something He is seeking to accomplish in me. And then He will move me on!
When Heather invited me to write this waitressing blog post with her, we had fun reminiscing about past memories and people. Some memories made us laugh and some made us cringe, but we both agreed that they provided strong life lessons. Later when I moved to Northern VA, we reconnected at Rio Grande Restaurant and saw that the same lessons apply in the waitressing world no matter where the restaurant. I am amazed that waitressing terms learned from almost 20 years ago have influenced me in a positive way throughout the years. Waitressing is hard work indeed, but anything worthwhile is.
And those are my best tips from a waitress, learned the long and hard way. I hope some of my tips and lessons can be yours as well.
Heather’s closing note: I will always remember meeting Sandie for the first time at the Ground Round. She was a hostess with bright and beautiful blue/green eyes. She was super sweet and kinda blunt and we became fast friends. She showed me the ropes of the Lounge as she was from the South and was able to understand the clientele better than I could. I had been praying for a best friend as I was lonely at a new college, and God sent me Sandie. Years later we both worked at the Rio Grande in Reston, VA together. The tables were turned and I then “showed her the ropes” there. I will always remember lamenting the dine and dashers, the campers, the weird customers, and the strict or nice managers with Sandie, but also enjoying the many good things about the business: the money and the relationships being at the top of the list. All in all the restaurant business brought us together and we are forever grateful for all the life lessons and life-time relationships it gave to us.
After waitressing, Sandie and I both worked professionally for a number of years and then became stay at home parents. Sandie is now working part-time again while I sit on my butt and occasionally write blog posts. 😀
We are both forever grateful for the many tips we received (both financial and otherwise) in the restaurant business!!
PS: if you missed Part I of this short series where I share my own perspective of working in the restaurant business through college, you can find it here: Christian College Student by Day, Southern Cocktail Waitress by Night – Part I.
Thanks for reading!