Anyone who’s had a rough day or week should consider swinging by La Merenda, 125 E. National Ave., and sitting in Nikki Hildebrandt’s section. Hildebrandt, a career waitress who started in the industry 26 years ago, is one of the warmest and most dedicated servers in the city.
OnMilwaukee recently stopped by to chat with Hildebrandt about food, philosophies, mom vibes and Chi-Chi’s – that now-defunct-in-the-U.S. Mexican restaurant chain that many of us grew up going to (remember Chi-Chi's corn cakes? Anyone? Anyone?).
OnMilwaukee: Where did you get started as a server?
Nikki Hildebrandt: I say "waitress" because that was the term when I started 26 years ago at Chi-Chi’s. But sure, now I guess I’m a server.
Which Chi-Chi’s did you work at?
At the one on Bluemound. It was a big deal to me at the time because I was a cocktail waitress and could serve drinks but was not of age to drink them. It taught me how to manage a lot of things at the same time. Every Tuesday and Thursday night, there was a free happy hour spread – chili con queso and such – and it was challenging to keep it going. I was in the weeds all the time, but I learned a lot.
Are you satisfied with your choice to be a career waitress?
Yes. I chose this as my career even though for many people it isn't considered a real job. And I do struggle with that, but I take it very, very seriously.
What are some of your waitressing philosophies?
I don’t walk into my shift anticipating how much I am going to make; I know I am working for tips, but I don't ever want to give that impression to my guests. I know the money will come if I ensure they have the experience they are paying for. And I never talk about tips. It’s tacky.
I treat my guests as if they're family, and therefore I tend to be a slower waitress. I've done the "turn and burn" style of waitressing at other restaurants, but it’s not my style. I don’t like to rush people; I see it like I am hosting mini-dinner parties on repeat.
For me, it’s not a drag to be a waitress. It’s not a stepping stone. It’s not beneath me. I just turned 44, and I am thrilled to call it my career choice.
What do you like about serving?
Every table has a story to tell. It’s never mundane. Of course, it’s waitressing and so the skill set remains the same, but the people are always a whole new set of characters. You can have a couple on their first Tinder date – that’s when I’m seen and not heard – to celebratory milestone events, like people’s birthdays or couple’s anniversaries. I love dealing with people. I love all kinds of humans.
How do you "read" a table and know how much to interact or not interact?
By their vibe. I respond to their vibe. I am the mother of three – and "mom" to a lot of people I work with and have worked with – so I have a "mom vibe" that makes me very good at reading people. I feel like I'm an expert on humanity. I really do.
How old are your kids?
They are 18, 20 and 22.
Where are you from and what neighborhood do you live in today?
I grew up in Hartland, but I currently live in Walker’s Point – walking distance from work. I moved here in 2008, the first year Obama was president, and I've seen quite a few changes and enhancements in the neighborhood. I really love it.
How do you feel about the term "foodie"? Are you one?
Yes, I am one, and I’m OK with it. I love trying new restaurants and being able to know the dining scene well enough to make recommendations to my guests at La Merenda who might be in town for the weekend and want to know where else to go. I like to compliment the places around us. There are so many great restaurants in Walker’s Point and Bay View.
What do you like to do in your off time?
I like to spend my money unwisely. I love to dine out, thrift and shop, go out for coffee in different coffee houses. Coffee drinks are my guilty pleasure.
In the future, I would like to get into yoga. I've never done it. Put that into writing so I do this. If I see it in print, I will have to do it, right?
What are some of your favorite La Merenda plates?
Oh gosh, the Argentinian-style beef is outstanding. The beef empanadas. The smoked duck tostadas, the braised veal. It’s really difficult to pick favorites because all of the food here is truly incredible. I love working here. I like working for a family, not a corporation, because they appreciate my intimate style of serving.
How do you handle rude customers?
It rarely to never happens here, but I did work at a chain restaurant in a mall and there it was more common. However, to be honest, I don’t care. I don’t take it personally. It doesn’t break my stride. Every table has a story; move on to a better, kinder story.
I always tell my pseudo sons and daughters – because, again, I’m "mom" at work – not to worry about people being rude or not getting the tip you thought you deserved. Just keep going. Experience taught me this.
Do you enjoy mentoring other servers?
Yes, I love it. I like being someone they can turn to.
What are some of you pieces of advice you share with them?
When it’s really busy, always acknowledge a table. Even if it’s just a tap on the table and tell them, "I will be right with you." The worst thing is when guests don't feel like they've been noticed. Don't worry about tips. The important thing is the guests have the experience they are paying for and then the money will come.
And finally, most importantly, just take it one table at a time. One table at a time.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.