The first day at a new job is always stressful. In addition to the pressure of being the "new guy" (or girl), you have to deal with new duties new surroundings, new co-workers, new bosses, new expectations.
It can be a tense, stomach-churning time, even if you know that the nerves -- like the job itself -- are going to disappear in a matter of hours.
That was the circumstance I faced two weeks ago, when I spent an evening working as a server at the George Webb restaurant located in the heart of Wauwatosa at 7410 W. State St.
The assignment was part of our new "Shift Switch" series at OnMilwaukee.com. Basically, our writers are going to fan out at various locations around town to work at different places and write about their experiences.
As senior editor, I got to go first.
George Webb was an easy choice, because I've been eating at the restaurants for years -- admittedly often at the end of long, ahem, celebratory evenings -- and was eager to go "behind the scenes" at the home of some of my favorites like the Super George and the Double Webb.
After making arrangements with the operations manager for the 36 George Webb restaurants in the area, I grabbed my blue Webb T-shirt, black apron and name tag and showed up to work just after 5 p.m. on a lovely spring Thursday evening.
The State Street location is much like every other Webb restaurant -- earth tone decor, counter stools, two clocks, friendly customers and employees -- but it's not very big. A Webb executive was doing some computer work at one booth and two other booths occupied at the time -- one by a family of three and the other by two ladies -- and there was an older gentleman at the counter. The restaurant was quiet.
Now, I know what you're saying ...
"George Webb is open 24 hours. Why didn't you work a 'drunk' shift, serving food in the wee hours to folks who had been over served?"
The truth is that I thought about doing that, but two factors intervened. For starters, there was the timing. Working an overnight shift would have interfered with my "real" jobs, at the Web site and the radio station.
Second, since I had absolutely zero experience in the restaurant / food service industry. I figured that I'd need supervision and a somewhat "slower" time of day would allow me an easier "break-in" period.
When I met my co-workers for the evening -- Alison, my fellow server; Twyla, the cook; and, Nikki, who handles training for several stores -- I mentioned my reluctance to battle the post-bar crowd.
"Overnights really aren't that bad," Nikki said. "You should try working a Saturday or Sunday morning. That's when it gets really crazy."
Fifteen minutes into my shift, the first myth was shattered. How can a crowd of families and senior citizens be more daunting than a band of drunks fueling up for an after-bar party that may or may not be followed by a "walk of shame?"
Ali had the answer. "At night, you get one rush right about the time that the bars close," she said. "They can actually be pretty funny. Once you give them their food, they're usually OK. The rest of the night can be pretty quiet.
"In the mornings, it's basically non-stop."
Nobody was expecting a huge rush during my shift. I had told some friends and co-workers to drop by, but didn't think I'd be swamped, which was fine, but I wanted to serve at least a few customers because I had decided to donate my tips to the Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer (MACC) Fund.
Nikki began my orientation by showing me the basic location of key things i would need like placemats, napkins, coffee, coffee cups (brown for regular, light for decaf), the soda and milk dispensers and the array of soups. In addition to the famous chili and chicken-flavored noodle (an important distinction), we had vegetable, old-fashioned bean and split pea.
"Chili is definitely the most popular," she said. "But, people like the soups, too."
As we continued my crash course, I stopped to look over the booths and out the window at softball players filing into Hart Park. I've visited George Webb restaurants -- including this location -- for years, but the view from behind the counter seemed different. I felt a little strange, but that gradually went away as the evening progressed.
I asked Nikki about the mechanics of taking orders. My co-worker, Molly Edler, has worked as a waitress in the past and teased me a bit about the difficulty I would have writing shorthand for short-order cooks.
It wasn't a problem.
The State Street Webb location (and most others) now operates on a POS (point of sale) system. The server can use whatever shorthand he or she wants to take an order, then walks over to the register and enters the order on a touch screen, which transmits the directions to the cook.
"We used to do it the old way, with the wheel," an executive said, describing a system where orders were placed on a ticket wheel near the cook's station.
"The new system is much more efficient. We can tell how much of each item we're selling. It helps with ordering, pricing, inventory. It's so much easier. If I want to change the price of an item or add an item to the menu, I can do it from my laptop or even my iPhone."
After the initial orientation, I felt like I had the mechanics down.
Nikki didn't give me hard and fast rules, but I had a game plan worked out in my mind. Greet the customers upon arrival. Take drink orders. Let them study the menu. Take the order. Enter it on the register (with help from an employee). Deliver the food (and the bill). Check to see if everything is satisfactory or if drink refills are needed. Say "Goodbye," scoop up my lucrative tip, haul the dirty dishes to the container in the back, wipe down the table and set places for the next diners.
Being a server, I figured, is all about service. You have to establish a rapport with the customer, be pleasant and pro-active and try to give the customer what he or she wants.
I was anxious to test my theory. All I needed was a customer ... and the first one to walk in was my friend, Doreen Rinelli, who had an appointment nearby and popped in for a glass of ice water. Doreen left and John Hyland, from OnMilwaukee.com's sales staff, took her place. Hyland, who had helped set the wheels in motion for the "Shift Switch" sat at the counter and took it easy on me. All he wanted was a soft drink and a cup of split pea.
My stint at bartending school made the drink part of the job pretty easy. The soup was easy to handle, too, though I was unsure where to place the oyster crackers. I talked to Hyland for awhile, then waited on a couple more customers. With Nikki and Ali on the floor with me, I felt pretty bulletproof.
While Erin and Reese were eating, I looked across the restaurant and noticed a gentleman chatting with Twyla next to the grill. Since Webb's is a friendly place, I figured it might have been a regular customer.
I was right ... and wrong. The "customer" was Philip Anderson, the Whitefish Bay businessman who runs all George Webb restaurants. Anderson and his wife, Sandy, had dropped in for a bite and a chat with Pantuso.
Of course, the rookie got to wait on them. Fortunately, I didn't make any major mistakes. The Andersons, as it turned out, were the nicest customers you could imagine.
"How would you like to work a shift on Sunday?" Philip Anderson asked.
When I told Anderson that I'm a regular customer at 122nd Street and North Avenue, he laughed and said: "That's our busiest store. We can find something for you to do."
I chatted with the Andersons for a bit, then went back to say goodbye to Erin and Reese, who were getting ready to leave. In a scene that probably plays out dozens of times a day, Erin left behind Reese's sippy cup. I caught up to them outside and delivered it.
As I cleared some dishes, I begged the Anderson's "Please don't tell my wife. I don't want to have to start doing this at home."
The Andersons paid their bill (you'd think they could get food for free, considering ...). Feeling pretty solid about my serving skills, particularly with Ali handling a counter customer and a booth, I decided to go watch Twyla work the grill for a while. There were two things I wanted to know in order to advance my own culinary skills.
I wanted to see how to manage multiple burgers on the grill and pick up any secrets I could. I also wanted to know how cooks at Webb's restaurants make pancakes so fluffy, delicious and symmetrical.
Just as Twyla was showing me the ropes, a father and son walked in from little league practice and ordered a bag of six burgers for $5 (that's the special with the Brewers score five or more runs in a game). Twyla started with the large, hot grill. She put the patties on one side, piled some onions nearby and began toasting the buns on the other side of the grill.
The secret, as far as I could tell, was in the timing and the assembly. The patties are relatively thin, so they cook quickly on the hot grill and don't need much flipping.
Just before the patties were finished, Twyla would take the bun bottoms on the counter and place the onions on the middle. She then placed a slice of cheese and a bun top on each patty. After allowing the cheese to melt, she used a spatula to unite the tops and bottoms into a burger.
She worked at lightning speed, which prompted a question: "What's the most burgers you've ever made in a shift?" I asked.
"Probably about 250," she said.
With my shift about to end, I made it my last official duty to place a carryout order -- for myself. I had to take home a sack of six burgers and some pancakes to give my 8-year-old for breakfast the next morning.
You see, the pancake secret has been puzzling me for years. You can make a good pancake at home, but they never seem to be the same size or fluffy consistency.
The secret was quickly evident: perfectly proportioned batter placed in a pancake dispenser, a funky-looking contraption that puts a perfect amount onto the grill, which was very hot.
"You just kind of get a feel for it," Twyla said.
That's the way I felt about my evening at George Webb. I don't know what it's like to work overnight or on a busy weekend morning, but I have a pretty good idea what it's like to serve on a Thursday night.
Considering that today is National Hamburger Day, and cheeseburgers are $1 apiece, I just might go back tonight.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.