For the sixth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Concordia University. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2012."
When I was 17, I got a job as a server at a local greasy spoon. The interview process lasted five minutes. I sat at a booth with a tobacco-voiced veteran waitress who was profoundly unimpressed by my teenaged self.
"You ever waitressed before?" she asked me.
"No," I said, adding: "But I’m a quick learner."
"It can be fun," she said in a weary voice, as if to imply that yes, it could be fun, but no, it really wasn’t. "Cover up your cleavage. We’ll start you tomorrow."
I spent a year working there while I finished up high school and saved for college. It was a great job at first and the tips were good, but as the economy began to free-fall our business saw a dramatic drop-off. The owner quickly realized that restaurants were not where the money was anymore, and just as quickly he stopped caring. Food stopped being ordered. Most of the kitchen staff got deported (Not condoning stereotypes here, people. That’s just what happened). Some nights I served two tables during a six-hour shift.
Eventually, I found out that the place was closing by overhearing the owner tell a table of customers that he was moving out west. Later that night he threw a plate at my head. I drove home, bunched up my uniform (a sterile white nurse’s getup) and cried into a bowl of ice cream. My waitressing career was finished.
I’m glad for the year I spent serving people their food. I learned a lot. The relationship between a server and her customer is shockingly intimate. You are treated at times with heartwarming kindness and at others with infuriating emotional brutality. And no, that’s not hyperbole.
You do not know a person unless you serve them their food.
Here’s the thing: I get it. You want great service when you go out. You’re paying for great service. We all have jobs, and we all have to endure bad days and rude people.
But believe me when I tell you that there is something mystical and evil about people and the way they fixate on their food – and the lackey bringing it to them. And you can’t understand it unless you’ve done it yourself, unless you've spent 10 hours on your feet, feeding people, unclogging toilets and enduring sexual harassment.
Yeah, I said it. Sexual harassment. Shouldn’t happen, but it does. All the time. And you’re getting paid $2.33 an hour.
(That was the going rate when I was a waitress. Maybe it’s gone up.)
So here it is: my manifesto in defense of servers and a protocol for treating them like humans. By the way, I will refer to them as "waitresses" because that’s just how my head works – my boss refused to hire men. Again, shouldn’t happen, but it does.
Be aware of what’s going on in the restaurant. Your waitress hasn’t checked on you in 10 minutes; you’ve finished your meal, and you want to order dessert. You’re pretty ticked off. Yes, maybe your waitress is a terrible server ... or there are a million other possibilities.
Is the place busy? Maybe they’re understaffed, and you’re one of 10 parties she’s taking care of. Maybe the dishwasher just quit and she’s trying to do loads of dishes in between checking on you and the other 10 tables. Maybe someone at one of the other 10 tables is throwing a fit because the kitchen put onions on their salad when they SPECIFICALLY asked for NO ONIONS and now the waitress is trying to keep them from crying (this happens, people.)
Don’t shoot the messenger. If you order a hamburger and five minutes later the waitress tells you they are completely out of hamburgers, you are well within your rights as a paying customer to be upset. But please remember that the interaction in the kitchen probably went something like this:
Waitress: "Hey, my four-top needs two hamburgers, well done, crispy fries."
Cook: "No hamburgers."
Cook: "No hamburgers."
Waitress: "I have to tell these people we don’t have hamburgers? We’re…a burger joint."
Cook: "Sorry. I don’t do the ordering."
Be aware of the restaurant’s closing time. Of course you can stay past closing. No classy place will kick you out, and if you’re enjoying your meal you shouldn’t have to rush. But if the place closes at 10 p.m., you ordered steak at 9:50 p.m. and it’s 11:45 before you’ve finished, maybe be courteous and skip dessert.
Things that should go without saying but some people seem to be unaware of:
Don’t touch your waitress. Ever. Anywhere. For any reason.
Do not ask your waitress if she can sell you illegal drugs.
Don't tell your waitress that "you all look the same to me."
Don’t give your cell phone to your waitress and ask her to call your ex-wife for you.
Don’t ask your waitress about her political views.
Don’t leave a "How to Free Yourself From Heroin" pamphlet on your waitress’ table in lieu of a tip. She will be insulted – and very, very confused.
Don’t talk to your waitress about your recent colonoscopy. She’s very glad that you're being proactive and taking preventative measures against cancer, but she doesn’t need to hear the details.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.