The Breaking Point

July 14, 2012

in Accident & Mishap Stories

Servers have a lot of bad days. With so little control over who and what comes our way, and an income 90% dependent on the largess of our clientele, days can be rollercoasters of emotion. But there are bad days, and then there are days that are slow-motion train wrecks, threatening to derail our sanity, or at least make us quit on the spot.

With ten years as a server, I can pinpoint my worst day easily. I used to work an awful shift: 10:30 am till 11:30 pm on Saturdays, straight through. I rarely could take even a 15 minute break. The lunch crowd would trickle in throughout late afternoon, and dinner took off right at 4, plus I had a ton of cleaning, set-up, and side work to do. I was sometimes able to cram a piece of bread in my mouth before starting the second half of my day; a spoonful of soup too, if I was lucky. Management never told me I couldn’t take a break, but there was no time, and I was the only server on until 5:30.

My bartender, the one in charge during lunchtime, had no sympathy. She was a badass and worshipper of the pirate ship mentality, where getting through a crush with no help was a badge of honor. For her, there was only one acceptable way to deal with bad experiences: alcohol. During lunch, she’d be stone-faced, kicked back against the bar fridge with a newspaper in hand, nursing her own hangover as I’d run like a crazy person from one side of the restaurant to the other. She would frequently go outside for smoke breaks, leaving me to make my tables’ drinks myself.

I put up with this exhausting shift because I was the newest server there and wanted to prove that I, too, could walk through the fire and hang out with the tough kids. The money was mediocre for most of the day, not getting significantly better until the 7 pm seating. But, I was putting in my dues, earning my right to make good Saturday night money by working that long, horrible day.

One night, the worst night, I watched almost every penny of that good money go up in smoke…

At 8:30 on a balmy late summer Saturday night, a transformer blew up under the street on our corner. Smoke billowed from the manholes out front, and darkness blanketed our restaurant. The craziness of what had just happened barely registered with me, as I was too busy to think much beyond: Well, this is inconvenient. Get the friggin’ lights back on! I need to pay rent! We were in full-swing, my section filled with guests mid-meal or waiting for food. My work for the most profitable round of the day was halfway done but the money, and my tips, were not yet paid.

Now if it had been anywhere else, a classroom or office say, people would have laughed and stopped what they were doing. They’d throw their hands up in the air and take a time out. For us, our patrons blinked for a second, confused, and asked if they had to leave. “No we will still take care of you!” was our cheerful reply. Then in moments it was like they’d forgotten anything had happened. Despite sitting in the candle/moonlight, they clearly expected no interruption in service. They were right back to impatient requests and questions of “Where’s my food?” while our kitchen was working with flashlights to complete their meals.

“It’s cool. Watch, I’m awesome, I can handle this,” I told myself. I had my cell phone out, using the light to write tickets, and the phone’s calculator to add them. Management was nowhere to be found, of course (on the phone with PGE?), but the kitchen and service staff barely skipped a beat, scuttling around in the dark to finish up our tables.

Somehow a six-top got seated just as the power went out, and I was the lucky one who had picked up the table in the closed back station. A six-top of 20-somethings that were not only oblivious to the situation, but seemed annoyed by it. I’m not really sure why they bothered to keep their reservation in the first place. They ordered several rounds of Appletinis and Cosmos that I had to fetch from a distance, up an unlit ramp, not spilling a drop. All the while, this extra burden was threatening to drag me down, as I had seven tables finishing up in my regular station.

The tip bleeding began – because of service? No, I had worked twice as hard as usual to get everything done, and handled it. Yet as people started to pay out, one thing after another went awry. Our credit card machine was not working, obviously. “I can write down your credit card info…” I’d start to say. “No, we have some cash–but not enough to tip you, can we come back tomorrow?” “Um sure,” I’d smile weakly, knowing I’d never see that money. “Can we write a check?” said one table. “Under the circumstances, I’m sure that would be fine,” I told them, and, inexplicably, they wrote in a 5% tip.

I’m used to my tips being docked for things beyond my control. The kitchen is slow, the soup too salty, the busser inattentive, etc. In this case, I suppose I was being held accountable for the sudden inconvenience of the payment situation and lack of, erm, proper dining ambiance. But unlike most days, where bad tips are balanced by good ones, this was a whole lot of bad, all at once.

One by one I got screwed by all my tables as they paid. My shock and frustration mounted. The tour de force was my four-top of snippy Brits who had spent the better part of the evening running me around for a million things. They split their 250 dollar check and each couple left me exactly one dollar as a tip. I work on the West Coast, and this kind of tippage is practically unheard of in a nice restaurant, even for the Euro crew. I felt like I’d been punched in the face.

So, having just experienced a massive tip hemorrhage, I picked up the final check slip from the six-top after they left. A lesson in being too nice – I hadn’t felt “right” in this case adding the 18% gratuity – and what was their reward to me for taking them in spite of the calamitous situation and running around in the dark with multiple rounds of easily spillable cocktails? A 7% tip.

The customers were gone now, and the lights back on. My bartender was outside on the patio smoking with a former employee, and a bar regular/friend was sitting inside with his date. I’d – with taxes and tip-outs factored in, which are based on sales – had pretty much worked my tail off the last few hours for minimum wage, at the end of a brutal day, on the one night of the week I counted on to pay my rent. (To clarify: Making minimum wage where I live will allow you to rent half of someone’s closet).

I didn’t really know what I was doing – I was hypoglycemic, exhausted, and numb with anger. I had the six-top’s check presenter in my hands, and went to the patio to show my friends the injustice of it all. It didn’t come out like that though. Instead I said something like: “AHHHHFFFUCARRGGG!!!” and chucked the check presenter through the air, then kicked, as hard as possible, the nearest heavy metal chair. It tipped over, maybe even caught air for a second, and clanged to the ground, as my bartender and her companion sat in stunned silence. I ran inside, crying. Hugs and sympathy from our big teddy bear of a bar customer and my busser kept me from walking out.

Other than the massive lump on my ankle that took weeks to heal, a few interesting things came out of this experience. I firmly asked for a second server to open Saturday dinners with me. Not long after that, we hired a server who was able to permanently take that lunch shift, so no one had to double it up anymore. It was also the night my current boyfriend – who was the one sitting on the patio with my bartender – said he first started crushing on me. (Previously, when we had worked together, I was just the unpleasantly OCD coworker that would bitch at him to finish his side work).

But mostly, I stopped subscribing to the empty belief that being a good server means pushing yourself constantly to the limit – that it’s “cool” to work huge stations, without breaks, and without help. I take better care of myself now, have a good schedule, gratefully accept help, and try to help out coworkers whenever I can. I don’t have to prove myself to anyone – no amount of bravado is worth reaching my breaking, or chair-kicking, point.

– Mandy
My blog: The Rogue Wino

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

momo July 15, 2012 at 12:38 am

People suck. Some things are out of the server's control, but many people don't seem to understand that.

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Suni July 15, 2012 at 1:26 am

I think you showed great patience under the circumstances. If it was me I think I would have turned into a mass murderer. I don't know how you servers do it.

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Chris July 15, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Yeah, I ve been working in food service since I was twelve, but I never worked the front of the house, because of that very reason. When I was a kid and the servers would sing happy birthday ,I could see the temptation for blood lust in their eyes when they would cut the fucking cake. You did a great job. explaining how people feel when we serve customers for over twelve hours a day. I hope you wright more. I know I have some stories from when I was a fifteen year old short order cook . For instance, a male customer mentioned that his wife and kids were out of town , and that I should go to his place cook him a meal and go down on him. I ended up punching him in the face and then punched the cop that he called to have me arrested. The cop was actually alright though and took it in stride once I explained the situation to him.Take Care, I hope to see more of your work.

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Gregg July 15, 2012 at 8:28 pm

I agree with you, Chris, about Mandy doing a great job describing what servers have to go through. It sounds like you have a wealth of experience in the restaurant business yourself. Please consider submitting the story that you related about punching out the customer (include all of the details), as well as any other dining hell stories that you'd like to share!

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Herk October 21, 2012 at 6:37 pm

Totally submit that story- I’d love to read it Chris.

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Jack August 10, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Every job has it's good and bad points. When you start feeling sorry for yourself and feel you are not being compensated properly it's time to look for a new line of work. Servers who are really good at their job, can make excellent money with a minimum amount of education. Everyone isn't cut out to be a really good server, they are the ones who complain about how hard it is. They can also ruin a restaurant by driving the customers away.

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Bob August 16, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Jack-ass.

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Brittney August 31, 2012 at 12:44 am

It seems to me she was a perfect waiter to the customers, she was nice she was efficient and she didn't break under pressure, so she kicked a chair after everyone left big deal. So she complained about her tips, again big deal. She vented about it and if you try to tell me that people that are not waiters and waitress don't vent about their jobs and how crappy they are I'm going to call you crazy. Almost everyone complains about their jobs at some point. I don't see how she wasn't a really good server it just happened that the power went out and her tips where crappy that day something completely out of her control.

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Sisi October 12, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Ok……jack…..or is that dick?

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Sisi October 12, 2013 at 8:35 pm

This is a venting site….how do you not know, that, jack?

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