The low point in my waitressing life happened several years ago at a high-end steakhouse.
A party of six sauntered in and crammed into one of the plush, leather booths. High-maintenance from the get-go, they demanded complicated revisions to the menu and asked for their steak well-done. Since 99.9% of all chefs prefer to serve steak bloody and pink, asking them to char the thing is a great way to push their buttons. In other words, the next thing you know, you’re hiding behind the espresso machine, so you can stifle your tears before heading back into the battleground that is dinner rush.
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We were already down one server, so after an hour of catering to this table’s every whim, I was elated to see that they’d licked their plates clean. “Can I get you anything else?” I asked, praying that the answer was “no.” Instead, one of the guys declared, “The food wasn’t very good. We want it taken off our bill.”
“Oh, well I wish that you would have told me sooner,” I said as calmly as possible, while eyeing their clean plates. “It seems like you really enjoyed it.” They were a little shifty. Were they high on coke?
“Get the manager,” one of them spat out. I mentally traced a path back to my hiding spot behind the espresso machine, but went to get the manager instead. When we returned, they had vanished—and left me without a tip. My manager comforted me by saying, “You’ll have to cover half of their bill.”
Why You Shouldn't Look Down on Waitressing
I know. Most kids don’t sit at a restaurant with their parents and wistfully declare, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up,” while watching a server refill their water glasses. Waiting tables is usually thought of as a temporary gig that will help you earn some extra cash as a student or pay the bills when you’re trying to launch a singing career. At the very worst, it’s looked upon as an embarrassing last resort before unemployment.
A Rutgers study called “Chasing the American Dream: Recent College Graduates and the Great Recession” found that four in ten grads were working in fields that did not require a degree, which likely means that there are a lot of well-educated baristas and servers out there. So this doesn’t have to be the Doomsday scenario that the media sometimes makes it out to be.
So despite all of the negative stereotypes that surround waitstaff—and my own challenging moments as a server, as evidenced by the steakhouse eat-and-bolt drama—I can still say that it can be a positive—even a great—experience.
I'm Proof That Waitressing Can Be Rewarding
I’ve worked everywhere from a greasy spoon in Venice, Calif., to a top Hollywood talent agency. At the dive, I made about $200 per shift serving fatty breakfasts to wild-eyed patrons rolling in from all-night raves. If I had the choice, I’d pick the diner over the agency any day. It allowed me a measure of freedom—and beat being a story department assistant confined to a cubicle watching the clock for a measly $22,000 a year, plus medical.
I actually left a corporate copyediting job at a technology news site that paid $40,000 a year, plus benefits, for the gig at the steakhouse. I served petit filets to the moneyed crowd so I could focus on my grad school application and writing. If there ever were a dream server job, this was it: I had full benefits, while earning $10 an hour, plus huge tips. I made about $70,000 that year—by far my most lucrative restaurant gig. Plus, I got into my top pick for grad school.
After grad school, I worked at a fancy Japanese restaurant, where I did not feel embarrassed or “underemployed” pouring sake for people—despite the fact that I had an MFA. I had goals, and waiting tables was a pretty lucrative means to my end: make a living writing, even if it meant waiting tables yet again.
I don’t want to sound naïve—handing scrambled eggs to grumpy customers isn't as adorable as it seems on 2 Broke Girls. But there are plenty of reasons why waiting tables is a job you can be proud of ...
1. It helps you thrive under pressure.
Waiting tables is like a bootcamp for staying calm under intense stress: You have to contend with several tables demanding everything from a new fork to a bendy straw for their kid, irate sous-chefs and a manager asking you to take just one more table. Now when I’m feeling stressed about juggling deadlines, I remember the insane levels of high-pressure multi-tasking that I endured waiting tables.
2. It teaches teamwork.
Unless you’re a research scientist who spends days analyzing a Petri dish, most jobs require you to interact with others. Your performance—and therefore your tips and income—depends on working in lockstep with your manager, other servers and bussers. You help each other out and learn to communicate efficiently and calmly. You don’t take your stress out on co-workers, and you learn how and when to ask for help. These are crucial skills in any job.
3. It forces you to balance your budget.
Since your paycheck is usually nothing to brag about (it’s all about the tips), you have to keep a close eye on your finances. Maybe one week your tips are incredible, and a blizzard has you polishing silverware the next. If you’re getting cash tips, it’s especially tricky. You might get a huge wad of bills and feel like you can run out and buy Manolos. Don’t. Save your money, and spend it wisely. I once made close to $350 in tips in one night, and I splurged on a $180 skirt. The next few nights were incredibly slow, so I had to cut back to make up for my purchase.
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You’re less likely to lose sight of your goals as a server than if you had a cushy job with an expense account.
4. It teaches you the value of “please” and “thank you."
I think everyone should work in a service job for at least one day. I cringe every time that a friend just ignores the server when her drink is delivered. You don’t have to serenade the server, but a “thank you” goes a long way. And this translates to all aspects of life. When your business plan is finished, and you become a high-powered CEO, you should still say “thank you” when your assistant hands you a latte. That’s just good management.
5. It lets you pursue your dream job.
Most of my fellow servers were working on other things: getting degrees, painting, auditioning or finishing business plans. It’s a job that you don’t really take home with you, so it allows you to make a living while focusing on big-picture goals. Plus, you’re less likely to lose sight of your goals as a server than if you had a cushy job with a steady paycheck and an expense account.
So if you find yourself waiting tables while your diploma gathers dust, don’t despair. Despite that internet prankster who wrote “get a real job” on a server’s receipt, waiting tables can teach you crucial skills for any career.
Take it from me. All those years of waiting tables helped me get to where I am now—making a living as a writer.
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Dina Gachman's comedic blog about the economy has been featured on NPR, and her book about Elizabeth Taylor was just published by Bluewater Comics. She's on Twitter @TheElf26.