Poll the servers at any given restaurant and you'll probably find a little truth to the belief that waiting tables is a stop-gap gig – a job to pay the bills until the phone rings or the acceptance letter arrives or the degree in architecture finally leads to a handshake and a new desk. But poll the seasoned architects at that same firm and one might find that job dissatisfaction is growing in most occupational fields now that the rungs on any given career ladder are less reliable than they were when our grandparents were entering the workforce.
As is the case with most blanket beliefs, the truth comes down to the experience and expectations of the individual. One server's gap job is another server's slow, startling realization that navigating diverse guest interactions and mastering logistics at what often feels like lightening speed can be fulfilling. Many of the people speed-walking to bring you your cheeseburger (sans bun, cheese on the side, and on a plate separate from the one holding your lettuce and tomato) are the future of the service industry, even if they don't know it yet.
Over the years, I have worked alongside career servers in busy Manhattan landmarks, in flailing Queens legends, and one particular Southampton original. A dedicated server who works for a successful restaurant can send his or her kids to college, make down payments on first and sometimes second homes, and accomplish the same goals as those of a player on any other professional field. The first busboy I partnered with on a busy Saturday night opened a chain of Long Island restaurants before he was 25, and the last chef I worked with started as a dishwasher with a Master's degree in French Education. Neither of them expected temporary stints in the service industry to become the kind of calling we all hope to experience.
During my 18 seasons as a server at The Lobster Inn, which permanently closed in December after 42 years in business, I learned that a temporary gig can be life-changing. There are no words to quantify how much I'll miss my co-workers, the regulars, the routine, the surprises, and the salad bar. I also learned a lot about versatility and the kinds of skills a person needs to be a great server, a great guest, and a great employer. To create the conditions a fantastic dining experience requires, all three parties must commit to performing at their personal bests.
If you're a restaurant owner, provide your servers with the information they'll need to do a good job. Let them know that you respect them as much as you respect your guests, and that you believe they play a key role in the survival of your business. Foster an environment that encourages good relationships between your apprentices and your patrons.
If you're planning to dine out tonight, arm yourself with patience and the knowledge that you might play a small part in your server's destiny. What separates a good server from a bad server isn't the ability to complete the trek from kitchen to table with a tray full of lobsters without forgetting that extra potato you wanted, but a work ethic and personal pride that can be easily affected by a guest's response. Just like Directors of Development, woodworkers, and small business managers, servers are human and therefore overwhelmable.
If you're planning to iron your apron and spend a night serving food and drinks, decide that your job is an opportunity to hone a versatile skill set and enjoy memorable interactions. Focus on what you like and what you can learn, and consider it good practice to recognize that all jobs – passing-through or permanent – are subject to the shades of your perception. Above all, be positive and present – it'll be easier to hear your calling above the noise.