Confessions of a Restaurant Worker
Scrambling for returned food and dealing with customers who don't tip: one writer looks at the realities of life as a humble restaurant server
"So what else do you do?" There it comes again, like a scalding hot plate across your hand; you sigh as you reel out the reply you’ve given 1000 times before. "Nope, just this, this is me." The tender age of 26, staring at yourself in the mirror with your Primark shirt and Topman shoes. Worn down and torn down, much like your patience with the general public – such is the life of the humble restaurant server.
Over the years I’ve been sworn at, called racist and accused of being homophobic (despite being gay). One glorious review claimed that I had an attitude akin to a ‘catwalk makeup artist.’ Sure, chances are I don't like you, but chances are that your repeated demands for extra mayo and complaints about how your kid’s burger isn't quite medium-rare/medium-rare-rare enough means you probably don't like me either.
The fact is, the hospitality business isn't as bad as you think, and the horror stories are few and far between. No one spits in your food or picks their nose as an extra burger topping. On a rare occasion there’ll be a caterpillar crawling across your baby gem, or you might find a shard of shot glass in your chicken Caesar or a single hair lurking on your steak.
For a genuine kitchen error, an apology and a bottle of wine will do the trick, but it’s the serial complainers you have to watch for. Each server has a mental wall in their mind of ‘arsehole customers.’ They come in week in, week out and order exactly the same dish, churning out the same complaint every week. A half-price bill here and two dishes there soon adds up; these are the people bankrupting the industry.
Simon Rimmer’s recent show Tricks of the Restaurant Trade is a verbal diarrhoea dossier that claims all those in hospitality are upselling, swindling demons, sent by Satan and hiding a plethora of mean tricks. Mr Rimmer claims that each restaurant has a ‘golden table’ where only the attractive customers will be sat. Sadly Simon, in my line of work you would need to find an attractive customer first.
The real tricks of the trade
You learn a great many lessons from a great many people; like how a work apron's life can be prolonged. Covered in a week’s worth of béarnaise and kept clean with a spritz of disinfectant, you can snap your average server’s apron in half like a student’s bed sheets. Replacing uniform is only done as a necessity – you can afford some new trainers, but that tear in your work crotch can only be replaced when the Crown Jewels are on display.
Being a server toughens you, and there’s a pack mentality of ‘all for one and one for all.’ On a busy Saturday, or an understaffed Sunday, as the ship sinks we are the musicians on the Titanic going down with it.
The pack mentality comes into full flow when food is involved. Think what you will, but eating food from someone’s plate isn’t as bad as all that. On a nine-hour shift with no break, I challenge you not to eat that leftover chip winking at you.
The real treat is when food is sent back and there is a Lord of the Flies scramble; you literally drop whatever may be in your possession and run. You would stab your own sister with a steak knife to get at that sent-back steak, and believe me, having worked with my sister, I’ve done this on numerous occasions.
The liquid lunch
If you think an evening customer is hard work, wait for the lunch rush. Portly men and power womenflock inside; on their one-hour business lunch they play a Russian roulette of how many beers or wines they can consume before conveniently working from home in the afternoon.
After making you wait all afternoon and devouring their three courses, your business luncher will summon you over to immediately pay the bill and toss a black Amex card at you, scoffing at the ‘would you like to add a gratuity’ screen. “I would tip you, but the company is paying.” They ask for the VAT receipt and you apologise that the printer has run out of paper while screwing up their precious expenses in your hand. It’s the little things that get you through.
Christmas creates a sort of shell-shock syndrome; you can never quite remember what really happened in December. You think it was busy and you think you made pretty good money. Lined up at the expo like a firing squad, you patiently wait to take food out to a party of 100: a flaccid slice of turkey and a poorly endowed chipolata, accompanied by veg that has less colour than Robert Pattinson. One year, as one man attempted to urinate on the Christmas tree, a second projectile-vomited across the front mat of the restaurant.
Then, while you settle in to your relaxing January months and pay off that Christmas debt, you are up to your eyes in 50% customers. A new breed unlike your businessmen, they enter and sit, scanning the menu while repeatedly showing their printed-off voucher. Two tap waters, two burgers and £10 lighter, they leave, without giving a tip.
Sunday is the Lord’s day, and no one knows the pain of it more than your nocturnal hospitality worker. You may spot others, lucky to have the day off. These rare creatures will give you a sorry look of despair, blow their vodka-laden breath on you, down a shot of coffee Patron and leave a generous ‘sympathy’ tip.
I can only imagine that a server’s Sunday is the equivalent of a nine-to-fiver's Manic Monday. A Sunday finish will usually involve a trip to an all-night speakeasy and so the cycle continues...