Waiting Tables and Work Ethic

My first few jobs were in the restaurant business, and I’ve always thought myself a lucky girl that they were.

I was the oldest of five children, usually left to mind my younger siblings while both my parents were at work, and so when I was old enough to contribute a paycheck instead of “just” babysitting services my folks were happy to have me do so.

In those early jobs I was fortunate enough to be in establishments that were really busy; you had to learn on the job, and learn quickly, and though they call it “waiting” on tables, the reality was that someone was always waiting on me to hustle, ignore the pressure, move faster, work hard, work steady, do it now! and keep my head up throughout it all, smiling at everyone no matter what. To wait tables in a bustling restaurant is to be the queen (or king) of multi-tasking and precision timing, and you don’t really plan it, you instinctively move through it.

That’s what a good work ethic was to me back then— you got the job done and you never let ‘em see you sweat. You didn’t really finish a shift, you sorta emerged from it unscathed, with the tip dollars in your pocket all the reward and encouragement you could rightfully expect. And those tips were pretty darn sweet. They hadn’t come easy, but they came from good, honest, hard work. To get them meant that you’d aced the work, pure and simple. Baby, you earned them. And the customers who gave them to you were actually paying for your sight unseen, but vitally important Navy Seal-like maneuvers amongst the restaurant’s battalion of warriors considered your co-workers, so they could enjoy the meal they came for, blissfully oblivious to exactly what you went through for those tips.

The customers never intimidated me; they were actually a respite when I’d get to talk story with them at their table. The cooks in the kitchen were the ones who put the fear of God into me, and the Chef, well he was God, or thought he was. The “old pros” who’d worked there since forever were the real rulers of the dining room, and even when I got my first management job I knew to respect what was my “place” and more important, what still wasn’t.

Fascinating how we all learn about work ethic in different ways, isn’t it?

Where are all these memories flooding back from? My book review is up on Joyful Jubilant Learning today, for the 3rd Annual Love Affair with Books. As promised, it’s a review for Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table, The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.

Here’s a snippet, one of Meyer’s quotes;

“With each year I’ve spent as a leader, I’ve grown more and more convinced that my team ”“ any team ”“ thirsts for someone with authority, and power, to tell them consistently where they’re going, how they’re doing, and how they could do their job even better. And all the team asks is that the same rules apply to everyone.”
—Danny Meyer in Setting the Table, page 198

Something else I mention in my review, is that I found Meyer to be a master of the metaphor (I don’t agree with this reviewer). This is just the beginning to a part of his book I mention on JJL about the megaphone, binoculars, and fire:

The moment people become managers for the first time, it will be as if the following three things have happened:

  • An imaginary megaphone has been stitched to their lips, so that everything they say can now be heard by twenty times more people than before.
  • The other staff members have been provided with a pair of binoculars, which they keep trained on the new managers at all times, guaranteeing that everything a manager does will be watched and seen by more people than ever.
  • The new managers have received the gift of “fire,” a kind of power that must be used responsibly, appropriately, and consistently.

Meyer’s full description on this alone (pages 195-198) is worth the price of the book.

My first management job in that restaurant? It was actually a duo of restaurants in Honolulu at the original Ward Center called Orson’s and The Chowder House. I don’t recall that I ever got the fire, or that the “old pros” could even hear the megaphone, but I sure do remember those binoculars.

Thus, the work ethic
. Loved those restaurants and what they taught me.

Visit my book review on Joyful Jubilant Learning: Click in here or on this button.


  1. says

    The Daily 5: Why arent you doing it yet?

    The Daily 5 was formalized and described for me for the first time by Rosa Say in her outstanding book, Managing with Aloha. Here she talks about it on her site. Spending five minutes a day talking and LISTENING to their employees about what the EMPLOY…

  2. casey adams says

    I am just starting off as a server. I have been in trainig for only a couple of weeks.
    It’s a little tricky learning the menu.I find myself getting flustered. I try to keep my expressions to myself.
    I try to come in the next day better than before. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself. I want to do well and be recognized for my work in the future. I am never just standing around talking with the other waiters.
    I was given tables, fell behind and taken off tables. I successfully got through counter over the weekend and made some pretty good tips.
    I find myself trying to multi-task, but sometimes it’s not paying off. I am having trouble with one other waiter. And I am trying to stay away from the gossip amongst some of them.
    How can I be professional and gain the respect of the waiters and kitchen staff in the future.

  3. says

    Hello Casey,
    From what you have written, it sounds like you are tackling these new challenges with a great attitude, and that alone puts you far ahead! I love that you are trying to approach each new day with a fresh and optimistic outlook.
    The difficulty in learning the restaurant business is that it seems there are so many people you have to please ”“ customers, kitchen staff, and co-workers ”“ and that is the “multi-tasking” if any you should focus on. My advice would be the same I give new managers trying to figure out how to “manage up:” In the service you give, be that hospitalitarian who figures out how they can make things easier for everyone involved, but without taking short-sighted shortcuts. When you seek to serve, everyone appreciates you, and can’t imagine working without you! They begin to then help you too, interested in the mutually beneficial relationship you offer.
    When it comes to the tasks (versus the people) I’d recommend you focus on one at a time instead of multi-tasking, trying to do that one thing exceptionally well. Ask a lot of questions of those who have experience there (for instance, asking your food questions of the Chef is the best way to learn the menu). In asking, choose those who seem to be successful in the way that you define your own success, and ask them to mentor you. They will appreciate your humility.
    As for customers, be friendly and not just an order taker: Engage them in respectful conversation when they first arrive, and they will be much more understanding when the kitchen gets backed up, or there are other glitches.
    Hope that helps. Keep in touch and let me know how you do!

  4. says

    Coach every new manager: The camera loves you baby.

    For nearly three full years now, Hawaii’s Heisman finalist Colt Brennan has been a media darling. Google his name, and 440,000 entries come up. 43,705 people have donated to his Wikipedia entry. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in our