Lessons Learned From Waitressing

My theory is that at least 80 percent of people who go to college spend time as waiters or waitresses. The rest have rich parents.

I took a year off college after my freshman year to think things over and to earn money. I spend that year as a server (as they’re called now) and a cashier at a chain family restaurant notable for having large statues of juvenile males holding up hamburgers while wearing checkered overalls.

I learned a lot while I was there, both from my own experience and that of my fellow waitresses. (There were no fellow waiters at that time and place.) These lessons may not apply to fast food places or fine dining establishments, but for middle-of-the-road places I think they’re pretty typical.

The truth about tips.

  • Tips are not a living wage. It’s likely that your server has a second job in order to pay the bills. Or is caring for a relative at home, which is a second job all on its own. Many servers have Tupperware parties or sell candles and gift wrap to their coworkers, which bsicallly just shifts too little money around.
  • I worked at a time when a dollar tip was considered something special. Nowadays, with the battered economy, dollar tips aren’t rare – but very few patrons tip the recommended 20 percent or even the formerly recommended 15 percent. (Hint: 20 percent is easier to figure. Bill x 2, then lop off a zero.) And I don’t care if all you got was coffee and it cost $1.50 – $.30 may be 20 percent, but you should be embarrassed. Leave a buck, will ya, or at least half a dollar.
  • Tips are even worse at bill-paying when the management fiddles with the figures. Back in the day, waitresses were required to record – and pay taxes on – enough tips to make their hourly pay equivalent to the minimum wage – whether they actually made that much or not. I don’t know whether this illegal practice is still a thing, but if it isn’t, I’m sure there are new ways to screw servers out of their full pay.
  • A tip is good. A thank you and a tip is better. A tip and snapping your fingers in the air when you want something is not better. And blaming the server (and lowering the tip) for any dissatisfaction may not be warranted. Slow service could be caused by the cook being swamped with orders, or the manager not scheduling enough workers, or dozens of other reasons. If your server is rude, scatterbrained, or otherwise clearly to blame, fine, lower the tip. But think of all the other reasons your food might not be piping hot and delivered instantly. P.S. Cooks, managers, etc. do not live on tips.
  • Religious tracts are not tips. They may look like tips, with dollar bills printed on the cover, but if the inside says “Want a tip? Find Jesus!” it does not pay the bills (see above). And this can lead to poorer service the next time you dine (see above). Plus, I have never known these pamphlets to work as intended. “What a good idea! I’ll go to this church and turn my heart over to the Lord!” said no server ever. Besides, it’s vaguely insulting. Why assume that all servers are pagans in need of salvation?

Church groups can be annoying.

  • They arrive in parties of a dozen or more, push tables together without regard to servers’ assigned stations, and all order fried chicken (which takes a long time to cook, especially in mass quantities). (I know I’m generalizing here, but that’s sure how I remember it.)
  • When you arrive with the huge platter of food and are holding it precariously on one shoulder, that’s when they decide to pray. Couldn’t they at least wait until the food is in front of them? (Yes, there are stands for huge trays, but never when and where you need one.)
  • They also steal silverware and salt shakers. Not every group, not all the time, but we definitely noticed that the amount of cutlery often diminished after a large church group. Other large groups like softball teams were more likely to leave tips under an overturned glass of water or loosen the top on the sugar shaker. We were not amused.


  • I developed a great many skills that have been useful in later life. Cursing, for example. I never used to swear until the day that I slammed my hand in the sliding door of the case that held the pies.
  • I also learned to sneeze without actually sneezing. This was essential while holding the aforementioned tray of chicken dinners at the aforementioned prayer time. I can’t quite describe how to do it, but it seems to involve closing your mouth and closing off your nasal passages at the same time. I don’t think it’s good for your eustachian tubes, but it’s better than ruining all that chicken.
  • Police officers were some of our best customers, even if they did get 50 percent off their tab. They were jovial, polite, and usually would just say, “Give me the usual.” (I did know one police officer who wouldn’t take the discount. I just shrugged and let him have his way.)
  • Night shift was the best shift. Yeah, we had to do all the cleaning when the restaurant was closed and an inspection was impending, but we could also crank up the music and make a party of it. There were slow periods when we could get a little crazy (the manager once breaded and deep-fried a piece of cardboard and told the cook it was his check). Then off to the all-night Putt-Putt or a poker game.

Bottom line: Waitressing was hard, silly, frustrating, fun, colorful, exhausting and weird, sometimes all on the same day. I’m glad I had the experience; it builds empathy for other service workers.

But, God willing, I’ll never do it again.




6 thoughts on “Lessons Learned From Waitressing

  1. I was also a server off and on for many years and I had a woman in large group who stole one of the fake pies off the dessert display. I decided I wasn’t paid enough to really do anything about it. Waitressing taught me to pick my battles!


  2. Janet – I also worked at Big Boys! (among other restaurants). I think the main thing that I learned was that I wasn’t so low class, after all. I came from a very impoverished family, and once a year (when income tax returns came back) we went to the truck stop for a special meal out. Hands folded in our laps when not eating, “please” and “thank-you” mandatory, elbows never on the formica table-top. The waitress was considered almost other-world, just as the sales help was at a high-class store like Sears or Wards. We did not consider ourselves nearly as high-class as people from general society. Anyway, when I turned 16 and started working at J.B. Big Boy’s, I found out how un-high-class many patrons were! About six months working with the general public and I figured out I was ridiculously well mannered and polished!


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