[I am breaking into my series on “Executive Assistants and Respect” to post an article on another group of service people – wait staff in dining establishments; a topic that is now of great interest to me.]
Almost three years after my retirement from Harvard, my work life took an unexpected turn. I began waiting tables in the dining room of the retirement community where I live.
Our dining room is chronically short staffed for a variety of entirely understandable reasons. The work is physically hard, and the pay is relatively low. We offer staff a generous yearly bonus but no tips. For these reasons, the job attracts mostly young people – high school and college students for whom this may be their first work experience. We feel very grateful for them and for the more mature wait staff who have been serving steadily and faithfully for many years. However, the lives of teenagers and those in their early twenties are constantly changing, and their studies must take priority, so they often need to move on to other important things. The staff turns over rapidly and hiring and training new staff takes a great deal of time, effort, and patience. The head of dining services and the dining room manager are always between a rock and a hard place. They want to offer the residents the highest quality service – an excellent dining experience – but they find that difficult to do with a shortage of wait staff.
When the head of dining services described this situation at a resident meeting this past fall, I immediately wondered if I, at the age of 65, could do anything to help solve the dilemma. I was completely aware of my time constraints and physical limitations, but I spoke with the dining services director anyway, offering my assistance in any form that might work for both of us.
A month later I started waiting tables on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. The other residents and the kitchen and wait staff are very supportive and patient, and after two months of learning the ropes, I am beginning to relax and enjoy the work.
I have learned more than I could have imagined about what goes on behind the scenes in the kitchen and what wait staff do. My respect for those who do this work has grown enormously.
Shifts for wait staff during the evening meal are four hours long. On very busy days or days when the dining room is short-staffed, they can stretch to four and a half or even five hours. Some staff work two shifts a day, a full eight-hour workday.
For the first hour, the staff members prepare for the meal. Wait staff check tables to make sure the settings are complete, prepare condiments, make the coffee, fill water pitchers, set up the service stations, prepare fruit cups, cut and plate desserts, restock the ice cream freezer and make sure dressing and beverage dispensers are full. They prepare the order slips for the tables they have been assigned and make a note of the starch and vegetables being offered and special appetizers and desserts for the day. They also prepare trays for room service, deliver them and, if there is any time left, fold napkins. Ten minutes before the meal begins, the chefs brief the waitstaff on the menu, and there is an opportunity for reminders and questions. If short staffed, and table service is not feasible, the wait staff help to set up a buffet.
Once the meal begins, wait staff are in constant motion for two full hours. On most evenings the waiter is assigned three to five tables of various seating capacity. The timed arrival of diners makes it possible for one wait person to serve as many as 16 people during the meal. They offer beverages, take orders, deliver appetizers, entrees, desserts, coffee and tea, clear tables between courses, and reset tables when guests have departed. There is no separate “bussing” staff, so wait people do it all.
Once the meal is over, around 7:00 or 7:30, wait staff are assigned “closing” tasks. Covering unused salads, desserts, and condiments, restocking supplies and linens, washing the coffeemaker and pots, wiping trays and carts, picking up room service trays, and disassembling the buffet table.
The dining services director and dining room manager supervise the entire four-hour shift and pitch in when necessary to make sure service is smooth and timely. It is, indeed, a well-oiled machine and teamwork at its very best. Staff members look out for one another and help when they see a need. They do this with good humor, respect, and appreciation for everyone’s contribution. Current staff welcome new members with open arms. He or she will make everyone’s work easier. All are open to learning from and encouraging one another.
Even more “behind the scenes” are the chefs and their assistants. The kitchen is busy and well organized. The chefs are proud of the food they prepare and serve, and they help the wait staff to provide the best service.
While all of this is specific to the dining room in my retirement community, it provides a window into restaurant and foodservice venues everywhere. Our residents and dining room clientele are appreciative and respectful of the staff who serve them, but I wonder how many know what goes on behind the scenes to deliver the meals they enjoy daily.
So, the next time you are dining out at a restaurant or frequenting our dining room and service seems a little slow, or a wait person forgets an item you have requested, or you are facing yet another buffet on a night when staff is short, please remember that the folks who are serving respect you. They are doing their best and are worthy of your respect too.