, Corbin, KY


August 29, 2013

Lessons learned from restaurant work

CORBIN — I’ve done a column here and there about restaurant work.

I ought to be able to write a novel or two — I pulled nearly 13 years in the restaurant business altogether.

During my decade-plus stint “slinging hash,” I bounced from job to job — from fast-food cook, to clerk, to waiter, to busboy, to management. I wasn’t too big on working for whom I felt at times were crazy people.

My first job in the restaurant business was at a well-known Italian eatery in my hometown — I started there as a busboy at age 15. The owners were also our neighbors, and so it was pretty easy for me to get a job.

(That wasn’t my first job, mind you — my first job was at age 13. I unloaded tractor-trailers for a nursery for $1.85 an hour.)

I was hired on as a busboy. For those who don’t know, that’s basically clearing up tables from customers, and preparing said tables for the next batch of hungry diners.

It was pretty nerve-wracking, especially since I was probably the youngest one there. Most of the waitstaff were career servers, and well-versed in the game.

I learned a lot about the working world pretty quickly — and sometimes with a price.

I was paid just under minimum wage, which in 1987 was $3.35 an hour. I made $2.85, plus tips.

And here is where the learning process began.

The first couple nights I worked there, I equally took care of each server’s section. I brought water and glasses, bread and butter, and anything else the customers requested before the waiter/waitress arrived. Once the customers were finished, I would clear the dishes accordingly, wipe down the tables and reset them for another group.

The place was typically packed, although driving by the place now you would never imagine it, with cracks in the white paint and weeds springing up all through the parking lot.

At the end of the evening, the waitstaff would begin clearing out to go home, and they were supposed to give me a chunk of their tips for keeping their tables clean and customers happy.

There were about a half-dozen or so waitstaff on duty on Friday and Saturday nights.

There were two of them who worked those nights, “David” and “Phil,” who were more than generous and made sure I was covered.

Then there were a couple others, “Hope” and “Karen,” who were usually pretty adequate.

And then there was another pair who I nearly had to chase down to get some cash from them.

And when I finally got paid, it would be maybe $10 — and I knew those waitstaff made in the hundreds of dollars many of those nights.

I know because I was responsible for clearing the mess, and could see the piles of cash left by satisfied customers.

And the first lesson learned — you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours. It didn’t take long for me to realize who was going to pay me and who wasn’t — and I worked accordingly.

Of course, I have other stories about that business. One of those cheapskate waitresses did something so horrific to me I had to toss my cookies.

A dishwasher had walked out for some unknown reason, and I was asked to fill in.

It was very, very hot in that kitchen — so much so I stayed nauseated most of the time I worked.

Like bussing tables, dishwashing is a never-ending task — they just keep coming and coming and coming.

I was rolling along, and filling one of the dish drainers to send through the automatic washer, which always had this sickening clean/spoiled smell.

While I was packing the dishes on the rack, the cheapskate came in and began emptying a tray of dirty dishes.

Two of the four she carried had food still on the plates.

She clunked the last plate she had in the pile — then reached over to that plate and plucked a meatball off with a fork, and shoved it in her mouth.

Dumbfounded, horrified and completely grossed out, I said “What are you DOING?”

“Oh it’s OK,” she said. “I know them.”

That excuse didn’t fly with me.

“What if they played with it? What if it fell on the floor and you don’t know? What if they SNEEZED on it for heaven’s sake?”

She looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes, then went back to her business, chewing away.

It was pretty gross, I can tell you. Lesson two learned — other people have other ways of living life.

But the third lesson I learned was the most valuable — taking care of people gives them a reason to take care of you.

I watched waitstaff who did one of two things — the bare minimum, or “the full enchilada.”

The bare minimum folks would walk out on those weekend nights with maybe $150-$200.

The “full enchilada” waiters and waitresses would walk out with $300, sometimes as much as $500 in one night shift.

And that led me to believe I could wait tables and make pretty good money — once I was old enough to serve alcohol.

And eventually I did carry a pad and paper with a tray and waited on tables. Thousands of them.

And the biggest lesson I learned, which took many years to understand, was the ability to read people.

And I’ve come to this conclusion — the way a person treats a “server,” as they’re now known, or a retail worker, or any service industry personnel, reveals a great deal about that person’s personality.

If you don’t believe me, test the theory. It doesn’t matter if it’s a run-down diner or a fancy, high-dollar eatery — those rules apply universally.

John Ross is a reporter for the Times-Tribune. He can be reached at

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