5 Lessons I Learned From Waiting Tables

by Rebecca A. Watson on October 23, 2014

in happiness, life, Minneapolis, newspapers, work

A warning before I begin. This post contains some NSFW-language.

And by not safe for work, I mean what people in the restaurant industry call “real jobs,” because damn straight this language is fine for slinging beers, at least in the breakroom while you’re wolfing down cold, dead food, or while you’re in the dishroom having a minor freak out. (Or wait, was that just me?)

Once upon a time (for about seven years) I waited tables. As anyone in the service industry can tell you, it’s a tough place to work, and it’s even tougher to leave. Hours suck. Money’s good. Hard on your body. So many fun people. No health benefits. Killer deals on drinks. The list of pros and cons go on and on.

rock bottom mpls industry night

This was the crew I ran with.

After waking up from a server nightmare the other night (yes, after more than five years out of the industry I still have them), I started thinking back to all the lessons I learned, either while I was working or at the bar afterward. Because, yes, some of us restaurant folks tend toward the functional-alcoholic at times.

1. You are not your job. I know. How very Fight Club of me. But seriously, I worked with some of the most talented and brilliant people, from songstresses to teachers to astrophysicist PhDs, but they all had passions for other things. Waiting tables allowed them to pursue those passions.

It seems like I have to learn this lesson over and over. I tend to take my jobs personally, which can be great it it’s the perfect job. But let’s be real: There isn’t really any such thing. Someone will always have an opinion about what I do, including me.

Sure, I got annoyed at the people who asked me what I “Really Did,” but mostly I couldn’t escape my own criticism. I thought that waiting tables reflected on my laziness, not wanting to find something in my field.

Then when I did, I was embarrassed to be paid in blood money by a newspaper that made its profits processing and publishing mortgage foreclosures. (2008 was a very good year.) And then I wasn’t making what I was worth at an otherwise amazing job.


C’mon. I got *paid* to act silly.

And then I was a tiny cog in a giant wheel I know for a fact still won’t change even if it’s stuck in a rut.

My point is that if you can find some way to make money that you don’t hate, don’t hate on it or on yourself. It doesn’t define who you are. And if you’re lucky enough to have a job that’s also your passion (like my sweet Sante) thank your frickin’ lucky stars every day.

2. You can tell a lot by the way people act around “the help.” Yeah yeah I know. We’ve all heard it before. Don’t date someone who treats the server like crap. Duh. But I’m not just talking about the people treating waitresses like shit.

I’m talking about the way people act around anyone they consider to be serving them. Folks who turn their nose up at those cleaning the bathrooms, anyone who brushes off the secretary in the front office or mean girls in high school pulling pranks on the less-popular kids. These people suck. I don’t spend any more time with them than I absolutely have to.

That brings us to the people sitting in the booth with those shitty people. Why are they spending time with these assholes? Either they condone the behavior OR they don’t have the balls to stand up to them and tell them how terrible they’re being. Either way, lame.

dont hold back

I am not impressed.

This may sound like I lack compassion. That’s not true. I feel sorry for all those people. They are a very unhappy, unevolved bunch. But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna hang out with them or even say boo at them.

3. You are the sum of the experiences and people around you. Piggybacking off my last point, I’m certain now that the people I surround myself with are the people shaping my life. I do not exist in a vacuum.

I had this theory about bars and restaurants around town when I was serving: the harder the clientele partied, the more the staff would match. Meaning that the server who recommended that $200 bottle of wine likely has a similarly stocked wine cellar at home. And the waitress that brought you a round of Jägerbombs probably just did a line of cocaine.

When I realized this, I started trying to spend time with people that encouraged me to be a better person, who didn’t belly up to the bar every night. Nothing against the regulars at the brewery I used to work or the cool cats who serve them — I just wanted to see a future where beer wasn’t in my hand in one way or another every. single. day.

Since then I’ve made a lot of big changes in my life, and while I’d like to pat myself on the back and take all the credit, I’m pretty sure the people around me had a LOT to do with it.

julie n jojjo

Love my girls.

4. Your body can do amazing things. Respect it. Seventeen-hour double shift? Yep. Double shift with only a few minutes to scarf down an old burger and run outside for a cigarette? Sure, why not? It can do it hung over even. And it will still withstand a few more shots of booze before it finally shuts down and makes you sleep.

It can also run six miles in the rain. It can dance for hours without stopping. It can ride a bike to another country. It can fly.

There are so many things I love my body for. It’s taken me around this world and through some pretty amazing experiences. And for all the abuse I’ve put it through, it’s barely complained.

For this, I do my best to nourish it well and not overdo it with the chocolate. But I don’t make any promises. After all, cake does have some vitamins in it, right? And happiness is nourishment too, I believe.

5. Learn to ask for help. I remember one summer me and a few other waiters from Minneapolis drove to Milwaukee and waited tables at a sister store for a long weekend. It was the Harley Davidson 100 year anniversary and the city had pulled out all the stops, of course.

This meant that the giant restaurant, patio and bar would be filled from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. with hungry and thirsty bikers from all over the world. My name is Rebecca and I’ll be your server.

That weekend was when I realized my limits. I can’t work on a new computer system, learn new table numbers, understand an entirely new menu of beer and navigate a kitchen area that made NO SENSE without some help.

 Yes, please bring menus to table 41. And appetizer plates to tables 22 and 23. I haven’t even greet table 24. HELP! 

And people did help me. When I asked. And the relief, the release of pressure from my shoulders and jaw, was physically noticeable. And so was the increase in money I made at the end of the night.

While I still have a moment of pride now and then, most of the time I remember that asking for help makes things easier for everyone around me. If you knew me in my waitressing days, you are nodding your head in agreement. For those of you who didn’t know me then, here’s a likeness.

Thank goodness for asking for help, for so many reasons, including the fact that I don’t get like that anymore. Plus getting somebody else to pitch in means you get something different, and often better, than what you’d have if you’d just done it yourself.

Waiting tables taught me a lot about a lot. These are just a few of the lessons I took away that still stick with me years later.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Monica October 24, 2014 at 2:29 am

Girl. Wow. Nicely put. I just had a table dream a few nights ago. I always wake up and think “Haha jerks, I don’t have to wait on you. And how could I NOT know table numbers”? I learned some very basic lessons about work ethic, socialization and things that I had never learned on my own. To me, it WAS the end-all at the time. I had not ever been included, I always felt apart from everything and there, I felt like I was a part of the action. I learned the importance of rules and consistency, even if it didn’t appear that I embodied these things, I was absorbing them. Sadly, it turned into a tragic ending, but when it was good, it was really good. I was kind of the Dirk Diggler of our employment establishment. Anyway, I love the lessons.

P.S. Remember the 7 year old kid in the 3 piece suit who rang a bell every time I walked by if he needed a refill of sprite? I’d love myself a little more if I’d have had the guts to threaten the parents with bell sodomy if they didn’t curtail such behavior.


Rebecca A. Watson October 27, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Oh man girl, I totally get the end-all thing at the time. Being included, being accepted for who I was. I felt that too. It was really great for that. And weren’t you a trainer? I feel like you embodied those rules just fine 😉 I mean, c’mon. We were cocktail waitresses, not nuns for gods sake!

And yes, I do remember that child. Dear GOD, why did we tolerate so much abuse from suburbanites? Wait staff everywhere feels your pain. Ugh.


Monica October 27, 2014 at 1:59 pm

Oh my GOSH this made me laugh! You’re right, we definitely weren’t nuns. 😉

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