I'm Your Server, Not Your Servant

"Servers are like the organ grinder’s monkey holding out a tin cup hoping for a shiny coin."

A server entertains two patrons at a cafe

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It has been said that restaurant servers are some of the best actors on the planet. That might be because a good number of them hold BFAs in musical theater and are waiting tables while simultaneously waiting for their big break. Even those servers who don’t consider themselves performers can convincingly describe the special of the day to a customer even though that food has never touched the taste buds of the server explaining it. Acting

Still, servers aren’t there to perform for customers, they’re there to serve. If you’re looking for dinner and a show, there are places for exactly that and they’re called “dinner theater.” But far too often, we servers feel as if our customers look at us as part of the entertainment.

I worked a promotion back in the last century that was called “15 Minutes or It’s Free.” It was exactly what one would expect from such a creative title: If you ordered something and it took longer than a quarter of an hour to land at your table, it was all complimentary. This was well before everyone had a timer on their cell phone, so I was laden with several clunky stopwatches that swung from my neck. When I explained to customers how this opportunity for free food worked, their eyes lit up like an LED bulb. And since it was the early '90s, LED bulbs were only slightly less bright than the actual sun. Customers analyzed the menu trying to decipher which item would give them the best chance of return on the cost. The 12-ounce steak was expensive, but a well-done one would surely take longer than 15 minutes to make, right? 

They’d order it, I’d place a stopwatch on their table, and the race was on. I was like a filly in the Kentucky Derby, galloping to the kitchen while my customers rooted for me to lose. As the clock ticked away, customers would count down out loud with more glee than a tourist in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. I’d throw the food onto the table and slap the stopwatch to a halt. “Fourteen minutes and twenty-three seconds!” I’d announce. Some customers applauded my successes while others booed, knowing they’d be responsible for the cost of their food. It was humiliating.

Customers who celebrate birthdays in restaurants often expect their servers to perform for them. “It’s my friend’s birthday, can you sing 'Happy Birthday' to them?” they plead. Why on earth anyone wants a total stranger to sing to them is beyond me. Inevitably, customers would assume I’m an actor since I waited tables in New York City. When they found out I auditioned for musicals, they’d ask me to sing a solo. My standard response was that I only sang for auditions or after I’d signed a contract, but I begrudgingly rounded up my co-workers and sang as a group, because it’s easier to spread out the embarrassment that way. If someone threw in some harmony in the last two bars, customers would flip their lids like they were hearing Leontyne Price at Carnegie Hall. It’s weird, really, because servers don’t want to sing and the person being serenaded doesn’t want to be sung to, but still we do it. Servers are like the organ grinder’s monkey holding out a tin cup hoping for a shiny coin. 

We are happy to serve food and we want to give our customers the best possible dining experience. We’re there to take your order and ensure everything is as good as it can possibly be. That’s how we want to earn our tip. We don’t want to feel like trained seals who will perform a party trick when someone throws a mackerel for us to catch in our mouth. And by “mackerel,” I mean a $10  bill. That’s not to say we won’t do these party tricks, because we will. We will smile and entertain and tell jokes or even hang a stopwatch around our neck if that’s what it takes to earn a good tip. Servers have plenty of pride, but sometimes it gets smothered in ranch dressing. 

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