Food Issue - The joys and pitfalls of waiting tables with five of Atlanta's veteran servers
Everyone should wait tables at least once in their life.""
It's an oft-quoted notion: "Everyone should wait tables at least once in their life." There are myriad reasons for the sentiment: So that you know how hard it is; so you know what it's like to be treated like the help. But for many waiters, the answer would be more along the lines of: So you understand the joy in service and the camaraderie of the restaurant industry. And while much love is given to the chefs and now bartenders of our city, Atlanta's servers are the faces of the restaurants we come to love, and their passion and enthusiasm are integral to the industry. Stephanie Dazey speaks to six of the folks who've moved beyond the extra-cash-for-college phase of waiting tables, and turned service into a career, for better or worse.
Lari Rowe, Silver Skillet
Lari Rowe has thought about what else she could do, and she always comes back to the same conclusion: There's nothing else she would rather do than wait tables. "I love working with people," she says, "and I love working with food." Rowe, a 13-year veteran of the Silver Skillet, eases into one of the diner's timeworn vinyl booths. Her smile is motherly and warm. I ask her how long she's been a server, and with tired eyes she looks down and laughs.
"I've been waiting tables since I was 15 and I'm 52 now," she says. "You can do the math." Rowe got her start at a truck stop diner in Wyoming. She worked in the kitchen, but quickly grew tired of the heat. "I wanted to be up front where the air was."
"I was just kind of thrown into it when I was young and circumstances have kept me in it," she says. My mother waited tables at the Silver Skillet when I was young and my daughter waits tables for a living as well," Rowe says. "It's just what we do."
At one point, Rowe owned a pet store that went down with the economy. She also spent a summer working as a flagger for a construction crew. No matter what she tried, she always came back to the familiarity of waiting tables. "There's no other job where you go home with money in your pocket," she says. "You're never really broke and you never have to wait for a paycheck to buy gas or groceries. That's the upside."
The downside, Rowe says, is that the job is physically taxing. "I wouldn't recommend it unless you like to work hard. You're on your feet all the time, and some people aren't so generous."
For Rowe, the benefits of waiting tables ultimately outweigh the physical demands. "This is the kind of job where you don't take anything home with you," she says. "You just kind of forget about whatever happened and start over the next day." She says the most difficult part for her is managing so many different personalities. "You have to be tolerant and accepting of different kinds of people, including your co-workers. Sometimes dealing with co-workers is more challenging than taking care of customers."
Despite the challenges, Rowe has found a way to make it work. "I don't get stressed out about it anymore. I used to, but when you've been doing it as long as I have, it just doesn't seem that serious anymore." Rowe's advice to her peers is simple: "Just enjoy your job and enjoy your customers. They're just here to eat, it's not anything serious. It's just breakfast."
Buffy Davis, Wisteria
"Waiting tables has given me great things," Buffy Davis says, "but it's time for us to break up."
For Davis, a restaurant job was a way to pay the bills until she got her big break. "When I finished grad school I was playing drums in a band called Hell Mach Four, and I really wanted to go on tour. You can't leave for weeks at time when you have a 9 to 5 so I started in restaurants to make some extra cash and keep my life flexible."
Nearly 20 years later, the flexibility of the restaurant business is what Davis is ready to leave behind. "I'm ready to really commit to something. When you work in a restaurant you can skate out on your shifts and disappear for a while. I'm ready to sign up for life." Davis says she's glad to leave the restaurant business to the younger generations. "If you're young and you have dreams and angles and waiting tables gets you there, it's awesome. But when you're 42 and you have a heel spur and it's the same grind, your perspective starts to change."
Davis is in the middle of her third and final year of nursing school. Although she is more than ready to embark on a new chapter of her life, there are things about the service industry that she'll be sad to leave behind. "I'll miss the people the most," Davis says, "and how fun it is and the banter when we're setting up. I'll miss the wit and the profanity. Servers are really smart, a lot of them are really funny. Most of them are way overeducated. The sense of humor is fabulous. I'll miss the lightheartedness when it's not stressful. But I won't miss the feeling of being in the weeds on a crazy night."
Evan Richardson, Canoe
"I'm a rocket scientist," Evan Richardson says. "Literally. I studied aerospace engineering in college. I still think waiting tables is a difficult job." Richardson leans back in his chair and settles in with arms crossed, ready to deliver his life's story.
After 12 years of military service, Richardson made the transition to the private sector, settling for a desk job at Lockheed Martin. "My last job at Lockheed was in customer service," he says, "selling $160 million aircrafts at about one a month." Unfortunately, an advanced degree and relative job security were not enough to shield Richardson from a marriage on the rocks. "I got divorced while working at Lockheed and found that I needed some extra income to cover a small mountain of shared debt."
"The easiest thing for me to do was get into the restaurant business," Richardson says. "Restaurant money is fast money. I already knew how to wait tables from working at a barbecue restaurant in college and there was an Outback Steakhouse right around the corner from my house." After nine years at Outback and with his bills finally manageable, Richardson decided it was time for a new challenge. He eventually landed at Canoe where he fell in love with fine dining, particularly the amount of time and attention spent on customers.
"I think my job is great because it's hard," he says. "There's a nice flow to it and every day is a challenge. I never get bored doing what I do." Richardson says that his guests are a big part of what keeps him at Canoe. "Making the guest so happy that they want to come back and see me is my favorite part of waiting tables."
"There's too much misery in all our lives," Richardson says. "I like taking care of people and being the one that gets to make people happy."
A backup plan. It's the cliched thing you hear parents and guidance counselors recommend for artists, actors, and yes, waiters. A fallback career, in case something doesn't work out. For Zannie Gibby, a service career with no backup plan turned out to be worse than he envisioned. "People don't really think about it, but you rely on your body so much in this business."
After 17 years as a server, Gibby reflects on a lesson learned the hard way. "One minor injury can put you out of work for weeks," he says.
Gibby came to Atlanta after graduating with a B.A. in business from the University of Michigan. The corporate business world didn't fit, he says, and he had aspirations to pursue a music career, so he needed a flexible work schedule with his next job. Gibby found work as a server in a Mexican restaurant while he and his friends attempted to start their own music production company called Twelve Foot Two.
After six years, internal conflicts and funding issues caused Gibby to leave Twelve Foot Two. He managed a restaurant, only to discover that what he had perceived to be upward mobility was even less satisfying than waiting tables. "It's an amazing feeling to be able to help someone have a wonderful experience," Gibby says. "That's the truly rewarding part about waiting tables, making memories and building relationships."
Gibby got back on the floor, happily waiting tables at Portofino in Buckhead for nearly six years. That's when his body began breaking down due to the physical stress of the job. A degenerative spinal disc worsened over time, and it left Gibby immobilized for several months causing him to lose his job in the fall of 2010.
One of the most sobering realities of the service industry is its lack of support systems and access to health care for workers. Like many career servers, Gibby has no health insurance. Without it, Gibby's recovery has been both frustrating and painfully slow.
"What I miss most about the job is working with people," Gibby says. "I miss the camaraderie with co-workers. You bond. Some people stay work friends, but some become true friends. I miss the daily interaction. I miss my regulars; you get familiar with people and you get invested. I miss the connection."
"I'm truly sad for everything I've lost," Gibby says. "But through this experience, I have discovered the value of true friendship. My friends have really come through for me and I hope they know how grateful I am."
Bob Bost, ONE. midtown kitchen
Bob Bost, who currently runs the door at ONE. midtown kitchen, holds up a yellowed newspaper clipping and points to the 13-year-old boy in the picture. "Fifty years ago today, I was given a prize for my customer service as a paper boy," he says. "So that's 50 years I've been in customer service."
Bost has become an almost iconic figure — his smile and enthusiasm at ONE's host stand are almost shocking. "I am the original employee of Concentrics Restaurants," he says. "I was the first hire. Now we have over a thousand employees, and I'm still here almost 10 years later."
Bost has spent the bulk of his life in the service industry in one form or another. At 19, he worked in what he calls "the ultimate service industry," as a Benedictine monk. "I was in religious life for four years after high school," Bost says. "I'm still catholic and I still go to church, but the day they decided to turn the cornfield into a golf course, I decided that it was time to hit the road."
Since then Bost has been a diamond salesman, a radio personality, and a customer service representative, although he admits his true passion has always stayed the same. "I've wanted to be an entertainer for as long as I can remember," he says. "The great thing about my current job is that I get to be the entertainer on a nightly basis."
When he's not wowing ONE's guests as they come in the door with his infectious enthusiasm, Bost is a professional actor. "I've been a waiter, a caterer, a bartender, and now a host," he says, "anything to pay the mortgage so I could keep acting."
At 63, working in the service industry keeps Bost current and active. "I've seen so many people just give up. People that feel like they've done everything they wanted to do. I will never be that person. I don't want to be a fuddy duddy."
These days, Bost is avidly pursuing work in TV and film, but he's found a way to integrate both his love of performance and his love of people at the restaurant. "What I love about hospitality is that it's constantly changing. It's a whole new scene with a whole new audience every night."
Bost is one of countless artists who make up the service industry across the country. "So many people walk in and they think that the service industry is all somebody does. And it's not. We in the service industry are so multifaceted. We have people in bands and artists and sound people and actors. It takes a lot to serve in this industry. You have to learn and listen and care. In a sense, we're all actors, because in this business, you really do have to perform."