The Secrets of Restaurant Servers
What drives them crazy, how they boost tabs and other surprising morsels from insiders
Servers have pet peeves when it comes to customers. “There are some people who are genuinely allergic to gluten, and I always want to make sure we deal with them safely, but most people aren’t actually gluten sensitive,” says Zak Tawes, a 30-year-old server at Founding Farmers in Potomac. “That can be tedious to deal with.”
Substitutions are another request that can drive servers crazy. “Sometimes guests delete and add so many components that they are creating a completely new dish,” says a server at a Rockville restaurant who prefers to remain anonymous. “This is a huge headache for the kitchen, so the chef will get annoyed with me if I honor their request without clearing it with them first. Even if they say they’re OK with it, they’re not really OK with it. They obviously didn’t design the dish to be the way the customer asked for it to be done.”
Since servers interact with both guests and everyone else on the restaurant staff, they can be hit with abuse from all sides. “Some customers don’t treat you like a waiter; they think you’re a slave,” Guerrero says. “I don’t like when customers don’t respect me, and I hate when a customer calls me like this.” He works his index finger in a “come here” motion, as a parent might summon a misbehaving child. When he encounters such customers, Guerrero sends over a colleague in order to avoid a confrontation.
“I try to be as nice as possible in bad situations and show it’s not getting to me,” says Shauna Carson, a 38-year-old server and bartender at Finnegan’s Wake Irish Pub in Rockville Town Square who has been working in the industry for 17 years.
All the female servers interviewed agreed that the toughest customers are the drunks, especially those who get physical. “I’ve gotten groped a few times,” Alvial says. “You feel disgusting, even though there’s nothing you did to ask for that treatment.” When that happens, she calls over another staffer to get the guest to settle up, out the door and into a cab. “They never come back,” she says. “No matter how drunk they were, I think they know not to.”
One server at a North Bethesda restaurant who asked to remain anonymous remembers a manager who began screaming obscenities at him in front of guests and co-workers. He had to stand there and take the abuse for several minutes. “Servers aren’t respected,” he says. “They are at the bottom of the totem pole to a lot of people, but on the forefront of the restaurant experience. It’s unfortunate.”
Back at Kapnos, it’s 10 p.m. and the Friday night rush has subsided. Most of the tables are empty, though the bar is still going strong. The lights are dimmer and the music, though audible now, is turned down.
Nelson does a quick tally. He served 24 guests and made $180 in tips. That’s initially disappointing, but he takes a pragmatic long view. “I don’t look at the days or even the weeks,” he says. “I look at the months. And as long as I’m hitting my goals overall, I’m happy. Even tonight, I was earning $30 an hour for what I consider an easy shift.”
Nevin Martell is a food writer based in Washington, D.C.