Surviving the fall: Dos & Don’ts for restaurant servers

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 9/23/10] Fall is here. In Vermont, that means crisp days, cool nights and one last chance to enjoy the nice weather before winter settles in.

Fall also means fall foliage (and please don’t call it “foy-lage”). This year, the fall colors have been vibrant, albeit somewhat early. Driving over the pass in Killington last week, I noted the reds and oranges burning brightly against the gray early morning sky.

However, along with the fall foliage comes the bittersweet arrival of the leaf peeper. Every year, these curious folks make their pilgrimage to the Green Mountains to take in the sights and soak up some of that unique quaintness we export so well.

Tourism is a significant and essential part of Vermont’s economy; nobody can deny that. Still, anyone who has worked in the hospitality business has a war story or two, and will tell you that interacting with tourists can, at times, be a challenge.

The tourist is a peculiar animal. Most of them are harmless – content to enjoy their time here peacefully, taking in our culture and pumping money into our local economies while asking little return.

Some, however, treat Vermont like a theme park built for their personal and immediate gratification – like a bucolic Brigadoon that only exists when they are here.

These are the folks who assume that we are all at their service, as if every Vermonter is on the Dept. of Tourism’s payroll.

They ignore traffic laws while taking photos of maple trees and forego general etiquette in their interactions with the locals, using that measured diction one reserves for when speaking to small children or someone who doesn’t speak your language.

I’m speaking in general here, of course. Not all tourists are like this.

We depend on tourism in Vermont. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, it’s just that in my past experience as a restaurant server, I have observed that the relationship between locals and tourists is a complex one that, while on balance is positive, can be both excruciating and humorous.

As a service to all those hospitality workers out there, I enlisted the help of a couple server friends, who, for professional reasons, chose to remain anonymous. Together we compiled a list of do’s and don’ts for getting through the upcoming tourist season.

Do be polite. 
Service with a smile is the name of the game. Personally, I prefer that servers be like ninjas – deadly efficient and neither seen nor heard. But tourists like a show. They want to be doted over, and often need much more assistance than the typical diner.

Expect lots of substitutions and special orders (which your chef will love, by the way). And prepare yourself for the inevitable separate check request, which will present you with the inane task of splitting a $5 appetizer across three checks.

Our advice: Keep smiling, and try not to lose your temper when they ask you why someone with a masters’ degree is waiting tables. (Just take it out on the bus boys – that’s what they’re there for.)

Don’t show weakness. 
Mistakes are like blood in the water. One tardy side dish or fudged drink order and you’re toast. The rest of the meal will be a test of your mettle as the table deliberately scrutinizes every aspect of the meal, causing you to slowly come undone.

Our advice: Bring your A-game. If you’re a good server you’ll be able to handle whatever is thrown at your with confidence and tact.

Also, make sure that you know the menu inside and out because it will doubtless be dissected and analyzed like it’s Joyce’s “Ulysses” as your table searches for the deeper meaning of phrases like “à la carte” and tests the temporal limits of your early bird specials.

Don’t expect a big tip.
It’s just not gonna happen. Sure, occasionally you might encounter a generous diner who leaves you 20 percent (the current standard), but for the most part, you should be grateful for anything over 10 percent.

To be fair, some people travel on a budget, and they are only able to leave a modest amount. Still, a fair tip is a show of appreciation for a job well done.

And while we’re more apt to excuse a poor tip from a polite table, it definitely stings when a demanding one that runs you ragged and only leaves a couple bucks.

Our advice: See the above sections one and two. Schmooze it up. The most you can you can do is kill them with kindness and do a good job. The rest is up to them. Don’t let it get to you. If we recall our Dante, there’s a special place in the afterlife reserved for bad tippers. So it all balances out in the end.

I’ve been dwelling on the negative here, but let’s take a moment to appreciate all the great tourists who visit our state each year.

While we tend to remember the bad experiences, I’ve had my share of positive ones, too. I’ve met more than a few polite folks who are genuinely interested in what goes on here, who readily immerse themselves in local culture and treat people as more than just window dressings – the ones who get what Vermont is all about.

Thanks to all those good people out there because they make it that much easier to deal with every separate check and tip paid in pennies.

Fortunately for the Dept. of Tourism, I no longer wait tables. For those of you who still do, I hope our tips were helpful, and that you get your share of the good ones this season.

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1 comment
  1. Janais said:

    Hahljlueal! I needed this-you’re my savior.

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