Featured Writer: Anna Vanderzee

Life in the Service Industry

Servers Learn What They Live


The other day a genius friend of mine asked me to write down some thoughts on my long years of experience in the service industry. First thought of course was ‘Where the hell do I begin?’  So I walked the dog and thought about it, took a shower and thought about it, wrapped some Xmas presents and thought about it. Then while searching for random inspiration amongst my chochkys, I stopped to meditate on a framed poem that was given to my mother as a baby shower gift.

The title of the original piece is Children Learn What They Live and it was set down by one Dorothy Law Nolte in 1954. A list of of 11 insights into childrearing which could definitely be related to the topic of ‘industry experience’. With that guide, the following comparative insights:

1. If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.

If a server lives with criticism we learn to get better. Quick. Restaurant is a 10-ring circus of co-dependent details that all need to be carried off as seamlessly as possible or stress and mayhem ensue. Also a job where time is money. Which means no time for us to mope, pout, cry or rebel. All of that could instead be ensuring a higher tip percentage, not getting yelled at again or not getting fired. Sometimes resentments linger, sometimes it’s forgotten by the end of the night. But eventually everyone learns to acknowledge and keep going if for no other reason then that there’s just no time for anything else. Lesson: Get over it and get on with it.

2. If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight.

If a server lives with hostility, we learn to smile sweetly and offer consolation and recompense. After which you will probably never see us again. Good luck getting another glass of wine. Or genuine service from any other employee in that establishment. Because you better believe we’re letting everyone know that Table 30, Seat 2 is an asshole. Lesson: If you want good service, don’t be a dick.

3. If a child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy.

If a server lives with ridicule, we find another restaurant to work in. You can be a genius at what you do and behave like an arrogant or condescending jerk at times and we’ll forgive you because it’s inspiring to work for the creatively gifted. But if you’re a constant prick, we’re out. Million restaurants out there. We don’t put up with tyrants because we don’t have to. And since no 401K and often no health benefits… Lesson: Be decent to your employees or you won’t have any.

Note: Somehow this doesn’t always apply to kitchen staff, who will put up with being verbally ass-raped on the regular for the sake of the next step up the kitchen ladder. I don’t get it.

4. If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilty.

If a server lives with shame, we learn to atone. If we’ve done something to shame ourselves on the job, we’re often fired immediately and it’s business and that’s that.  But if we manage to do something shameful and NOT lose our job, then we have to be ready to repent. Not by any outside decree but for the unwritten rule that one has to make up for letting one’s team (image) down and if one does not attempt to redeem oneself then the rest of one’s days at that job will ride under the banner of Ghosts Who Walk Among Us. Lesson: You fucked up, own it.

5. If a child lives with tolerance, he learns to be patient.

If a server lives with tolerance, we will give you as much free shit as is in our power to give. When mistakes happen (or when they’re believed to have happened), we are prepared to offer patrons something for negatively impacting their experience. If a patron is intolerant of a restaurants mistake, the best they can hope for in the night is having an item removed from the check or being offered dessert/coffee. At most, if it was a truly horrid insurrection, you will be offered a free meal at a future date as a do-over. However, if in these human moments, patrons show tolerance and even understanding, we will give you any or all of the following: round of drinks, sparkling wine, regular wine, beer, cocktails, shots, snacks, extra apps, sides, the entire dessert menu and more wine. Lesson: It literally pays to be nice.

6. If a child lives with encouragement, he learns confidence.

If a server lives with encouragement, we can make an amazing experience for you. Creative people who have the inside knowledge of how to do it right at the establishment you’ve come to dine in, can fashion an evening that you will talk about for years to come. My personal favorite experiences on the job are when people ask me to choose their meal for them. I have never received a negative reaction to these opportunities to showcase my restaurant’s food. It certainly helps that I have worked at places where the food is beyond measure but it’s the surprise and the thoughtfulness of what I planned for them that adds as much value to the experience as the delicious cuisine. Lesson: Take a chance and trust your server and you will most likely be happy that you did.

7. If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate.

If a server lives with praise, we won’t believe you unless you tip well. This is mostly for Americans but also for those patrons who clearly have lived here long enough to know the rules of proper tipping in the US. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the most over the top and sincerely thankful praise with promises to return because it was so special.. 10%. 7%. 4%. Fuck you. Lesson: Put your money where you're mouth is.

8. If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice.

If a server lives with fairness, we will be the most reliable and hard-working team player that any business could hope for. Restaurant is a job, a family, your social circle, your battalion and your playground. If a given restaurant’s employees are treated with fairness by their superiors, we will stay and give you all that we have when it comes to being there for the team because that’s how valuable it is to us. Lesson: Respected employees=die-hard staff.

9. If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith.

In a counter relationship to the previous insight, if a server lives with security… Well, that doesn’t really happen too often. Restaurant can be a fickle world. The only security it truly offers is that we’ll always be able to find another job should we have to leave the one we’ve got. So at least there’s that. Usually… Hard lesson: Business is business after all.

10. If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself.

If a server lives with approval, we can become cocky as fuck. A lot of servers are young and outgoing and generally attractive and while this can make for some amusing fireworks, it can also create an intolerable diva. We are putting on a fabulous magic show but at the end of the day it’s still service and still a job. That can be forgotten when we start to believe our own hype a little too well. It definitely helps to be reminded that we are valuable and good at our job but basic lesson: Just as with other good things, too much… makes a dick.

11. If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, he learns to find love in the world.

If a server lives with acceptance and friendship, we will genuinely appreciate you for the rest of our lives. Most servers are weirdos. Either because we’re artists of some form, or because we just can’t do the corporate grind, or maybe we just want to work and travel. None of these types are ‘normal’ and often experience at least a little bit of the feeling of outcast, drifter.. Weirdo. We’ve all stepped outside the box, so we not only accept but appreciate that in others. And when you appreciate and love us back, well, that’s something of serious value. If only because we’ve been forced to endure so many other condemning or obsequious folk that it’s that much more obvious when the real deal comes along. I have had co-workers and regulars that I would do most anything for just because they were the diamonds in the rough and that value is beyond the ability to repay in some ways. Lesson: The good people are who deserve your efforts and appreciation.

To wrap up, restaurant is fantastic. And stressful. And you have to be a little bit bonkers to work in it. But if you're strong enough and brave enough, it will give you values and character and insights and the best people (and food!) that can’t be gained through any other type of toil. There are things that people should consider doing in their lives in order to learn the lessons that will see them through life with a better attitude and point of view about the world in general. Some people would say, be a janitor for a year, go into the military, live in New York City, etc. Work in restaurant (especially in New York City if you can) and that pretty much wraps all of that up in one not so pretty but always entertaining package. So Bon Chance, mes amies! And get livin!


Anna VanderZee, Bartender/Dancer/Polymath