August 17th marked five months since Governor Walz shut down the dining-in portion of bars and restaurants in Minnesota in an attempt to slow down the spread of COVID-19. Over the next few weeks, Bring Me The News' Lindsay Guentzel will be sharing stories from those affected – restaurant owners, brewery operators, servers, bartenders, cooks – painting a clearer picture of what has been affected by the global pandemic. If you would like to contribute to the conversation, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now more than ever, learn your server’s name and use it.
"With the masks on, you all look the same!"
I hear it almost every shift. A guest comments that they can’t tell me apart from my co-workers because we are all wearing the same uniform and now half of our faces are covered. There’s no malice behind the comments. Mostly just an observation, one that tends to come when customers try to order another drink from the wrong person.
My response is always the same: a laugh, a silly reply. Then I go right back to the grind.
But ask anyone who works in the service industry and they’ll tell you the same thing: the inability to identify your wait staff is not something that spiked once we all started wearing face masks.
Years ago, I worked at a busy brunch spot in a suburb of Minneapolis. A true turn-and-burn location that had a line down the block every Saturday and Sunday morning. It was a restaurant that relied on an all-hands approach, so during a busy shift it was easy to stop by every table at the restaurant when running food and drinks.
That’s how I found myself at table 21. I was in the kitchen when the order came up and the chef called for hands. As I dropped off their meal, the mother turned to me and asked for something else. Another side of bacon or an orange juice, I can’t quite remember.
“Of course,” I responded. “I’ll let your server know.”
Her eyes shot up to look at me.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” she replied. “I thought you were our server.”
I walked over to the host stand to check the floor chart to find her server.
Table 21. Nekima’s section.
Nekima, the Black woman with long dreads down her back.
Do I think the woman was being intentionally rude? No. I think she simply wasn't paying attention to her surroundings. She was unaware of the person who was serving her, who was making sure her meal was as enjoyable and accurate – no onions, extra cream in her coffee – as possible.
See, on any given day a server sees hundreds of people. For you, when you go out to eat? You are likely dealing with only one person, your server. It’s not asking too much to learn their name.
Personally, when someone goes out of their way to call me by my name while we are interacting at the table, it makes me feel good about myself and that likely shows in the service I give. It feels like we have become friends, that I’m the host who has been put in charge of making sure you have the most enjoyable experience possible and not just some hourly employee who is dropping off clean forks and extra ketchup.
It also makes me feel like you are acknowledging my position in the world right now. I chose to be a server, to work in a restaurant. But that also means I am in a position in our COVID-heavy world to work and support myself and my family while also knowing that I might expose myself and my loved ones to the virus.
Like many servers I know, I chose to go back to work because I love my job. I love the restaurant I work at and I’m proud of what our owners have done to make sure everyone who steps inside our doors is as safe as possible. When I go to work, I feel safe.
The only time I don’t feel safe is when guests don’t follow the rules and I have been given the power by management to step in and resolve those situations. As an employee, I share responsibility in making sure our doors stay open and it is one I do not take lightly. Is it a responsibility I asked for? Not at all. But I’m honored our management team has entrusted us with the power to protect our business.
If you’ve worked in a restaurant, you know what a grind it can be. COVID-19 shutdowns have taken the grind to a level we’ve never experienced before. Labor budgets are being cut and responsibilities are being expanded. Many restaurants have been forced into running with the bare minimum just to survive, which means your server is probably also your food runner, bussing your table and likely has a bunch of back-of-house responsibilities that keep the restaurant running smoothly.
It’s easy to be dismissive of wait staff. We’re all guilty of it. Maybe you’re in a rush or you’re not feeling super chatty that day. Maybe your server approaches the table while you are in the middle of a conversation or checking an important email from work. Now more than ever, learn your server’s name and use it. Look at them when they introduce themselves, remember their name and use it. It’s a simple gesture of gratitude and respect.
Other ways to help
Want to take your support to the next level? First off, tip well. The struggles of the restaurant industry and the debate over tipping is not being discussed here. If you want to dine out right now, tip the standard 20%. If you carry cash, tip with that. What you might not know is that by tipping your server properly, you are single-handedly supporting the rest of the wait staff as well. Every restaurant has tip-out standards for support staff and at the end of the night, it’s the responsibility of the server to share the wealth from their night on the floor.
Beyond money, there are other ways to support your servers and bartenders right now.
Stop a manager on your way out and share your praise. Use their name and tell the manager something specific that made your experience wonderful. Take a few minutes after you get home and leave a review online for the restaurant. Identify your server by name and again, share something that made your time memorable. Make other people want to go to the restaurant and have that experience. When you make your next reservation, request that server. They might not be working but management pays attention to those requests when it comes time to make the schedule.
No one knows what might come next. Restaurants are living day-to-day, week-to-week. But as we figure it out together, be compassionate, kind, tip well and look up from your phone when your server is speaking to you. And most importantly, learn your server’s name and use it.
Here's her latest recipe, for banana pancakes.