Saturday, February 16, 2013

Working in a German Restaurant

I went to work as a waitress at a nearby German restaurant. The owner of the restaurant asked if I really wanted to work as a waitress since I had a master’s degree. I told her that I needed to stay around and wait for my fiancé to finish his Ph.D. and I couldn’t find a job in my field nearby. I wanted to work there like everyone else. I never worked in a big restaurant before, just a small Chinese restaurant. This German restaurant was really a busy place. I started from scratch. I didn’t even know how to pronounce most of the items on the menu. I didn’t have any idea about kinds of drinks. It didn’t take me long to pick up the names of common drinks. I asked Anthony to help with the pronunciations of the menu items with an audiocassette tape so I could practice right away. The owner especially liked my fast pace and observations for details. A few of my customers actually made a special trip to the owner to praise my work. Every now and then, I did meet a difficult customer.
     It was quite an experience working in the restaurant. I got to know girls who didn’t even know whether a master’s degree or a Ph.D. was higher. They had been waitresses for their entire careers. I was surprised at how fast the turnover rate was in that place. People came and went so easily. It was a hard, stressful job, especially when the restaurant was busy.
     One Saturday afternoon, people came in from nowhere. One of our waitresses already had worked from lunch. She was very tired. She got a few difficult customers plus the manager was after her. Suddenly, she left without a trace. She left her customer waiting at an empty table. A few months later, she came back as a customer with her boyfriend and looked like her life had changed for the better.
     Some of the others did need this job desperately. There was a young girl named Terry. She loved to work in this restaurant. She was doing fine until one day she came in with heavy makeup and told us that her boyfriend had beaten her up and raped her. She had some bruises and she was going to press charges against him. A few days later while she was working, the police came by to ask her a few questions and also the boy’s parents came to eat. They intentionally gave her a $20 tip for some simple sandwiches and again begged her to drop the charges. I don’t know what her decision was because she was fired for dropping a big pan or dish. I felt sorry for her because she told me that she really needed this job to pay her rent and car payments, and her mom was an alcoholic and she had been on her own since she was 15. I dreamed about her later on and she was fine in my dream.
     Terry was doing okay, at least she had a dependable car that allowed her to work anytime, anywhere. We had another waitress who took taxis to and from work and she was married. From my impression, she liked to talk and talk and pray for good business so she could earn money. She said that she was so much in need of money. But when it was busy, she sometimes couldn’t keep up with her customers and often cried from the stress. She loved wine so much, and she would save customer’s leftover wine and drink them later. I often warned her that she might catch something. She simply replied, “no, germs cannot survive in wine.” She was fired because she ate something in the kitchen without paying.
     Then there were two male waiters. They were handsome young men with athletic figures. The two of them often fought over who had the best table or side chores. One day, they asked me for a quarter so they could decide who was going to get the tables both wanted. I gave them a quarter and forgot about it. Later on, a waitress asked me whether they returned my quarter. I said, “no.” She said, “they always ask for quarters and never give them back. They are tricky.” One of the boys got fired for not doing his share of the side work. He called back a few times to beg the manager to give him his job back.
     There were some good ones though. One of them, I was impressed with was Beth. She was really pregnant and had another two children. She worked until the day she delivered her baby. We tried to tell her to quit earlier. She always said that she needed the extra money to pay her bills. Another older lady Lisa had worked in the same restaurant for 15 years. She was a tough and fair lady. Diane was 55. I think she was the oldest. She had her own house and grown up kids. She just couldn’t stay at home. Margie worked there for eight years. Joanne was a substitute teacher and also worked there a long time.
     In the kitchen, except for one girl who stayed, the rest keep coming and going. She was used to being a dishwasher. She got the chance to cook later on and had been there since. One day, we got a new chef. He was a very experienced chef and worked hard. The manager somehow didn’t like him. I didn’t have anything against him except that he liked to joke with me now and then when I came to the kitchen to get the customers’ food. He said, “Ying, when will we get married?” I always said, “I am taken. Find someone else.” He did. He was dating the waitress Cindy. Cindy was jealous of me because of that. But one day, she came in with her shoulder hurting after playing volleyball. She could not lift her tray. So, she couldn’t work. A week later, her shoulder still hurt and the doctor said that she needed a few weeks to let her muscles recover. She was really angry. So, I asked her whether she wanted to try a Chinese Tiger Bone Patch (
Originally named for containing tiger bone (banned now), an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine dating back 1,500 years to treat pain and inflammation). She said that she would try anything. I gave her two patches and told her to put them on after a warm bath. It usually worked for me. The next day, she came in and said, “what was in that thing that you gave to me? It was really good. Could you tell me where I could get them in town?” I told her about the oriental goods store. She was really nice to me after that because she went back to work that day.
     Most of the waitresses spent their money quickly. Sometimes, they didn’t even wait to go to the bank to cash their checks. They cashed them right there in the restaurant. Most of them smoked a lot, and drank a lot of coffee to keep awake. I felt bad that they didn’t save any of their money or have health insurance either. They just said that they didn’t have money to save and they couldn’t afford to buy health insurance. To be broke was common. I couldn’t imagine being broke or even being a waitress all of my life.
     The owner told us about a girl who worked there and went to work for a local bank and she felt that her self-esteem was higher even though she earned less because she was not working in a service job anymore. Our owner laughed and said every job we have here in the world is a service to one another, directly or indirectly, you just cannot escape that. The more you try, the crazier you make yourself. Her husband was an artist who liked to paint, but when he couldn’t sell his paintings to make a living, he didn’t know what else to do. She worked hard as a waitress and struggled to raise money for her young son. Finally, she saved enough to buy this restaurant when the owner retired. She divorced her husband when she thought that she could not bring him down to reality.
     She improved the restaurant by moving to a larger location and made the restaurant well known. She started with nothing. Fifteen years later, she owned the business and her luxurious home. She came in now and then to oversee and manage the work. She was tough and fair.
     One day, a waitress came in on crutches crying. She just had her calluses removed in the hospital and couldn’t walk. I guessed that she did not schedule the whole thing ahead of time. She just decided to go in the day before when she felt she couldn’t stand to think of the calluses on her heel. This morning she called the owner to tell her she couldn’t walk. The owner did not buy her story and said that she had enough calling in last minute sick and she couldn’t run her business that way. Either she should show up for work now or never. The head of the waitresses saw the situation and called the owner. The owner did change her mind.
After working in the restaurant for several months full-time, I realized it was very different than I had known previously, especially compared to working in a small Chinese restaurant inside the kitchen at my own pace. Here, I had to work with all the chefs in the kitchen by giving them the orders and the bartender my customers’ drink orders. Outside, I had these four tables of people waiting for their drinks and their meals along with a whole restaurant of people. I had to work with the other waitresses busily coming in and out of the same door along the same route. I had to be careful not to mix up orders from different tables with other waitresses’ orders. All the time, I carried a heavy tray on my shoulders and rushed in and out without crashing into anyone. All this happened in a few, short rush hours. Every waitress was already stressed out enough to the boiling point without even any trouble from anyone.
     Every now and then, a wrong order, a chef’s mistake, or a difficult customer would drive the employees to the breaking point. In the kitchen, everyone was saying the worse phrases you could find. Outside, things were as usual, you couldn’t tell the difference. Only the troubled or unhappy customer got the most attention because we wanted him or her out of the restaurant as soon as possible no matter what it took. We hoped that they didn’t come back.
     I met one man who came and ordered a corned beef sandwich. He ate two-thirds of it and told me it was too tough. Then he ordered a cup of soup and he complained it was too salty. The owner came out to give him a free dessert on top of everything he had for free. He did leave me a one-dollar tip.
     It was different at the Chinese restaurant where I used to work one night per week. The owner told me that when they first opened the restaurant they did not know that there could be such people. One day, a man came in and ordered a hot seafood dish worth over $15. The owner told him that it was a hot dish but if he wanted, the chef could skip the hot sauce. He said that he knew that it was hot and loved hot food, the hotter, the better. When the dish came, he was happy. He ate 90% of this dinner then he called the waitress and said that the food was too hot and he was not going to pay for his dinner because he couldn’t finish the last few pieces on his plate. The owner was upset. “You could take it home with you but you will have to pay because I told you it was hot and you already finished your dinner. I would have let you go if you just started your dinner and said that it was too hot.” They started to argue. Finally, the owner said, “I am going to call the police because this is no different than shoplifting.” The police came and told the owner that the customer shouldn’t pay for the dinner if he was not happy with it. The owner was devastated. Later on she did learn.
     It was that kind of intense stress and fear about who was going to be your next customer. Is she or he going to order an expensive meal or just half of a sandwich and sit at your table all night drinking coffee and talking, then leave you a dollar tip? The longing for a customer who was a big spender and left big tips also brought stress because it looked like you were a beggar waiting for people to give you change. Every now and then, a group of young men came in for lunch in their work clothes. You could tell they had been working outside for minimum pay. Because of their peers, they practically emptied their pockets for the tip and they didn’t even count how much was there. It made me feel bad that they were the ones going broke the next day.
     After awhile, you felt the same things happen over and over. You went to the restaurant, prepared for the rush that sometimes didn’t come, then came home exhausted both emotionally and physically. I didn’t know how many times I came home at midnight and couldn’t sleep thinking about quitting the job the next day. But when the next day came, I was ready to work again. Personally, I didn’t like the tipping system at all. It did make the waitresses and waiters look bad, looked down upon too. I would prefer that the restaurant charge for service as part of the price for the meal then pay their employees a total. People think that wait persons work for tips and care how much you give to them. Yes, they do but not at the same moment when they serve you and others. They don’t have time to count, simply put the money in their pocket or sometimes they even forget to pick-up their tips. The quality of service is not dependent upon how much you tip. It depended upon how busy the restaurant was.
     People came to the restaurant not just to eat. They wanted more than that. They wanted to sit near others since they couldn’t do that very often, with strangers, friends or lovers, or family. They wanted to show others their joy of celebration, happiness, success, sadness, loneliness, and so on. I guessed it was part of human nature. There was this overweight woman who came in every Wednesday by herself. All the waitresses knew her because she ordered buffalo wings and a glass of water. Then she sat slowly chewing the hot chicken wings. Once she told me that it was part of her therapy. She had a failed marriage and loads of personal problems. Another time, she brought me a paper cutout of birds together, which she made at home. I told her that it was an excellent job and maybe she could have her own business someday. She was really pleased to hear that. I kept that little bird.
     The reality of running a business was very cruel and impersonal. Before I started to work there, one of the waitresses was sick with hepatitis. Her illness was reported on the radio, TV, and newspaper. That almost brought the business to a close. Suddenly, no customers came in. It took six months for them to regain their customers, but still not at the level it used to be.
     The owner tried to reconstruct the restaurant. The head of the waitresses had worked with the owner since she herself was a waitress years ago. She was well trusted and the key person to the owner’s success. She was over 60 now, slowing down a lot but she had the privilege of keeping all the upper level-smoking customers with more than ten tables. Usually each waitress had four tables. She didn’t want to give up any of her smoking tables since she also smoked. You could tell that she smoked so much and drank so much coffee to keep up with her customers. The owner knew it was time to let her go and implied so many times that her grandchildren needed her. She seemed to love working as a waitress.
     One day, the owner came in and told all of us that she had hired a new manager who would take care over management. She was going to stay around for two more weeks to let the new manager get comfortable with the restaurant, then she was going to South America for three months vacation. Not only did the new manager have experience in restaurant management, but had a psychology degree too.
     It turned out that this was a big mistake because no one liked this new manager. She followed everyone around trying to teach them to do their job. The head of waitresses was especially upset because she thought that this management job was lawfully hers when the owner was away on business or vacation. She had always been there for the owner’s personal and business trips for the last 20 years. The new manager seemed to have a reason here. The reason was it drove the head of waitresses crazy so she had to quit and you could tell that her stress was building up day after day, week after week. I never heard her say anything bad to the owner although I heard enough from other young waitresses. Now she started to complain, more and more, how she saved this restaurant every time it was in trouble, how she helped the owner every time she was in trouble, and how she treated her like her own sister. Now she was going to kick her out, out from the only possible good income she depended upon. She was over 60 and it was impossible to start over in a new restaurant from ground zero. She did not quit, but a few days before the three months ended, a few days before the owner came back, she ended up in a bad accident on the way to work which totaled her car and broke a few of her vertebrae. That ended her waitressing career.
     When the owner came back, every employee in the restaurant threatened to quit unless she let the new manager go. The business was not really that good under the new manager. She was driving everyone crazy. I think the owner realized what she had done and felt very badly about the head of waitresses. She did give her some financial help. Very soon, the owner hired a new elderly woman, who had retired from other restaurant work, inside of the kitchen to oversee everything. I could tell that she could not compare with the head of waitresses. She was typically two-faced. When the owner was around; she tried all the time to please her. When the owner was not around, she didn’t care about anything; the walk-in cooler door was always open, especially on a hot summer’s day. I even caught her a few times before closing. She and the chef cooked themselves a whole fish or something to take home with them. She even asked me once whether I wanted one to take home; I said, “no.”


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