The sunlight dappled through the large oak trees lining the boulevard known to some as “sugar.” In that spotted light I dimly made out the blueish chambray shirt that was the odd colored uniform of the restaurant where I worked. A bowtie completed the look. And it wasn’t a look that anyone adopted on their off hours.
It was our new waiter. I had already interacted with him twice and found him poised, well-spoken and obviously educated, which wasn’t all that strange for high end restaurants back then. Nowadays it can be a different animal. He was slightly older than me, or slightly younger depending on whether you asked him, or you asked me. Not so relevant to the story now but keep reading.
“Don’t you have a car?” I said teasing him later at our workplace.
“I am saving for one,” he said.
The restaurant business can be a transitional one for people. Sometimes they are on their way to something else, sometimes they are filling a gap, and sometimes they just end up there. Many of us come at it from many different angles, and that is one of the things that makes working in the industry so interesting. I have worked alongside doctors, nurses, realtors, lawyers, and law enforcement. There have also been plenty of poets, actors, musicians, and writers along the way too.
He fit in better than most, using his empathy and aptitude (and thirst for knowledge) to excel at his job. And excel he did. In short order he moved up the schedule and was soon on a first name basis with many of the regulars. In fact, his name was soon one of the most requested. Oh, and he bought that car. A brand-new Mercedes Benz.
He was cut from a different cloth. And when I left that restaurant a few years later over a management issue, he had become one of the top waiters there.
Two restaurants later I had found myself a more permanent home and one day while working my shift he came into it to interview. Apparently, those management problems hadn’t dissipated.
“What do you think?” asked my new manager.
“He is the best waiter I have ever worked with,” I said.
Over the next few years, that new restaurant eclipsed that old one, eventually attracting quite a bit of the previous restaurant’s staff. Anyone who thinks that a manager doesn’t really make a difference, doesn’t realize that the difference can be positive, neutral, or even negative.
A different building and a different chef didn’t make much of a difference, because attentive caring service is always a valuable commodity. At least one that is always valued by the guest.
The service industry is not really based on food and drink, but rather on the experiences surrounding those two things. Virginia Woolf opined that one cannot do anything well if one has not “dined well.” And “dining well” always involves service. Sometimes the people we “serve” become our friends, our confidants, and sometimes even our family. Together we share many of the moments that make up this tapestry that we call life.
Your favorite restaraunt probably has a favorite person, whether it’s the cook, the manager, the bartender, or the server. Take away the person associated with it and it can be unnerving. Nothing makes someone feel more unwelcome than going to your favorite restaurant, and not recognizing anyone there. But true professionals will always make you feel welcome, regardless of whether they know you, just like that waiter did all those years ago and has continued to do for a quarter of a century.
He retired this week. We have worked together for nearly 25 years. I will miss all the conversations we had, the fights, the apologies, the professionalism, but mainly, the sense that we were doing the right things for the right reasons. The restaurant business can build bonds that are never broken.
His going away party was a smorgasbord of current employees, former employers, co-workers past and present, as well as quite a few tearful regulars. There was quite a turnout. During the tears, the speeches, and the applause, however, another waiter worked his way through the room: clearing glasses, serving plates, and taking orders.
If there is one constant in the restaurant business, it is that the show must go on. And it will. And only time will tell how it all turns out.
Leaving me with these thoughts
-When one door closes, another one always opens.
-For anyone who has ever said “just a server,” just remember that server just retired early to the South of France.
-Bon voyage, mon ami. Vous allez nous manquer.
-“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you,” wrote Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland.
-Table 25 is still waiting for water. Just saying.