When I quit litigation for waitressing, I brought my killer instinct with me

Tina Petrick
Feb 26 · 4 min read

Please, don’t raise your voice and call me stupid when I bring you your lettuce wraps sans cashews.

Yes, I know you’re allergic to peanuts, not nut-nuts, but listen lady — okay, I get it, you were really looking forward to your cashews — but out of an abundance of caution the kitchen neglected putting them on your plate for reasons of cross-contamination, which, I would argue, meets the standard of a reasonably prudent establishment guarding against a civil lawsuit for your allergic reaction (gasp for air) …

Trust me, you do not want to wake the dragon, the fire-breathing litigator inside me, your 5-foot-1-inch server.

Only three months ago I was burning down fortresses on behalf of my kingdom — one of British Columbia’s top trial law firms. But my roars started to produce only smoke, and my body became racked with psychosomatic symptoms, my neck and thoracic spine aching whenever I researched the “value” of a whiplash injury. I’ve always had hypochondriac tendencies — my mother hid the medical encyclopedia after I became convinced at 8 that I had diabetes, when I was merely suffering from moodiness and a full bladder — so reading about injuries all day was doing nothing positive for my health. I tried counselling. I tried crystals. The last option was to try quitting law: Worst-case scenario, I could waitress, right?

Cut to the present, and I’ve donned an apron in place of court robes. I conceal my identity, keeping my eyes lowered and my head bowed as I deliver fish and chips to tourists.

“Let me guess, you’re in school for something creative. Interior design?” asks a man tipsy on craft beer.

Perhaps it’s the faux flower in my hair, electric blue, that transmits the artistic vibe. But I’m wearing the accessory for reasons that are purely economic. Like all other members of homo economicus, I’m seeking profit maximization. And like any Type A of the species would have done, I’ve scoured peer-reviewed journals to answer my research question: “What causes higher tips?”

The answer? Casually dropping your name table side. Touching your customer’s hand as you drop off the check. And my faux flower. This alone, the studies say, should increase my tips by 17 per cent. You see, tipping is tied not so much to quality of service as to the ability to hypnotize your customer’s id. Can I convince you, over the course of taking your order and cleaning your table, that we’ve made a strong, once-in-a-lifetime connection?

I approach the next table with the sultry determination I learned as a contestant on The Bachelor Canada. I refer to the sunshine — patrons tip more when the weather is nice — and I lie, saying my cousin works for the winery of the pinot gris just ordered. I make them laugh, they learn my name, I learn they’re from Minnesota. Time to pull out the big guns — touch.

I scout my prey with the precision of a velociraptor. If I touch Seat №1’s right hand, will I knock over her water? If I touch Seat 2’s left forearm, will my arm hair graze his hamburger? I’m not a touchy person, at least when it comes to any population other than adorable kittens. High-fives are about my limit for comfortable workplace touching. The only thing worse than when I broke down in tears in my litigator ex-boss’s office was the awkward hug that followed.

But I’m an ends-justify-means type of girl, and it’s time to touch some customers. I sneak up from behind, my hand coming to rest on the customer’s back. On contact, my nervous energy rushes the customer’s neural receptors. He jumps, spilling his beer. “Ah, more napkins?” I blush.

“Tina, don’t touch all the customers, some are going to think it’s weird,” a colleague tells me at the dish pit. “And what’s with that flower? Is that even dress code?”

“It’s supposed to get me bigger tips.”

“Yeah, how’s that going for you?”

Not well, it turns out. I count my take-home: only 12 per cent of meal sales, despite my flower. Blue flower. I agonize. Aha! Blue is an appetite suppressant. My experiment failed simply due to control mechanisms.

I then hear the laughs of some of my colleagues enjoying drinks together post-shift at the bar. When another server joins them, they all embrace.

“It’s about connection,” a male colleague of the server/actor variety tells me. “It’s just like acting. I do a good job when I connect. That’s what gets me higher tips.”

I could destroy his theory with statistics and studies, but I’m distracted by the group at the bar, connecting. Maybe he’s onto something. I think back to my shift, devoted to following my script of profit maximization. I think further back, to the coffee I bought earlier, how I got annoyed by the barrister’s chattiness with customers, watching my time fly by in .06-minute increments.

Did practising law metamorphosize me? Have I awoken as a bug with a hard, protective exoskeleton? As a lawyer, I built up walls to protect myself from the pain of my clients, from the pain of litigation. The walls are too thick. It’s time for a wrecking ball.

This piece was originally published in The Globe and Mail’s Facts & Arguments, January 14, 2015.

Tina Petrick

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