Things I learnt about work and life from waiting tables in college

Lesli Woodruff
Jul 27, 2019 · 8 min read
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Postcard from Kenmore Square…

In the late 80’s, I was on the opening crew of the Pizzeria Uno in Kenmore Square, 2 blocks from Fenway Park. It was a college student’s dream job — if that dream includes coming home at 2am smelling like a deep-dish pizza and beer and sometimes tequila; sometimes elated and excited, sometimes questioning the future of humanity, sometimes wondering what $2.15 an hour and tips plus a business degree from BU was going to get me.

We graduated in the middle of a recession, so it took a bit of effort to get a job, and I ended up waiting tables after college for a year or so, first full-time, then part-time after I had my first real job with a real company. All the complaining about tips and customers and creepy managers and lazy co-workers were offset by the camaraderie, teamwork, celeb encounters, after-hours commiseration sessions at Cornwall’s, parties, and of course unexpected bonuses.

Not altogether that different from working in the corporate world, if you think about it…and it was that job, I’d realise only much later on, that gave me some foundation for some core precepts I follow every day.

Carry the right amount.

Last weekend was the hottest of the summer so far. I had just gotten home from the beach, salty and overheated. Although it was Saturday, my mind was already spinning about The Project that was eating my soul, the other Projects that were being neglected because of this Thing; and nagging behind that: was all the stress to Get. It. Done. Fast. even worth it? I walked into my flat, shagged out*, knackered by the heat, arms and head laden with stuff, missed a step and landed squarely (on my stuff) on my leg and ribs. Nothing broken, luckily, save my pride (the bruise, however, is one for the annals).

You were carrying too much, my yoga teacher reminded me this morning. And, as usual, I’m a walking metaphor for my own awkward breed of humanness.

We carried these massive trays at Uno’s. Simple rules: Balance the pilsners opposite the hefty dinner plates; place the heaviest items in the center. Use a smaller tray for smaller items. One too many things on the tray, and it’s going over — most likely on the district manager’s wife’s lap (Luckily, this never happened to me during my tenure).

But when our tray — or our workload/emotional burden/cognitive input/to-do list all get to that tipping point, we have to step back and balance: get out of the house and into nature, turn off the computer, take a 2nd trip to the car to collect all the stuff, leave one thing on the to-do list, carry the right amount of stuff on the tray.

Multi-task, like Tetris.

Whether we like to admit it or not, nobody is good at multi-tasking; that is, doing more than one thing well at the same. We can do many bits and pieces of things, but ultimately we miss a cue on a meeting because we were answering an email during a PDT call, or we do a half-assed job of two things because we didn’t stop to focus on Thing 1 before switching to Thing 2.

I’ve never been good at video games, something to do with the hand-eye coordination thing or the desire to spend that time outside vs. in front of the TV. But I liken the thing I learnt from waiting tables to a game of Tetris: you have to fit tasks in where there are opportunities to get them done well.

Maybe it’s opportunistic multi-tasking.

You drop a check at table 17, go to table 19 to take an order while they are looking at it, then swing by table 17 to see if they’re ready to pay, dash to the bar to leave a special request with the bartender on your way to the kitchen to pick up an order, then another swing by table 17 to pick up the credit card on your way to the water station/credit card machine en route to saying hi to table 22, but first to table 17 and quickly drop the check for a signature then to table 22 with the water glasses…all in the span of 4 minutes.

I’ve got a training script out for approval with my SMEs, an intake session at 2pm, and I need to review the work done by someone on my team. I’ve got 20 minutes. All of these things are balls in the air, Tetris pieces waiting for their turn, as it were. If I start the review, I won’t necessarily finish before my 2pm meeting. But if I write down some ideas for the project for the meeting at 2, I can go into that meeting better-prepared, perhaps a little ahead of the game, and then have time to pay better attention to the review materials afterwards, then collect the approvals before the deadline.

It’s still doing more than one thing, just sequentially instead of simultaneously. I’ve learnt that I get my best work done when I give 100% of the time I have to the one thing rather than 25% of the time I have to several things. Like Tetris: use the block of time wisely, and you won’t need to rush to squeeze something in where it doesn’t quite fit.

Respond, don’t react.

[fingers snapping behind you] Hey, you! Get over here, we need some drinks!

What are you doing after work?

[*work really hard to please a table of 8, they thank you profusely, and say they had a great time and had great service…you look at the pile of money they’ve left and smile and wave as they leave in great spirits…then you count the money and realise you’ve been given a $4.27 tip for 1.5 hours of your time, making your hourly wage for that 2-hour block of time roughly $20.57 (because you need to clean the table and do your sidework for the next Red Sox rush, and have earned tips of $12 from the other 2 tables during that 2-hour period), on which you will be taxed maybe $5 because you are taxed on a percentage of your sales, not actual income, and while that normally works in your favour, it does not this day]

Waiting tables introduces you to the reality that people get off on feeling superior, and where and when they can, they treat those they deem inferior like garbage. And it introduces you to the parallel reality that some people are quite lovely. And also to the reality that on any given day, you will encounter a roulette wheel’s mixture of these types. Plus, they’re hungry. And you stand in the way of them and their next meal. And you’re merely the messenger when the kitchen is out of that very thing they’ve come in to have. Or when they’ve ordered the wrong thing and it’s your fault. Or when…

This wasn’t my first experience working with the public. I’d worked at The Gap in Downtown Crossing, and at a bakery and an ice cream shop in my hometown. But waiting tables is its own sort of experiment in the human condition.

And so it conditioned me to some extent to make an effort to stop before dumping a beer in the guy’s lap who snapped his fingers and shouted Yo! Be-ah he-ah (that’s “beer, here” in Everett-ese…the thing I guess is okay to say to the hawker in Fenway Park), and laughed as he and his drunk buddies commented on my ass.

The lesson is this: I worked at a fancy pizza place on the campus of one of the largest universities in Boston, down the street from one of the most iconic ballparks in the country. Some of the customers saved up all year to take their family to dinner and a Sox game. Some of the customers had season tickets and were regulars at the bar. There were couples and singles and college kids and big parties and random tourists… For the most part, the people were decent. And for those who weren’t, I learnt to let someone’s bad attitude be their problem. I learnt to call in reinforcements when necessary. And I started learning to wait a beat before responding; that sometimes a reaction is what a bully is looking for, and by not playing their game you win, even when you don’t always feel like it at the time.

When the night is over, you still go home smelling like pizza and beer, but sometimes you have a story or two to tell.

It’s all about the customer experience.

Uno’s isn’t fine dining, but it is, for some, that chance to get out of the house and have something out-of-the-ordinary they didn’t need to prepare themselves.

Some nights, the cooks were on their game, orders were on time, and the food tasted great. Some nights, quite the opposite. As the messenger, I quickly learnt some things that still help me today. My job was to set expectations, manage the customer relationship, ensure customer satisfaction, answer questions, problem-solve, sometimes cross-sell, and ultimately deliver what was promised.

And now, some decades later, I’m still sort of a messenger. And I’m in a position where I get to empower people to be messengers. I create programs that enable our trainers, and write training so end-users can work our software. So the programs I design help people increase productivity and efficiency; they help solve customers’ problems. But it’s technology, so sometimes projects blow up…sometimes deliverables get delayed…sometimes the product has some bugs in v1…and we always still have those customer needs to meet.

So even today, my job is to set expectations and do all those other things waiting tables prepped me for — so I can deliver what was promised, meeting or exceeding expectations, delivering against an ever-evolving set of customer outcomes. And even though today I’m doing this through training plans or eLearning modules or certification curricula or enablement programs, those core concepts haven’t much changed.

Sure, waiting tables is a great way for a college kid to earn cash for books and rent and beer and concert tickets. It’s also, as I said to an old friend last weekend, something everyone should do. These life lessons are valuable regardless of industry or position, whether you’re an intern or VP or, like me, somewhere in-between.

Did you wait tables? What did you learn that you use even today?

*The Brits have a best term for everything. Shagged out fits because we don’t have a word that means exhausted, physically and mentally, from a towering wall of crap threatening to crush us lest we make a wrong move. Knackered, ditto.

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Lesli Woodruff

Written by

Instructional Designer, writer, photographer, wanderer, reluctant but sometimes sparkly introvert, curious one, believer in magic.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +720K people. Follow to join our community.

Lesli Woodruff

Written by

Instructional Designer, writer, photographer, wanderer, reluctant but sometimes sparkly introvert, curious one, believer in magic.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +720K people. Follow to join our community.

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