Two Month’s Hospitality: What Henry Learned Waiting Tables

Last week, I finished waiting tables at a burger joint. Yes, I officially threw in the towel. Two jobs down in three months, it’s confirmed, I’m a quitter.

I’d taken the job because I realised without one, I couldn’t keep telling everyone I was a down-and-out writer. Like, there was no way anyone was going to believe me when I tried to rewrite Down and Out in Paris and London, after lucking out and convincing one of my rich friends to fund the novel.

No, I needed real world experiences. Experiences away from bright offices, dual monitor setups, misguided aspirations and meetings about the merits of shared calendars. (I’m lying, I actually needed the money)

And, after two months I can attest, the experience was revelatory. Definitely worth it.

First and foremost, it taught me that the people who work in restaurants are rad and lovely people. They’re not even mean when they realise you’re the worst goddamn waiter they’ve ever met.

So, to save you from going through the same harrowing struggles that will lay the foundations for my bestselling book, Waiter to Hater, I’ve spent this Friday afternoon writing down everything I’ve learned from working in the hospitality industry:

1. It helps if you know what you’re serving people

I’m proud to say that while I was a waiter, I got a lot of people’s orders wrong. Probably more orders than anyone has ever got wrong (no, I’m not that cool)!

Even when I wasn’t getting people’s orders wrong, I was at least pretending I had, by incorrectly announcing what I’d brought to the table.

Here’s a gem of story, to help you understand. By way of background, some guy at table 67 had ordered a milkshake. I picked up said milkshake from the bar, and proceeded to take it to his table.

Henry: “Sir, here’s your lager.”

Discerning patron: “But I ordered a milkshake.”

*Look down at the glass. Yes, it’s clearly a milkshake*

Henry: “Oh, yeah, it’s a milkshake. Look, it’s milkshake coloured, in a milkshake glass and has a straw. I said it was a lager because, um, I have a drinking problem.”

Discerning customer: “Hmm, I’m not sure that looks like a milkshake.”

Henry: “Why not taste it and see?”

Discerning patron: “Ok.”

Discerning patron tastes the milkshake.

Discerning patron: “Hmmm.” Takes another sip. “Hmm, yes, that’s definitely a lager.”

At which point, I proceeded to take the milkshake back to the bar, told the bartender I needed a milkshake, not a lager, to which the bartender replied, but that’s definitely a milkshake.

So I had to go back to the discerning customers table, and tell him it was definitely a milkshake.

It’s as if I was doing it on purpose, you know, to make him look stupid.

I think some people thought scenarios like this were a routine I’d invented. It wasn’t, I just couldn’t see very well without my glasses on.

Lesson 1: If you’re a waiter and you don’t know what something is, just leave it at the bar and get someone else to take it for you. It’s best that you never talk to customers, because they’ll always think you’re trying to patronise them.

2. If someone’s sick, you’ve made an honest tip

There was an eating challenge at the burger joint. 

Customers had 15 minutes to eat an ice-cream float covered in chilli, some peppers stuffed with couscous and chilli, and um, a five litre box of sweet potato fries covered in chilli. I mean, it’s at least 26 minutes worth of food.

If someone managed to eat this monstrous concoction in fifteen minutes or less (and I mean all of it), they wouldn’t have to pay for their meal. 

You guessed it, the prize was free stomach ache!

Anyway, occasionally, people would request to do the challenge, and just to make sure no one was cheating, waiting staff had to stand there and watch them gorge themselves.

On one occasion, I was trusted to time someone competing in the challenge. By the end of it, had a £10 tip.

How do you ask?

Was it because I was so great at timing? Cheering the boy on? Telling his friend not to call him a fat little piggy? 

Not at all! It was because after attempting the eating challenge, the poor lad went into the men’s room and was sick everywhere.

He was so sick that there was vomit on the bathroom walls.

Now, I’m not complaining about sick. I mean, I regularly drink too much, and have to clean up mysterious vomit, that I assume is deposited by housemates next to my bed, almost every morning.

But, when the customer ordered another double JD and coke, he must have seen me walk out of the bathroom wearing rubber gloves and a look of disdain. 

He promptly dropped £10 on the table and left.

Lesson 2: People being sick = tips! To subsidise your wage, you need to make people sick. Then make sure they know you’re the one who cleaned all the vomit up! It’s genius.

3. Stag dos promote nondiscrimination

A lot of people on stag dos booked tables at the restaurant, and then arrived drunk and on the lookout for hot dogs. 

Sometimes, I was allowed to take their orders. 

When doing so, I often discovered a lot of inebriated men, who liked to ask me to perform fellatio on them. I guess it’s great, they must think I look pretty, and they’re much more into experimentation than they probably are when they’re sober.

Lesson 3: Drunk men in groups really care about the service, and don’t make judgements based on gender.

4. It’s all about the booths man

Did you know restaurants that only have booths (you know, those American-type diner seats), get way more customers. 

The most common thing you’ll hear when interviewing people about what makes a restaurant is, “God! I’d never go to a restaurant if I couldn’t sit in a booth. I mean, come on. That’s the only reason I go out.

Seating at the restaurant I was working at was made up of a mixture of booths and not so booth-ey seats.

Sometimes I had to take people to their seats. 

Customers routinely became irate when they were led to the not-so-booth-ey seats.

Lesson 4: People really care about where they sit. Why? Because they’re stupid.

5. “When you gaze long into [a restaurant], the [restaurant] also gazes into you…

Before Nietzsche started working at DC Comics, he worked in a restaurant. How else can you explain that overused quote?

Having read a lot of comics, I can tell you what it means.

If you work somewhere too long, it has a habit of becoming part of you, and when you have a bun toaster embedded in your abdomen, it’s hard to remember how magical a trip out to dinner once was.

Instead, spectres will swirl around whispering, “Clean the menus. Stop those tables from wobbling. Did you take an Amex payment from the couple sitting at the bar. Why didn’t they pay service? How did you get so much sauce everywhere when all you had to do was squeeze the bag and try to get the sauce in the little pots for the customers.”

Working in a restaurant, even for a very short amount of time, made me feel like they’re kind of like DIsneyland. You know, like it’s all fake, and however much I want to take the adolescent man in a disney princess suit back to my shared accommodation, there’s a certain type of sweat that you can just never get out of your sheets.

Every time I now go into a restaurant, I just see cardboard boxes. And how part of my bill’s paying for the privilege of sitting on them.

Lesson 5: If you still get butterflies when you think about going to a restaurant, don’t start working in one.

6. Government intervention doesn’t always help individuals

London’s expensive and working in a burger restaurant doesn’t pay that well. I mean, it pays better than some other jobs, but it’s still not great. 

One of the biggest challenges my colleagues spoke about was zero hour contracts, and how your hours (despite the best efforts of management) were speculative. In practice, this meant you could be booked to work eight hours, but as the restaurant wasn’t very busy, you’re sent home early, and paid less. 

Zero hour contracts aren’t the problem I’m writing about though. I’m writing about zero hours contracts and mandated 20 minute breaks, for every six hours worked.

In practice, breaks could be given based on speculative hours, which didn’t materialise. So, while you would have previously expected to have earned 4 hours pay for four hours work, this quickly becomes three hours, 40 minutes pay, because it seemed like you were going to be staying later, and were asked to take a break. 

While there’s no doubt that everyone should receive breaks (I mean, we live in the west), when you’re already having trouble paying rent, forcing people to have their pay cut by 20 minutes, could easily be interpreted as a kick in the teeth.

Lesson 6: People working in restaurants really need to pull their fingers out. They should all be working much harder to reply to all public Government consultations on labour market reform.

7. The Sandman’s a vengeful bastard

Over the last two months, I frequently found myself volunteering or writing something for someone during the day, then going to work in the evening. 

If I’m honest, the flexibility was great, allowing me to focus on what I really wanted to do during the day. However, I found that working shifts really messes with your sleep pattern.

Although the latest I ever finished was 12:45, I routinely found myself getting home at 2:00am, proceeding to eat, then going to bed at 3:30am, to repeat the same cycle, often for eight or nine days running.

It’s something that’s easy to forget when working a nine to five. Even if you’re working less hours than someone on a forty hour week, if they’re sporadic, it can make you even less productive in your free time.

Lesson 7: If you’re working shifts, stop watching TV in bed. You’re never going to get that time back

8. A lot of people seem really bored with their lives

I served a lot of couples. 

They sat in booths, drank too much and stared at their phones. 

I’m not suggesting that I don’t do the same thing, but watching it made me feel pretty sad.

It was as if it was a weekend cycle: 

Get out of bed, take the train to London, go the restaurant, buy too much food, drink too many cocktails, get a little passive aggressive with each other, feel like you’ve done something for the day, get the train back to Kent, die.

Lesson 8: Weekends as a couple living outside of London can be bleak. Point me in the direction of the nearest bus stop, because my bones need a’ breakin’.

9. Whatever you do, it’s hard not to let it dominate your life

Whatever you do, when you spend all day with the same people, doing the same things, it’s hard not to repeat the same conversations, and it’s difficult not to get hung up on little changes to things.

Whether it’s a dish that’s been removed from a menu, a lime in coke, or the appointment of a new Director of HR, the conversations follow the same structure and the revelations are the same. 

Lesson 9: A lot of things about work stay the same, whatever your occupation.

Maybe working’s just not for me.

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