Friday, December 27, 2013

Working at Cheesecake Factory during Christmas Part 1

The holidays in particular put big pressure on people. Actually, correction, people put big pressure on themselves. Family is in town, everything has to be perfect.

“But it’s my mother, we said we’d get the best (insert thing or situation) for her, and it’s Christmas it should be this way or that thing.”

Yes, we know. Get in line with all the other families that told me and asked for the same exact perfection.

During holidays, you get customers that don’t normally go out to eat, who make every thinkable dining faux pas. They tax the server needless additional strain, unaware that in doing so, costs every other table good service, and in turn rob the server and his contemporaries money they need and deserve.

“It’ll be so busy, I bet you make great money!” you might be thinking.
In theory, yes. But in reality, it’s often three times the work for the same amount of money. Instead of having two good tables, you get six awful ones.

The idea is to make it up in volume. Get them in and out. Keep it moving, people.

Over the last week, I’ve taken notes from some of the best and worst customer interactions. And although most people come and go smoothly as routine, it’s the extreme cases that are memorable. I can accurately say that 1% of the human race is scum. It’s those people that you’ll be reading about.

Don’t think that this post is slamming everything about my line of work. It’s simply a reminder to be a good customer. That decency goes a long way when you dine out.
Through this post, you’ll get a real look at what serving in a busy restaurant is like. When you understand what a good server goes through, you’ll feel better about tipping 20%, knowing it was well earned and certainly deserved.

I’ve worked in restaurants my entire adult life. Working in small privately owned places, where it’s just me and the owner on the floor, to giant corporate chains with over 100 servers on staff per location.

I’ve been in the trenches of the holidays, making sure all the normal people enjoy their day off.
Year in, year out.

It’s an endless roaring nightmare, routinely pushing you and your grip of reality to the edge.
At top restaurant chains like Cheesecake Factory, working the ‘busy holiday season’ is like handling a hurricane in your mind.
And that’s exactly what tears through Scottsdale Cheesecake Factory every night in December, January, February and some of March.

I walk in 10 minutes early. I fought a Range Rover for a parking space moments ago, feeling upbeat.

At 4:00pm it’s supposed to be when things quiet down to a trickle. This is our chance to switch crews, restock and ready ourselves for the dinner war.
There should only be a few lagging tables, the floor at maybe 5% capacity… but it’s already full. There’s no wait at the moment, and things seem tame, but this is only temporary.

I can see it in their eyes. Oh day crew, what terrible events have stricken you today? Merely hinting at the monster to come?
Evidence of the lunch shift’s battle is everywhere.  Wiped out is the best way to describe the kitchen. The crew is visibly shaken.

I’m the first of the night shift to arrive, welcomed like some kind of holy savior.

“Thank God you’re here! Oh thank you so much! Thank you. Have a GREAT DAY!”
They fling their towels aside, clock out and joyously run away like freed slaves.

But now it’s my turn, and my dinner storm’s winds will be twice as harsh.
Half my night crew also worked the day shift, so they’re exhausted. They’ve been pushed like this for weeks, hanging onto threads and running on fumes.

To understand when and why the restaurant is busy comes down to understanding people like animals. Animals have habits that can be predicted and planned for.

I know I’ll need a certain amount of linen, lemons, ice, soda, booze, plates, cutlery, condiments and dignity to hand out. I get it all clean and ready as the phone explodes into ringing that won’t stop until we close.
The first wave of animals pile into the front door early. The rush is here already?
The night crew scrambles to brace themselves.

I’m working the bar tonight. Plenty of tables. When filled and emptied at perfectly timed intervals, it flows smoothly. Nothing breaks through my dam of control.

Well that’s not how tonight has started. My section gets slammed all at once. Every server gets nuked the same way. Triple and quadruple-sat with families of screaming kids and stressed out parents. Packed to the top with five hundred impatient people, each one thinking they’re the only person in the world.

Voices of every pitch and color swirl with background music I’ve heard thousands of times, combining into a thunderous murmur that shatters my senses.

The sheer variety of people keeps me changing like a chameleon from table to table: Be hip and flirty with the girls night out, strict and classy to the oldies behind them, patient and understanding with the mother and her crying kids that are allergic to everything, witty and wise with the martini sippers, warm and basic with the first timers, crude and relaxed with the blue collar Bud drinkers, then switching to hyper mode back in the kitchen to put everything together. I’m balancing no less than ten things in my head at all times, my arms filled with dirty plates, apron stuffed with checks to complete.

A glass and marble wall separates the gritty inner workings from the shiny glamour on the floor.

There’s a line of servers just trying to get bread for their tables. The kitchen hall swarms and throbs with moving white bodies. Like frantic schools of fish, workers slide between and around each other. Each on their own mission, mumbling things to themselves so as not to forget a detail.


Crashing, banging pots and pans fly around, the crackle and sizzle of dishes being prepped, commands mixed with cursing get hollered in English and Spanish. Sweat wiped from brows, pitchers dumped and filled, doors swinging, music blaring, plates clanging, bodies bumping into each other-  a massive effort to please the monster we’ve welcomed inside.

 All just to make a few bucks.

With a steaming meatloaf in one arm, a pizza and salad on the other, I zoom through the kitchen. Just before getting onto the floor to run the food out to its corresponding table, I see a trembling server. She’s new, maybe a month here. She’s frozen in terror at the scene before her. We’re only thirty minutes in, and she’s already breaking.

“I know, it’s okay. Just pick one task and concentrate on it,” I try to sound soothing.

Her bottom lip won’t stop shaking.

“I need you to run something. Pick something, and run it. Just get in there!” I yell at her over my shoulder.

“I-I…  I can’t do this... I can’t I-”

“Go!” I shout, then blast by her.

It shakes her awake and I see her dive into the mess as I rejoin the floor.

As I’m wrapping up an order, landing my last practiced jab to a table of chuckles, I catch a glimpse of six Greeks. There’s old Grandpa Greek, his daughter and grand daughters. Even the grand daughters are my age, so this guy is old.

“Gooood evening, how are we tonight?” my face says, dealing napkins like cards for a game.

Grandpa grunts something that sounds foreign. His granddaughters light up. They’re pretty, my age, my colors, they like me already and he hates that.

“My name’s Andrew, I’ll be helping you to-”

“Your reeng!” the middle-generation woman says, pointing to my hand, “It’s the Greek key.”

“Oh, yeah, here, check it out,” I drop the usual opening routine, and hand her my ring.

She studies it, smiling, then grandpa snatches it from her, killing the scene.

“You know vat this ees? Eets the Gleek key of eternity,” he says to me, as if I don’t understand or deserve to wear such a symbol. “Are you Gleek?”

“No sir, I’m Italian,” I say, in a flat Phoenix Arizona voice.

He scoffs, “Well I vant a glass a vine pronto. That’s Italiano for fast.

I let that slide. He’s sneering his words at me, somehow trying to devalue me. He’s trying to make me look like a servant, not a server. Just some dumb worthless kid.

“Yes sir, what kind of wine do you like? My list is here on page four. It’s ordered sweet at the top, dry on the—“

“What’s good here,” he interrupts me yet again, leaning on his closed menu, now wearing my ring as if it’s his own.

The girls watch us. Grandpa being surly, defending his ladies against the upstart young lion.

“Okay well, what will you be having to eat? Knowing that might help me narrow it dow-“

“UGH why is eet ALL so HARD!” his arms fly open “Just tell me wass good here capeesh? That’s Italian for-“

“Yes, I know what it means. Sounds good.”

I glance at my other tables, I need more iced tea.

 “I’ll just assume your tongue and brain are like mine then, and get you our house merlot. That gets the job done for most Greeks.”

“Oh ho most Greeks huh?” he exclaims. The girls’ eyes widen at us.

“That’s right. You’re going to eat red meat. You’ll ask for the ribeye because you see it’s a few dollars cheaper, then I’ll tell you to eat the Steak Diane instead as long as you get it medium ra-”

“-You said yer Italian, no? You don sound like eet,” he looks down at me, I’ll never be good enough. 

I don’t have time for this. He’s only interested in being an irritant. He hasn’t even looked at the menu, wanting me to tell him everything instead. My other tables are falling behind. A baby cries somewhere in the distance.

My jaw tightens. I’m wasting too much energy on him. I look at the girls, as if to apologize for what’s coming. They understand and nod approval.

“You just theenk yer some hot-shot and—”

“Tu sei un pazzo, va via da qui,” I interrupt him this time.

His mouth gapes. I smile and move to my other tables.

The girls laugh hard.
Grandpa’s confused, demanding to know what I just said to him. They’re laughing at him and won’t tell.

After catching up all my other tables I return to the Greeks at a leisurely pace. Grandpa behaves perfectly this time, handing my ring back immediately, and having everyone’s order ready with no changes to anything.

Later into the rush, the wait was up to an hour. And for a place as big as this, that’s a huge deal.

I’m buried completely. I move lightning fast, efficient and poised, and I still can’t stay ahead of the flood. There’s simply no one able to help me, everyone else is maxed out too.

I’m moving through the bar tables, arms full of food to run, when I see two men where two women should be.

The table they’re at is dirty. It hasn’t even been prebussed yet. No one should be at this table for at least another ten minutes. It’s a small gap in time for me to catch up on my other five tables while this one is being cleaned up and reset.

I drop off the food and return to the men. They don’t have dinner menus, which means they rudely cut in front of everyone, dodged the hostesses up front, and sat themselves instead. Crossing their arms, looking frustrated, like I’ve failed them somehow.

“Good evening gentlemen, how long was the wait?” I say, innocently.

They look at each other and scoff, like I missed an inside joke.

“We ain’t waitin fer nothin but you. The hell you been? Hangin out an shit? Yer sposed ta get us what I want rat now!”

“Right, okay, well let me clean this table and I’ll grab us some menus.”

“I wanna happy hour menyeh.”

“I’m afraid happy hour ended over an hour ago s-“

“I said! I wanna happy hour menyeh rat now.”

My hands are full of the last people’s trash. I scan both the men, they have to be joking right?
They aren’t. Neither of these men, grizzly chinned, care about other people. Neither seems to understand nor care that they just stole a table from patiently waiting people. That they’ve deliberately broken the unspoken rules of how this all works.

“Well? The hell you starin at? Go git me our menyehs!”

“Yes sir.”

I go to the back, clear the old plates, dump the old trash, check on my other (legitimate) tables, fix them up. My body is drained, I’m running out of fake friendliness. I take a deep breath, grab some regular dinner menus and return to the men.

“Here you are gentlemen, sorry about that delay there. I was a bit behind from the start it seems,” I chuckle a disarming chuckle. It doesn’t work.

They flip through the menu book.

“Whale awright, now where yer happy hour shit.”

“Oh like I said, it’s just regular hour right now, sir,” there was a slight shudder in my tone at the end.

“I thought ah told you—“

A static crackling behind my eyes, penetrating my head. Somewhere between crumpling paper and the tzzchzz between radio stations. It rings in my head, I’m about to snap. I’m gonna lose it on this guy. It’s not his fault, he’s just a guy. Just a wandering animal without any idea.

“I thought I told you ta git me some—“

Look at me.”

My facade vanished. I’m close to his face now, too close. There’s no busy restaurant around us anymore. Just darkness, and him. His stupid ugly face, that’s all there is. I’m not a waiter, I’m not working. It’s just me and him, two men, and one of them is going to be put in his place.

Look at my face. What do you think this is. Hm?”

My voice is low and harsh, only he can hear it. My eyes are wide, I can feel them burn and twitch. This is grounds for being fired, what I’m doing, but I don’t care.

“Ah, ah just said ah wanted uh…”

What? Happy hour is fuckin over. You know why it’s over? Because time doesn’t stop for you. Clocks tick, sir.”

My jugular vein throbs in my neck.
The air hangs thick for a moment, the man is completely shocked.

Then I lean back, the bustling environment returns around us. I switch the robot back on.

“But you can happily pick from one of the other four hundred delicious things we have!” my mouth smiles and laughs, but the man’s seen enough now. For a moment he saw what was underneath and he corrected himself with an apologetic

“We’d just lack uh, two Bud Lats. That’ll do, please. Sir.”

“Two Bud Lights, coming right up gentlemen!”

As the final hours wind down, it’s getting quiet. My uniform is ruined, my hair askew, drenched in sweat, the entire restaurant seems to have been picked up and thrown.

We’re just minutes away from closing. The manager is on his way to lock the front doors when a couple walks in. They skip past the front desk and plop themselves eagerly into one of my dirty tables.

I dig deep, pulling in a big breath. Almost done. We’re almost done, Andrew. You can do it.
I right myself, come around the corner and greet them.

With his arm tightly embracing his attractive girlfriend, he looks around at the destroyed, but largely vacant bar.

“You guys aren’t that busy, I was expecting it to be busy in here.”

I strangle him with my eyes.


I go through my routine on the outside, sleeping on a beach on the inside.

With their drinks and bread out, waiting for their food, I step out back.

Finally. A moment to breathe.

As 11:00pm rolls in, half a dozen torn up staff shiver in the dark.
I join them by the dumpsters. Needing just a moment’s peace, just a bit of quiet nicotine to regenerate. Normally, there would be banter back and forth, but not a word tonight.

They all just puff on their cigarette, gazes far away. They’re all somewhere else in their minds.