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Dishing it Out 

Humboldt servers spill about their jobs

How is everything over here? We asked career restaurant servers in Humboldt the same question — and a few more — they ask us every day. We spoke to men and women working in fast food, family and high-end restaurants about how they got into the business, what they love and loathe about the job, the wildest things they've witnessed on shift and the truth about tipping. We agreed to withhold their names and the places they work so they could speak freely without fear of repercussions.

In Humboldt, food service workers are 4,486 people strong, according to the 2017 U.S. Census. Of those, 58.1 percent are women. Food service staff make up 8 percent of the county's workforce and 12 percent of its private sector workforce. Nationally, food service industry employees reported an average wage of $24,323, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Living Wage Calculator sets a living wage for a single adult in Humboldt County at $24,038 and $53,734 for a single parent raising a child.

To be honest, before talking with local servers, we expected horror stories and wildly different experiences. But from the drive thru to starched white tablecloths, they had in common a love of people and no fear of hard work. Mostly, if they could, they'd tell us, the dining public, to remember they're human. That and to keep our pants on. Literally.

The high-end server

  • Illustration by Jacqui Langeland

How he got started: "I've been working in food service since I was 15 ... I dropped out of high school and my mom was yelling at me because I wasn't going to get up and go to school. So she said, 'Fine. Put on a white shirt and black pants — you're going to this catering job with me.'" He eventually finished school and has been waiting tables and bartending for the last two decades.

Pay: Like most servers, he makes minimum wage. "It's pretty rough but it depends where you are. You can make up for it. ... I used to be able to go home and put a certain amount of my tips in a jar for PG&E," but at an upscale house, tips go on credit cards and onto his paycheck. That means he pays the taxes on tips that he ultimately splits with other crew members, noting that servers share tips with the rest of the staff: the back server (who brings the bread, refills water and carries extra plates), the dishwasher, kitchen staff and bartender. Tips going onto his paycheck also means he doesn't get the frequent restaurant industry perk of finishing each shift with a little cash in his pocket. "I've had great paychecks but I was broke for a week," he says. Right now he has no health insurance. "Luckily, I'm healthy." Otherwise, he's financially stable, with side gigs and a solid roommate. "I don't have a whole lot of expenses."

He's in no hurry to abandon the tipping system. "If it's higher wages, I understand. But it's gotta be comparable. Some nights I've ended up with $100 in tips but without that I'm walking away with $80 for the night." As for bad tips, he says, "Jokingly, in the kitchen, I'll be like, 'What the fuck?' Like with the chef or whatever, like, 'That guy sucked.' But really, it doesn't bother me that much. ... It evens out." For him, the tips mean more than money, too. "That gratitude, that gratuity, it feels good. I mean, you're not gonna tip your mom for a pasta dinner. But you could and she'd probably love it."

The work: At the start of a shift, he says, "You get right into all the prep," meaning setting out candles, making tables for reservations and polishing glasses and silver, then "asking the chef about the night's specials, wording it in the proper ways, seeing what we're out of, what's changed." Typically, he's tasted all the dishes on offer or something very similar. Once that's done, "If you're in a good restaurant with good people you can kinda just shoot the shit" for a bit. "Once diners arrive, it can still be pretty mellow ... but it can get packed with walk-ins and I'll be bouncing between tables like a ping pong [ball]."

The best part of the job: "I like the atmosphere of it, the ability to take on a different persona with every table," he says. Especially with travelers, "You get a chance to connect with people from all over the world." He pauses. "I'm a little darker at home, in my personal life," he says. "I appreciate what my job does for me, like I'm a little more cheerful. ... I actually feel more at home at my workplace than at my home."

Worst part of the job: "The idea that you're getting judged really hard sometimes ... I don't know what they're going through, either, but when I try ... and I get this negative response from them, it hurts. ... When a guest has a bad experience, you kind of walk away with it." He says he and his coworkers are happy to take food back or comp items to make it a good experience, so it's jarring to see an online review roasting the service or the food. "Communication is the main thing — it's a two-way relationship for that couple of hours. If you just smile and nod, how am I supposed to know?"

It's one reason he doesn't look at Yelp much. He's worked in places with posted printed reviews in the back but says, "I think they're dumb. The whole thing. We joke about Yelp for servers, rating customers." Mostly he finds it's "people just complaining for the sake of complaining."

Harassment: Among staff, "Usually it's just between the guys," he says, blushing a little. "Usually there's been a very playful homoerotic joking between the men," but he hasn't witnessed or heard of anyone who was uncomfortable. "People seem to know the boundaries, what's acceptable and what's not." Customers are another story. "I've definitely seen a few inappropriate customers," some of whom he had to toss from the coffee place he worked at for crude comments.

Pet peeves: "Vegans," he answers, dropping his head in a chuckle. "It's just so difficult. ... We accommodate everything we can but it's the people who come in and want to change everything," eschewing menu items made to be gluten free or vegan, for example, in favor of re-engineering standard dishes. Wasted grower dudes yelling across the room for another drink aren't his favorite, either.

Craziest thing he's seen on the job: He's worked for places where there were a lot of drugs and music nights sometimes got wild. "We've had people jump up on the bar, spit fire." At one bar on the Arcata Plaza, "We actually had a regular ... who streaked through the bar. It was Halloween," he says. "We saw him come in and then he went into the bathroom, and then came running [naked] through the bar. He ended up back out on the plaza."

Advice to newbies: "As far as serving or bartending, just study. Find out about what you're interested in [food or drink] and just learn about it. ... And find a place that suits you with the right atmosphere and coworkers and keep trying. Don't give up."

Advice for customers: "Tip in cash. It's so nice. It really helps people out." And, he adds, "Just remember that we're human. We're choosing a line of business serving you food and drinks because you don't want to make it for yourself. And if it's busy just remember you're not the only one."

The diner waitress

  • Illustration by Jacqui Langeland

How she got started: On and off, she's been working at the same place for more than a decade. "I've tried other jobs, like more grown-up jobs, but I'm a people person — I just enjoy talking to people." She's been working since she was 16. "When you're 20, you feel like you have all the time in the world. I figured I'd work and go to school but that just never worked out. I met my husband there so I wouldn't change a thing."

Pay: Her hourly wage is $11.50. "That's only because I've been there so long and I felt comfortable asking for that raise." She gets by on that and another day job while her kids are in school, and her insurance is through MediCal. Working three nights a week, she comes home with about $200 in tips after sharing with the staff. "I tip out my hostess, my cooks and my busser. My hostess, it depends how helpful she is. ... I tip our cooks very well. If you tip well, if you make mistakes, they're quick to fix your mistakes and not be so sassy. We tip out bussers based on sales. I always tip more so when I need it they help me out [with messes and busy shifts]. I'm not the only one with a hard job. My busser is the best — I love him. And he knows it." She says ditching the tipping system "would not work for me. ... I would still work as hard. It would be an even playing field but I feel like ... if you know your money depends on how good you are, you're gonna be a better server."

When she gets a skimpy tip or a customer stiffs her, she wonders, "What did I do wrong? It's like the phases of grieving," she says with mirth in her voice. "First, you're mad, then you're sad, then you can't believe it." She recalls getting a 52-cent tip on a $70 tab from a smiling customer. "I almost wanted to hand it back, you know, like, 'You need it more.' ... Young couples don't tend to tip much. They still get good service." Still, she says, "If we're vibing well and they seem happy and then there's very little tip, it's confusing. Maybe they just didn't have money today. That's how I make peace with it."

The work: "I come in at 4 p.m. I basically make sure that [the previous server] has her table taken care of before she leaves." From there, she's off and running, taking orders, making drinks and desserts, and shuttling heavy plates to and from the kitchen. Early on a dinner shift, she zips between tables, chatting lightly as she picks up plates and teases a laugh out of an older couple about the husband's sweet tooth. "We're very friendly," she says, and in a free moment, "you hear waitresses talking with each other, which some people complain about, but I'm not gonna work eight hours in silence." For her, it's a good situation. "It's kind of like a family. The owner treats us like family. ... We all get pretty close. Some of us have kids and if you need somebody to cover for your shift, we help each other out."

Best part of the job: "I have my regular customers that I love. When I'm off, I miss them. ... The people who come in and I know their order and their drinks by heart, the people who ask for me," she says. "I've made a lot of friends. You know when they're having a good day; they know when I'm having a good day. They might go, 'Honey, are you OK?'"

Worst part of the job: "Probably just ungrateful people. I feel like I can work well with anybody. But some customers come in and you just cannot make them happy. ... I smile through it but sometimes I just go in the back and go 'huh,'" she says, sighing heavily. "The owner reads the [online] reviews religiously," which she has mixed feelings about. She remembers a bad review from a couple she recognized getting her in hot water despite getting a good tip from them. Luckily, she had some good reviews to point to as well.

Pet peeve: "Touching," she says, is over the line. "I've had a customer smack my hand when I was removing something from the table. ... They need somebody to take it out on." Other guests have pulled on her elbow or apron strings as she passed by or tapped her shoulder while she was talking with another patron. "We're not public property."

Harassment: As far as the staff, she says, "I work with a lot of girls and there's a lot of guys and everybody is very friendly. But I've never had anybody say anything to me about that." But, "You have customers who say inappropriate things but I can put a barrier between you and me." She says it's creepy when men comment on the girls' bodies, clothes or tattoos, and the staff keeps an eye out for trouble. "People come in and take a lot of their issues out on us."

Craziest thing she's seen on the job: "We actually had a guy come in and undress. He went in the back and sat like he was gonna eat. He started yelling and running around, so we asked him to leave. Then he started taking his clothes off. We had to call the cops." She let the male restaurant staff handle him until the police arrived but made sure the blinds were closed.

Advice to server newbies: "I'd probably say take everyone's advice with a grain of salt because you learn by doing. ... Every restaurant is different. Be willing to learn and be willing to change. Don't think you already know everything."

Advice for customers: "Just know that I'm human. I do make mistakes. ... If there's been a mistake, I'll do my best to fix it. I want you to leave happy. Just have a little patience. If your steak is overdone, I'll get you a new one. You'll leave happy."

The fast food worker

  • Illustration by Jacqui Langeland

How she got started: Now in her mid 20s, she says, "I've been in fast food almost seven years. I started a year after graduating high school. I was in college and I just needed something that fit with my school schedule. ... The schedule was flexible and the pay wasn't bad either."

Pay: Coming from Southern California, she noticed, "In Humboldt it's a little lower... it starts at minimum wage. ... Up here, the franchise is not corporate ... some of the people who have been working there, it has been a year and they still have not got a raise at all." And fast food pay isn't augmented with tips. "Once in a while they do [tip] but it almost never happens," she says, giggling a little at the idea. And she's not against the tipping system, despite not benefiting from it. "I still tip when I go to Applebees. If you get good service, they deserve it," she says.

"I am full time, except they don't provide any type of insurance at all." Instead, she says she's on MediCal. "I do actually live with my partner because even though it's full time, it's not enough to afford living by myself."

The work: "It becomes a little routine, a mental schedule. That means regularly checking grills and refrigeration, and bathroom checks every 30 minutes. "There's a lot of homeless. And we have to make sure it's clean for customers. ... We find needles from the homeless. We have a process that we have to use and we have a little kit. It has to be done by a manager," who might make roughly $1 or $2 more per hour than a crew member. "They have to wear gloves, of course. And if the person using the illegal drugs or whatever is still there we have to call the cops," she says. "Two, three months ago it was once or twice a day. Lately, I want to say once a week."

As far as she's seen in seven years, nobody is spitting in or otherwise abusing your food, even if you send it back. "Sometimes it's our fault for whatever reason ... but sometimes not. But we just make sure we make it so the customer is happy. ... With no customers we wouldn't have a job," she says with a chuckle.

Best Part of the job: "Most of the customers ... they kind of become like a little family. It's more interacting with the customers and the crew." Once in a while she even visits her old customers and crew at a different location "Sometimes I just stop by in the a.m. and see how they're doing. ... You get attached to the people and the place, so it's hard to move on."

Worst part of the job: "There's not much that I dislike. I would just say not having a consistent schedule." Lately she's been working early and late shifts at the 24-hour restaurant. "Just not having a consistent sleeping schedule is something I dislike."

Harassment: She hasn't experienced or heard of any sexual harassment, however, "There was a customer who disliked the fact that one of the crew spoke Spanish to someone else in the kitchen. They spoke English but sometimes it's just easier in Spanish. ... She just made the comment: 'Illegal people should go back to Mexico.'" She laughs again and sighs. "Most of the people that are working here are born here."

Craziest thing she's seen on the job: "Back home, a couple years ago, when I used to do graveyard shift, there were a lot of gangs. And they would meet up [at the restaurant] and they would start fighting. So that was a little scary because they would have guns. In one location they ended up behind the counters and throwing each other against the machines and they went all the way into the kitchen so we just went all the way back [into the storage room] and called the cops. ... I think it took 10 or 20 minutes to show up."

Advice to newbies: "Not to get frustrated and not to get emotional. ... Sometimes we have to put our emotions aside. It will get better."

Advice to customers: "Even though we are fast food, they may have to wait and they may not like that, you know, they're trying to get home to their families. Sometimes they forget that we are humans and when we mess up their order, they can just tell us and we'll make it right," she says. "Be a little more patient ... we cannot have everything made for a long time ahead. [Some things] have to be made right then to order and especially on the weekends it can be hard to keep up."

The local landmark server

  • Illustration by Jacqui Langeland

Starting out: After working in a relative's restaurant growing up, "I wanted to do something else for a while and went to college." He brought much of what he learned about organization and interdependent relationships to restaurant work when he came back and he's spent the last two decades in a handful of Humboldt establishments, including the local icon he works at now.

Pay: "It was good for a 20 year old," he says, pointing out he doesn't see career servers cracking $40,000 a year in Humboldt and managers make less without tips. He makes minimum wage plus tips, which he hasn't calculated exactly and wouldn't divulge if he had. He gets no benefits but his expenses are low. While he loves the work, he's not totally sure he's in the business for life. "People here look at 15 percent as a good tip. You get a lot of handshakes and smiles and thanks," he says. The best tippers, he finds, are fellow service industry workers and growers with cash. As far as tipping out the staff, "Every place is different," he says. "Hopefully the guest is generous so the server can be generous. ... I'd say most servers are tipping out 25 percent."

The work: "I'm at a good house," he says. He defines that as one where the management is there to help servers so they can do their best by the patrons. Servers need to focus on a diner's experience, not whether the boss is going to be steamed over the cost of comping a meal when necessary. "In places I've seen that are successful," he says, "there's a generosity in service, quality or portion." Not every customer is ready to speak up, though. "People are really polite to me," he says. He recalls a woman he could tell was unhappy with an entrée but reticent to say so. Finally, he told her, "It's really easy for us to do this over for you."

The team he's part of now is tight. "Families grow up around the kitchen," he says, "and when you have a business that involves the kitchen, people grow close." The stress of a slammed dinner rush builds camaraderie, too.

Best part of the job: "You're basically hosting a dinner event for however many people and you don't have to pay the bill," he says. "I'm catching them in the best way — it's their birthday or their anniversary." Seeing his regulars and "the ones who request me when they make a reservation ... it gives you something to look forward to. ... I sound too positive but why else do this? I love every day I get to go to work."

Worst part of the job: It's hard to get him to dish but there is an attitude that he doesn't love to see: entitlement. That diner who's hit some trendy spots out of town and returns to Humboldt's eateries believing them to be beneath him or her, assuming they are provincial. Rather than rolling his eyes, he sets out to prove them wrong by anticipating their needs and delivering on service. And he tries not to look at Yelp. At all.

Harassment: He hesitates before answering, "I wouldn't say I haven't seen anything." But he's reluctant to comment as he can't speak to how people felt in those situations. The one time he did see a line crossed, it was not by a staff member and, he says, "it was handled" by management.

Advice to newbies: "Read about food. Learn so you're educated and not just guessing." He also suggests being patient with people who ask "dumb questions" or make impossible requests, like calling on a packed Mother's Day for a dinner reservation. "This isn't their world," he says.

Advice to customers: He smiles big and says, "Be generous."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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