North vs. South, Hatfield’s vs. McCoy’s, Yankee’s vs. Red Sox’s, and Patriot’s vs. every other NFL team – these are all classic rivalry’s, but nothing compares to the inherent friction that exists in restaurants between the front and back of the house. Sometimes it gets downright ugly – right? It is likely that the source of this rivalry comes from a real lack of understanding on the part of both sides. In reality, both front and back of the house have the same goals: customer satisfaction, a smooth flowing system, and the ability to chalk up any given night as a “win”.
There are, the classic arguments: cooks complain about tips that servers take home, a lack of food knowledge, special orders, missed or delayed pick-ups, and the “short” shift that server’s work compared to those of the cook. Servers complain about the cook’s egos and arrogant attitudes, lack of understanding, crusty attitudes towards customer requests, inability to respond immediately to their concerns, etc. The result is friction, lashing out, offensive remarks, hurt feelings, and contempt.
What is ironic is that at the end of the night – many of these adversaries wind up elbow to elbow at the local bar toasting another night of “survival”. Interesting at the very least how “don’t take it personal” seems to be the accepted mantra in so many restaurants. So, as is the case with the back-of-the-house, let’s take a look at the jobs of the front staff through their eyes – let’s walk a mile in their shoes for a moment.
SERVERS – BACKWAITS – AND BARTENDERS:
Let’s begin with BACKWAITS – ah…the training ground for the next generation of server. “Well, it’s 1:00 and my gut is beginning to churn again. In two hours I will need to prepare to work another shift of subservience. My job as a back wait is anything but glamorous. For some reason, the restaurant doesn’t feel that I am yet worthy enough to take an order and interact with guests – my role is to be the go-between with the server and the line cook or expeditor. What a great system (not) – the server nods to the guest “Of course we can accommodate your special request”, but I am the one to face the cook when the printer spits out “no salt, well done scallops, and can you make the sauce without butter?” I am the one who the expeditor curses because I was 30 seconds late picking up an order in the pass; I’m the one who has to see the customer’s initial reaction when food is delivered, and I’m the one who more often than not has to clean up the mess at a table before re-set. At the same time, my portion of the gratuity is a meager 10 or 15%.
At the end of a shift, I am likely the one who has collected 15,000 steps on my Apple Watch, and the one who has most of the aching muscles, burns from hot plates, and emotional scars from irate line cooks. The server would be hard put to do their job well, if I weren’t there to serve as Robin to their Batman. I am the one who jumps to action when the expeditor shouts – pick-up, and I am the one who is there to listen when a customer says: “excuse me”. It is no wonder that I spend so much money on Tums before a shift, and truly relish those drinks at the end of work.”
The BARTENDER seems to have the real cake job in a restaurant. “How hard can it be?” Mix a few drinks, pour a glass of beer or wine, smile and accept a tip – this is all that bartenders do, at least through the eyes of others in the business. Little interaction with crusty line cooks, no burning looks from the expeditor, no demeaning commands from the server, and no sore muscles from carrying trays and adding miles on already swollen feet. Some restaurant employees sense that bartenders have an elite feeling about themselves; that they are, somehow, held in greater esteem for their skills and position. How does the bartender see it?
“Another shift, another night when I have to put on my actor face and be the host, ambassador, psychiatrist, chemist, mind-reader, and problem solver for the restaurant. Sure we have a manager, a hard-working, good person, but she doesn’t interface with guests and servers in the same way that I do. The manager has a chance to compose him or herself – I am on stage from the moment I arrive at work until the last drink is served. My job can be physical at times, but it is truly draining mentally and emotionally. When the guest sits down at the bar while waiting for a table I have to turn on my profile radar immediately. Is this person happy, sad, mad, or distraught? Are there any strong signals that I should pay attention to and should I alert the server to what lies ahead? What’s the best way to approach this person? Should I be stoic and all business, should I smile and be that ray of sunshine that the guest might need? Should I open with a story or a joke? What will set the stage for this guest’s positive experience in the restaurant?
When the guest asks for a Taiwan Torpedo, I have to smile and act as if I know what the hell he is expecting. So I respond with a vague: ‘how do you like that prepared’, or reach secretly for my iPhone and Google the drink recipe. When you are a bartender – everyone expects that you will be an encyclopedia of mixed drinks, and amateur craft brewer, and an up-and-coming sommelier. So, I have to constantly brush up on my knowledge of alcoholic drinks, master the lingo, and portray an aura of real love of everything from the names of winemaker’s, the terroir in which certain grapes were grown, the type of hops used in an IPA, and what kind of wood was used in the barrels to age a craft bourbon. When you are a bartender there is no room to hide a lack of knowledge.
When it is busy, we have to remain calm, pick up the pace, and still show the elegance of a showman who is truly in control. I may not carry trays of heavy plates and have to deal with the dangers of open flames and sharp knives in the kitchen, but I still put on loads of miles in a shift, suffer from aching feet and knees, and face the threat of carpel tunnel syndrome even though I don’t hold a French knife in my hand for hours at a time. It is exhausting!”
The SERVER is sometimes the least understood and the most maligned of the front-of-the-house employees. Of course it’s true that the average server works far fewer hours than a cook, doesn’t make anything tangible, and walks home with tip rewards for his or her effort, but how many cooks would really trade places? There must be a reason. So, here are some thoughts from the server perspective.
“It’s crazy how unpredictable my life is. I was hooked into the world of a server early on – not because this is what I was meant to do for a living. I have a degree in marketing, but worked my way through college as a restaurant server. The tips, although not always dependable, were great when they were great. Anyway, I made enough to cover my living expenses through four-years of school and provide funds for personal entertainment. It was good, but now it’s time to start a career – right? Try finding a job in marketing without any experience in marketing. I started working as an office assistant, but was bored to death, and the money sucked. I filled in with weekend server shifts at a local restaurant and after a few months succumbed back to full time work at the POS station. Oh, well – I’m good at it, so maybe this is my destiny.
The cooks are a pain in the neck – always resisting those times when I make a request in the interest of the guest. All they have to do is cook and plate – I have to deal with guests who are oftentimes very nice and understanding, and then sometimes they are rude, abrupt, condescending, and arrogant. The attitude of a few can make this job less than desirable. Sure, I know the chef thinks that we should be more knowledgeable about the food prepared and why certain complements go with certain dishes – but try telling that to the guest who wants a side of pasta with their risotto. My job, as least as I see it, is to accommodate what the paying guest wants, not defend the ego of the chef. Anyway, he is rarely pleasant and I just need to accept that and find ways to work around his attitude.
The back waiters that the restaurant hires have no real experience and the manager expects me to train as well as do my job. Every time that a back wait makes a mistake it impacts on my tips. I work a table, trying to build trust and a good relationship and then the back wait spills water at the table or forgets to pick up a dish in time. I am constantly apologizing for other people’s mistakes.
My background in marketing could really benefit the restaurant, but the manager has no interest in listening to my thoughts on how to bring in more business. I spent four years in college to prepare for a marketing position and now a manager with no real understanding of the concepts is turning down my free advice. Frustrating. Oh, well, at least most guests appreciate what I do and thank me with their wallets. Most of the cooks are doing what they love and in some cases, what they were taught to do in school – I’m getting by and working not out of passion, but out of necessity. I wish I could find my way out of this mess.”
So, in all cases it is easy to see that the front of the house is filled with challenges as well. The job of service and interfacing with guests is not easy – they earn their tips. The challenges are compounded when others in the organization fail to understand what makes the service staff – tick, what their jobs entail, and how they might benefit from support instead of distain.
Before you judge one position over another – take a moment to walk in their shoes. In an ideal restaurant world – every service staff member would spend some time working in the kitchen and every kitchen employee would in turn spend time working in the front. Ah…but that rarely happens so misunderstanding rules the day.
The final part in this series will focus on the chef and manager.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC