Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Lessons From An Italian Restaurant

Like many teenagers, I worked a part time job while I was in high school. I needed to earn money to pay for my car, gas, and insurance, plus some extra to finance my music habit.  One of the first jobs I had was working as a busboy in an Italian restaurant. I learned things in that job that still serve me well today.

A restaurant works a bit differently today than it did back when I worked in one. Today, you might have a waiter take your order and a food runner bring your food and drinks out to you. The waiter might clear your dishes or another person might do that. The waiter might take your check or someone else might do that. So, today you could have up to 4 different people handling your table. But back in the day, restaurants only had two people working a table – the waiters and waitresses and busboys (and busgirls, but where I worked, they were all male). The person who took your order was the one who brought you your food and drinks and took care of your check. The busboys brought you bread, filled your water glasses, cleared your plates, and cleaned and set the table for the next group when you were done. It was hectic but when things were running smoothly, everything flowed well.

What I Learned

Hierarchy – The restaurant staff could be divided into two groups – those that interacted with customers (“front of the house”) and everyone else (“back of the house”). Each group had its own hierarchy:

Back of house
Head chef
Sous chefs

Front of house
Wait staff

The higher up you were in the hierarchy, the more respect you had, the more you were listened to, and the more likely the manager was to accommodate your requests for time off, specific work shifts, etc. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, that's how things work. The more important you are, the more likely your requests are to be fulfilled.

Customer Service Can Suck, But It Teaches Valuable Skills - I firmly believe that everyone should work in some sort of customer service position, be it waiter, fast food, or whatever. Learning how to deal with a wide range of customer behavior is an important skill. Most of the people you'll deal with are nice, but you will come across those who are unreasonable or demand the impossible or are just plain mean.

Learning how to deal with those types of people with a smile and, more importantly, learning how to prevent them from ruining your day, is important. As a bus boy, I dealt with angry diners and diners that were impossible to please (and these were often the same person). As you will learn, sometimes, you have to grin and bear it. As an added bonus, later in life, you might think back to your time in that position and think twice before flying off the handle at someone trying to provide you service.

Being Nice Pays Off - Closely related to the above, once you learn how to be nice, you'll start to see the benefits of it. Working as a bus boy, if I was pleasant and nice to the customers, they would often leave a bigger tip. Because the wait staff split their tips with their busboys, that meant more money for me. That was a direct, immediate payoff to being nice and a lesson that was pretty hard to miss.

But being nice wasn't only about monetary benefits. Each busboy had his favorite waiter or waitress to work with and it usually had nothing to do with how much those servers tipped out at the end of the night. The waiters who were most coveted were those that were nice, those that didn't yell at you when you forgot something or those that asked nicely for things instead of demanding them. They may or may not have been the best tippers, but they were the ones we wanted to work with because they made working so much more pleasant. And, as a result, we would often go out of our way to help them with stuff that wasn't normally our job. If they were falling behind and needed to make salads or soups for a table, we'd do it, and we'd do it with a smile because we wanted to help them.

To this day, some 30 years later, I still remember Mark and Andrea as my two favorite waiters to work for. I can't remember any other waiters from my time as a bus boy, but I remember those two because they were nice.

Don't Leave Stuff On The Table - Everyone looks out for themselves. If you drop $5 on the street and don't notice, someone behind you is gonna pick it up and, more often than not, pocket it. No one is going to give you money or offer you a better deal on something just for the heck of it. If you pay too much for something, it's your loss and their gain. Sometimes it doesn't take much to get a better deal (indeed, sometimes all you have to do is ask), but if you never ask, you aren't going to get it. This is point of my Don't Leave Money Of The Table series.

At my Italian restaurant we, naturally, served pizza. People would often not finish their entire pizza and ask for a box to take the remaining slices home. Sometimes when they left, they forgot to bring the box.

Now, the bus boys I worked with, including myself, were teenage boys and teenage boys are always hungry. When someone left a box of pizza on the table, that table was immediately cleared and the pizza box taken in the back to the bus boy's station, where we quickly devoured the contents. I mean, it was gone instantly. We had diners who hadn't even made it out to their car before realizing they left their pizza inside, then come back in and ask for it. Too late. We told them we had already thrown it in the trash, but the reality was, it was eaten. Be sure to seize your opportunities when they come up. Don't assume you can get them later.

And never leave pizza behind.


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