Service with a Smile

By / Photography By Andrew Hyslop | November 01, 2011
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In a world that insists fame and stardom precede admiration and success, restaurant servers get little attention. Their coworker chefs and bartenders are subjects of TV programs, movies and magazine profiles, yet no one’s telling servers’ stories. There is no “Top Server” TV show, no Gordon Ramsay-like maître d’ raging at a cowering wait staff in Hell’s Dining Room. Apparently, taking orders and ferrying food and drink to tables isn’t sexy enough for the boob tube.

It is, however, work that’s attractive enough to make career servers of many who not only enjoy customer service, they routinely enjoy earnings that can surpass an executive chef’s. Full-time “waiters” and “waitresses,” as they were called before that gender-neutral relabeling of “server,” make respectable money: $50,000 a year or more in high-end restaurants, slightly less at busy casual dining spots.

But as many longtime servers will attest, money isn’t the only reward. The challenge of delivering a complete dining experience is fulfilling, even in the role of customer advocate, i.e. delivering not-always-well-received special requests to the kitchen or bar.

Edible Louisville spoke with four longtime local servers who, even after decades of dealing with the pressures of the job, still relish it and view their trade as noble, necessary and often neglected in America’s expanding service culture. These four represent many of their colleagues.

César Pérez, server and assistant manager, Corbett’s Restaurant: An American Place

César Pérez, 46, server and assistant manager, Corbett’s Restaurant: An American Place

César Pérez has worked in many of Louisville’s top dining rooms: some years because he needs to, most years because he wants to. By day he is a graphic designer and website builder. By night he serves at Corbett’s and moonlights for a caterer.

“It’s kind of a supplementary [income] now, but I do rather enjoy it, so I keep doing it,” he says. “I’ve always been attracted to working with extraordinary chefs who have vision, people like Kathy Cary, Dean Corbett, Amber McCool, Finbar Kinsella. And nothing is better than getting to taste their food!”

Great servers, he says, are captivated by “figuring out how to feed 200 guests that all come in an hour. Everyone has to be aware of what everyone else is doing to work as a team. That’s a skill trait you better learn or you’ll flounder.”

Part of the job is keeping guests completely unaware of the chaos underway in the kitchen, he adds. “You come back tableside smiling as if everything’s perfect because your job is to convince them it is, though it might not be.”

Asked how he’d convince someone to become a server, Pérez says, “I’d be frank and tell them it takes some guts to be in this business. You’ll work holidays and take time away from family. And you have to work 14-hour days sometimes. But it’s still good work.”

Kaye Wheeler, server, Lilly’s: A Kentucky Bistro

Kaye Wheeler, 53, server, Lilly’s: A Kentucky Bistro

“I actually set out to be a waitress. Isn’t that strange?” Kaye Wheeler says, laughing. “I grew up next door to a woman who was home during the day and gone at night working as a cocktail waitress. … She had the best of both worlds, I thought. So I kept thinking, ‘How can I do that?’”

Wheeler’s parents hoped she’d get a degree “and then a real job. But I knew that college wasn’t for everybody and that life is about loving what you do. And I love what I do!”

Wheeler’s enthusiasm for the job comes partly from “being 12 years old at heart. But what’s sad is I sometimes have more heart and spirit than these 20-year-olds who do this. Most of them have no grit, their work ethic is soft. In this business, you have to grab it and growl if you’re going to do well.”

Asked if she minds that servers haven’t gotten the glory chefs have, Wheeler says, “No, not really. Cooking is hard and they should get more accolades for it. But I, on the other hand, have the ability of making quite a bit more money than most of them without sweating it as hard as they do.”

Phil Corrao, server, English Grill, The Brown Hotel

Phil Corrao, 48, server, English Grill, The Brown Hotel

“It’s a shame that this is overlooked as a ‘real career,’ because it’s a good career,” says Phil Corrao, whose daytime hours include operating First Step Shoes in the Highlands. “I’ve made a lot of money” waiting tables, he says. “And what’s interesting is you see people get a ‘real job’ and very quickly miss the money of waiting tables.”

Corrao believes short-term servers come to the industry for the quick buck but end up frustrated by the challenge of “taking care of customers. True service comes from the heart, and most people don’t know that. If you enjoy it from the heart, the money comes. A lot of people forget about that.”

When asked how to manage the stress of the job, Corrao laughs. “You make a game of it, and when you do that, you get to play. And if I’m playing while I’m working, it’s not a hard job.”

Difficult customers aren’t a problem, Corrao adds, because “I think all customers are easy, even if they’re grumpy. You just say, ‘Yes sir,’ ‘No sir,’ and walk away. Everybody has an issue. It’s no big deal. Move along.”

Many forget, Corrao adds, that one can be a server anywhere they want to live. “I’ve lived in Bermuda, Vale and Beaver Creek (Colorado) and waited tables, had a blast and made money. What job is there where you can always go to a city and find work? In this job, you’ll always have work.”

Fatemeh Collins, server and catering, Bristol Bar & Grille, Jeffersonville

Fatemeh Collins, 58, server and catering, Bristol Bar & Grille, Jeffersonville

Fatemeh Collins says that enjoying service work comes down to “the simple fact that if it wasn’t for our customers, I wouldn’t have a job. But I love my customers anyway, so it’s not hard for me. I just love my job, which I know sounds very corny.”

Even when customers are challenging or cheap? “You get a difficult customer now and then, but that’s every job. This job has more positives than negatives. … And when you get stiffed, you can’t let it ruin your mood because a generous guy is just around the corner. Some people just don’t tip, so don’t take it personally.”

Collins has worked with many who saw waiting tables as a stepping stone to “their real job, but I guess I was more dedicated to it because I knew I wanted it to be my career. … Still, I always try to encourage young people to do this. It’s a good career and we’re all getting old and need to be replaced! Not today, but soon!”

Steve Coomes is a former chef and Louisville freelancer.

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