The waiter's nightmare: an ode to the people who take your order

I haven’t waited tables in over 20 years, but I still get the nightmares.

It usually goes something like this. I show up for work a few minutes early. The hostess greets me at the door. “I just double-seated you,” she says. Wonderful. So I haul ass, get my apron on, clock in, and by the time I get to the first table – they’ve already been waiting on me for five minutes – I see the hostess plopping yet another table down in my section. By the time I get back to table one with their drink order a fourth, and sometimes a fifth, table has been seated. I appear to have an entire section of the restaurant to myself tonight, a section that would normally be manned by three or four of us. And it just keeps snowballing.

If I’m lucky, at some point I wake up enough to realize that it’s just a bad dream, and from there I can usually calm myself enough to get back to sleep. If I’m not lucky I don’t wake up until morning, when I’m as mentally exhausted as if I had just worked the shift I was dreaming about.

Most former waiters and waitresses I know endure the nightmares, no matter how long they’ve been out of the restaurant industry. Theirs will differ according to the details of their particular jobs, of course, but the next panic is never further away than bedtime, especially if they had the pleasure of working in a place like I did.

I had another one last week. It was a little different than most, in that it wasn’t set in the usual spot (the now-defunct Darryl’s 1913 at North Point in Winston-Salem, NC). This one was more creatively cast. You know how you have those weird-ass dreams where one place morphs into another and people you know closely are somehow merged with people you hated from high school, and the lot of them are doing things that make no feckin’ sense whatsoever? Right. It was one of those, and I was the waiter. Talk about being happy to wake up.

The next night we went out to dinner with my sister-in-law and her husband, and we wound up at Rock Bottom. At one point we noticed that our waitress had gone AWOL and I asked if anybody had seen her. My wife said “I think they just seated her three tables at once.” Which instantly made me hate hostesses all over again. In my experience you don’t have to be the daughter of Satan to do the job, but it doesn’t hurt anything, either. Most restaurants seem to value looks over brains, so if you’d like to think of hostesses as the cheerleaders of the food industry, there’s nothing I can really do to stop you.

Which reminded me of the night before, so I explained to everybody about waiter nightmares. I don’t think most non-waiters know about this, so it struck them as a little strange and as the sort of thing they were glad they weren’t afflicted with.

Eventually the waitress comes back by and apologizes for disappearing. I asked, “did they just triple-seat you?” She said no, it was actually four tables. In a just world that would be a valid and sufficient defense for homicide (sort of like “he needed killin'” is in Texas). I muttered something about hostesses, I think. I then asked if she ever got waiter nightmares. “Oh yeah – I just had one last night,” she said.

Sometimes I almost feel guilty about making my servers do their jobs, because I know what the job is like. Every person you work with, from managers and hostesses to kitchen staff and bartenders, can cost you money. The food is late, the drink order is wrong, the service is slow because you just got seated eight wedding parties at once, no matter what it is, you’re the face of the failure and when it comes time for the tip, people who haven’t done the job don’t always realize that it wasn’t the waiter’s fault. Food was cold – there goes a couple percent. Over time, that can really add up.

You’re probably hoping I’m working up to a point, and I am. The people who serve you – and I have no doubt that people in other industries (like retail, for instance) probably have their own nightmares – are usually working their asses off for very little money and even less professional satisfaction. In many cases, you’re part of something they will literally be having nightmares about decades later.

Smile. Be understanding. Tread lightly. And tip generously (that means 18% or more unless the server was actually guilty of something significant).

You may be doing more good than you’ll ever know.

20 replies »

  1. Sam, That was a great article. Funny that you wrote about waiting because I had a first experience today, with a waitress……I stiffed her on the tip. It was at a Perkins restaurant at 4PM and the restaurant wasn’t slammed at all, in fact she only had three tables. I ordered a patty melt with a side saladt. She got my sweet tea, and made me wait, and wait, and wait. Finally, she brought my patty melt. I mentioned the salad, and she said that she would bring it out in a few minutes. I said to forget it, as I like my salad before, and not with or after dinner. I asked for mustard to put on the patty melt. She disappeared and was gone for 12 minutes(OK, I time things), when I got a bus boy to bring out the mustard…at least he was prompt. I got to eat my patty melt cold. I had to ask her for a refill of my tea…. and when the bill came, I was charged for the salad which I never got. I asked her to correct the bill, and she told me that I would have to take it up with the manager, as bills were final. I told the manager, and he corrected the bill and apologized.. When I filled out the tip portion on the register tape, I left $0.01 and told the manager to tell her why she only got a cent.. Perhaps she was having a bad day, perhaps she was incompetent, I’ll never know. I do know that I’ll never go back to that Perkins. After stiffing a bad waitress, no telling what they’d do to my food. I was taught at an early age to never mess with the people who prepare and deliver your food:)


  2. I used to dream that there were tables full of people in my apartment living room, and I couldn’t tell whether I was awake or not.

  3. On my honeymoon, my wife and I were coming back to Denver from Portland in the midst of a United pilot’s strike, and our flight got canceled. We stood in a looooooooooooong line of very irate people, figuring that we’d get up, ask to be rebooked, and then settle in with a couple of books to wait. So we get to the front of the line and the airline attendant is frazzled and has obviously been dealing with really irate people for a while now, and we’re just kind of “Yeah, get us home when you can. No, we’re in no hurry, take your time.”

    She appreciated having reasonable people who didn’t want to jump down her throat and rip out her colon in reverse that a) she ignored the fact that one of our bags was well over the weight limit due to several bottle of wine packed within and b) she gave us vouchers for free food that, according to my wife and IIRC, the rest of the attendants around us were not giving out.

    It pays to be polite and patient and to treat people who’s job it is to help you with a little kindness and courtesy.

  4. I try not to be too picky when ordering off of menus, and I try to give good tips. Hey, the job sucks, I don’t want to make it any worse.

  5. Well put, sir.

    I’ve worked in a kitchen for most of the past 8 or 9 years and know the kind of nightmares you’re talking about (mine usually involve being the only person in the back with piles and piles of orders and a manager who is yelling at me instead of helping).

    One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that regardless of how much we’re getting paid, whether it’s to prepare your food or bring it to you or clean up after you leave, our job sucks. It is stressful, extremely repetitive work, usually involving anywhere from 5-12 hours of standing on quarry tile floors, and before you leave, you still have to clean everything up (just so that you can come back tomorrow and do it all over again).

    • Josh: I never worked in the back and never wanted to. I saw plenty of what you guys go through every time I went back there. As bad as my waiter nightmares can be, I imagine yours are a LOT worse.

      Our hat is off to you.

  6. Sounds like you’re getting stressed out about things in your life, but you don’t see it when you’re awake. Your dreams tend to be a way for your brain to tell your conscience what’s bothering it. Granted, lots of times (most, since we don’t usually remember most of our dreams anyway) it’s just your brain entertaining itself and discharging pent up current, but there are those occasions where analyzing our dreams can help point to real life trouble spots.

    Sometimes, too, though, certain dreams are just repeats for no apparent reason, and there’s nothing that says the repeats are of the good dreams. I’ve had those; it’s frustrating. It must be exponentially worse when those dreams ruin your REM patterns and leave you feeling more tired than when you went to sleep (though, I suspect those are the dreams we need to analyze).

  7. I spent most of my time in the food industry on the other side of the counter, ready to throw a knife at the servers because, well, sometimes it seemed easier than trying to keep up with their demands. The rest of it was spent being the boss of servers, but i managed to never work a full shift waiting tables (though i’ve worked many slinging drinks…but that’s different, that’s like being a crack dealer so it’s fun). As a manager i didn’t tolerate shitty servers, but i always had my servers’ backs. I saw it as my job to help them and be the point man when something wasn’t right with a customer (under the theory that them dealing with a service/food complaint took time away from other tables and only created more complaints).

    As a customer i find it easy to be understanding. And i know that a super-sized tip has the ability to make a server’s day, so i do it when i can.

    Dawn’s right, kindness goes a very long way.

  8. Lex, you would have loved me as a server. I said “please” and “thank you,” tried never to be too demanding, was super-careful to be explicit about special orders, took responsibility for mistakes whether they were mine or not… same with the bussers, plus I tipped them out extra on good nights and never shorted on bad ones. Consequently, I always got my food quickly, everyone covered my ass when I screwed up, and if Antonio the Wonder Busser was on, he’d only work with me. And we were AWESOME. I still wonder where he is and if he’s doing okay – same with the guys in the back.

  9. What a great article about how past jobs can cause us nightmares years latter. I still have nightmares about an evil coporate owner 24 years ago that wanted me to “cook the books.” I quit the job and called the CPA auditors to inform them of his intentions. Not to sure about the comment about high school…..hopefully that was about the jocks, and not the rest of us on the debate/speech team!

  10. I lived in the dorms for 4 years and worked part time in the dorm cafeteria for two, starting at dirty-side dishes, then clean side, then working serving, and finally (and not everyone got here) working mostly in the kitchen because the cooks respected your ability to get things done with minimal direction.

    That, and a summer of working temp jobs cutting beer labels second shift at Coors’ printer and 10-hour days in 120 degree heat inside making rollerblade wheels gave me the motivation to get through college and boost my GPA significantly.

  11. Thank you, Dr. Slammy, for this piece. I’ve been (still am) a server for 9 years.

    Anne, I share a very similar philosophy. There is something very special about the server-cook or server-busser relationship.

    I’m about to earn my master’s degree and currently work for a public University – but every Friday and Saturday my social and professional status drops as soon as I tie on my apron. There are times when I want to scream, “Look me in the eye, you self-entitled bastard!” Seems that many people automatically assume that my IQ is not as high as theirs because I have a second job which involves food, drinks and comfortable shoes. Well, watch out, cause I’ll kill ya with kindness, throw in a polysyllabic word you don’t understand, and eventually make you feel bad for being so shallow. Oh yeah, I’ve got it down.

    Thanks again, Dr. Denny. Maybe you’ll be the saving grace in my next waitressing nightmare!

  12. I worked as a lifeguard for many summers during my extended (okay, I flunked a lotta courses), and much of what I’m reading here resonates with that job.

    So, folks, DRINKS ARE ON ME!

  13. I’ve had the Waiter’s Nightmare. All kinds of variations. I’ve had one where I got an order so long and confusing, from such a huge party of terrible people, I decide to not turn in the order to the kitchen and just hide in the stockroom, praying the party would just go away.

    I think the Waiter’s Nightmare is a mild form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The fast pace, the tension of needing to get everything right, mixed with the physicality of the events leaves an indelible imprint on the psyche.

  14. I understand the dreams mine drive me nuts. Triple sized sections allready waiting when I get to work, as I run up to the first table I realize I am not wearing pants… then I find out that the 3 restaurants on the same street, have all called asking ME to come help them, they are SLAMMED. So all I do is run from one to the next and never get to start orders, I have tables at the park, 4 restaurants, one hardware store, and a dept. store.

    I really do think it is a disease like PTSD. Waiting tables can be very traumatic and stressful. I have woken up with running feet kicking my wife as I “run” it scared her at first.