Monday, March 19, 2012

What I learned from Waitressing

There are a few conversations you get sick of hearing as a waiter. One goes something like this:

Me: “Hi there, can I help you with anything?”
Customer: “Yeah good thanks, how are you?”

Another like this:

Me: “So that’s one skinny half latte, with a sweetener. Anything else?”
Customer: “Yeah, can you warm me up one of those chocolate croissants?”

And this:

Customer: “What kind of soy do you use? I’m lactose intolerant.”
Me: “We use VitaSoy, it’s a special café variety especially for baristas.”
Customer: “Yeah that’s good. I’ll have a soy latte then. And a fruit salad with extra yoghurt.”

And finally:

Me: “And would you like any sugar with that?”
Customer: “No thanks, I’m sweet enough!”
Me out loud: “Ha, of course you are.”

Me in my head: “That’s HILARIOUS! I have NEVER IN MY ENTIRE LIFE heard somebody say something SO funny, YOU ABSOLUTE WASTE OF OXYGEN!” (Unless of course the person who says it is male, between 20 and 35, and just happens to be gorgeous, in which case it somehow becomes funny again).

I’m a fairly humble person. I’m mostly modest, I deflect compliments and I accept graciously that all of my friends are better than me at one thing or another (sport, painting, music, milking Centerlink within and inch of their lives). But if there is one thing I can boast about — and boast about it I will — it is this: I was an effing good waitress.

It’s not just the physical side of it (I regularly worked 12 hour days with a 15 minute break, not because I wasn’t entitled to a longer lunch, but because it was quite possible the joint would spontaneously combust if I didn’t get back on the floor); it’s the people side of it. I became a counselor, babysitter, friend, conquest and entertainer. We knew every face, grandchild and great uncle.

As for the few customers we didn’t know, such as Mrs. Extra-Hot-Long-Black-in-a-Mug-with-a-Jug-of-Hot-Frothy-Milk-on-the-Side and Mr. Tall-Weak-Cappuccino-in-a-Glass-with-Extra-Chocolate, we just made up their life stories using the power of fiction. The former, for example, owns a beauty salon in South Yarra and is a single mother with an estranged adult daughter. The latter has serious self-confidence issues and overcompensates with a large coffee, but is only fooling himself (he hates the taste of coffee, hence the “weak” and double chocolate).

But at least Mr. Tall-Weak-Cappuccino-in-a-Glass-with-Extra-Chocolate says his pleases and thank yous. It’s incredible how many people forgo basic manners and how doing so makes hospitality staff want to ‘accidentally’ spill your boiling hot water with lemon (no, we don’t charge you for hot water) all over you. At the opposite end of the scale, if youse say ‘youse’ one more time, your head may end up in the grill. Perhaps the best example of boganism ever encountered was the imbecile who walked up to the counter in dirty, tattered Levis, ordered a cappuccino with four sugars for himself and “one of them soy sauce ‘lart-ays’ for me Sheila.” SOY SAUCE LATTE! 'Nuff said.

One of the most interesting characters I encountered was a woman who lived near the café. She—or more accurately, he—would turn heads whenever he/she walked passed. With flaming red hair, killer red heels and a mini dress that would make Hugh Hefner blush, he/she was the most confident wo/man I have ever seen. And with legs like that, why wouldn’t you be? One afternoon at about 4pm when the rush had died down, a grimy white ute drove passed him/her as he/she was walking down the street. The driver wolf-whistled, honked and made a U-turn, at which point he/she jumped in the passenger seat and they drove off into the sunset.

Then there are the ubiquitous customers, common to all cafés Melbourne-wide. Most will have a regular clan of obnoxious cyclists, better known as MAMILs (middle aged men in Lycra). You know, that group that blocks the footpath with racing bikes, brings their distinct cloud of B.O into the room and then leave sweaty arse marks on the chairs. They usually order the equivalent of a coffee between two, spill jugs of water all over the floor and then pay with a $100 note. Then they challenge you because surely they didn’t drink $21 worth of caffeine, they only had six coffees! My café laid claim to another distinctive group, younger lads this time, who came in one morning a week with their heads firmly wedged up their bottoms. They were a football team or something, and on one occasion all ten of them decided to take off their shirts and try their new team jerseys on while people were eating breakfast. Charming.

Then there is the sexism, which works in two distinct ways. The first is when men assume that, as a woman, you should be in the kitchen, or that you couldn’t possibly know what you’re doing. The second is that you learn very quickly that it makes no difference if you are wearing a low-cut top or a skivvy, men will still try to stare down a centimetre-wide gap to catch a glimpse of your lady bumps. But boys are not exempt from sexual predatory in hospitality. Usually it’s a phone number left on a napkin by a significantly younger or significantly older woman (read: cougar). But most of all, the fellas are preyed on by other fellas, who are a whole lot less subtle when it comes to these kinds of things. I recall taking an order from an incredibly camp chap who paused mid sentence, locked eyes with my male workmate, and squeaked: “ME-OW-OW-OW! Priceless.

My time as a waitress wasn’t just full of odd balls and creepy old men. I’ve seen deals signed and millions turn over. I’ve witnessed some of Melbourne’s most successful businessmen sell their homes, pull their kids out of school and move to the country. I’ve lived through couples becoming engaged, getting married, getting divorced and then doing it all over again with someone else. I’ve seen Novak Djokovic go from nobody to the number one tennis player in the world. I’ve been given free tickets and favours and have spoken to people I didn’t know were famous until weeks later. I’ve seen men come into the café twice in a day, once with their wife and once with their mistress. I’ve seen people stood up and others steal. I’ve seen women go through pregnancies and emerge with a whole new person in their arms, glowing in a manner so clichéd it can only be love. I’ve seen people devastated by the loss of their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and life partners, as well as people who have been equally destroyed by the death of their dogs.

There are countless stories: the five-foot man who drinks a short black but never calls it an espresso to avoid irony, the couple who insist on having dry sex on the bench in the corner, the man who gave me his phone number on a business card reading ‘illusionist’, the well-known food critic who unknowingly offended my boss by wearing ugg boots, the time I looked around and every single customer was on an iPad, the family who wear only Ed Hardy g-strings that poke out of their Ed Hardy jeans which match their Ed Hardy t-shirts and their Ed Hardy phone covers.

But the people that really stay with you are those you fall in love with. Some are kindred spirits, full of compassion who offer advice and come to your gigs and birthday parties. Others could easily be awarded a medal for being the most selfless, charitable people on the planet. The people you work with become family, and remain so after you part ways. Unlike other industries that have a sour undertone of competition, in hospitality, it’s the people you work with who you can trust to always have your back.

In my four years as a waitress, the equivalent of nearly a fifth of my life, I learned how to have a tough exterior, a soft smile and an open mind. I learned how to get up early, deal with idiots, relate to strangers, remain organised, take instructions, poach an egg, accept silence, extract laughter, acknowledge praise, solve problems and be comfortable in my own skin. I learned that while people are generally decent, if everyone we met was lovely, we wouldn’t appreciate kindness.

The most potent conversation I ever had with a customer was only two sentences long. He was a frail old man with the kind of sparkle in his eyes that can only be accumulated from over 85 years of benevolence.

“Can I get you anything else, sir?” I asked.

“Another ten years would be nice, love,” he winked, smiling.

But when I placed his flat white on the table in front of him, he didn’t notice. He was staring out the window, eyes moist.

An abridged version of this blog post was read on Radio National's First Bite program on Saturday 12 May 2012. Listen to the podcast by clicking here.


  1. Sofia, what a great post! Incredibly heartwarming, it brings a real personal touch to understanding the people who serve us everyday! Thank you for sharing!


    1. Thanks for reading Helen!

      I don't think I'd appreciate the industry nearly as much if I hadn't worked in it. I feel blessed to have experienced being served and being the server!


  2. Why thank you, kind and mysterious stranger!

  3. You are an outstanding writer, Sofia.

    I loved your "my day on a platter" piece a few weeks ago, but this one was amazing.


    1. Well dear stranger, how absolutely lovely.

      I'm very flattered, thank you so much.

      : )

  4. Teehee, this made me laugh and nod, although I only spent about a year waitressing in a small cafe. I'll never forget the teenage girls who'd come and ask for milkshakes with skim milk and extra ice cream!

    Though, in defense of we lactards, there's actually pretty much no lactose in yoghurt because the bacteria eats it - that's why someone will order a coffee with soy milk but be safe to eat yoghurt :)

  5. Hey Hannah!

    So glad I got a giggle and a nod from you : ) A year is certainly long enough to experience everything I wrote about!

    And thanks for the tip about lactards!

  6. The para towards the end ("I've learned how to have a tough exterior, soft smile etc etc) is pure gold. I heard you reciting this on Radio National today and it literally stopped me in my tracks. Very profound. Thankyou.

    1. Hey Perth dude!

      Can't thank you enough. That's the best feedback a writer can hope to get. Appreciate it a lot!

  7. Thank you Sofia. Beautifully written. I could imagine each one of those people because you described them so well. One of my friends could be among them. 'A weak skinny cappuccino in a mug - with double chocolate' is one of my friends. When the waiter returns I just lurv telling them that the mug is for the mug next to me!

    Ta muchly

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I certainly know which of my friends are the trouble makers when it comes to coffee orders. Call me a dork, but I LOVE your mug pun : )

  8. Excellent! Really enjoyed the article.

  9. This is beautifully written, and so true, I'm sure. I especially love the last comment from the elderly gentleman - sounds like something my Nanna would say!

    1. Thanks Sugary Flower (cute name!)

      It was a very moving moment for me indeed.

  10. The term you are looking for to describe that subgroup of queens is: she-male

  11. I loved this post, especially the entire description of MAMILs (a term I will unashamedly steal).

    As someone who buys at least one coffee every day, it surprises me that more people don't smile and say please and thank you to the barista. In the area where I work, everyone seems to be the perfect mix of rushed, rude and entitled, and workers at my local cafe have been reduced to tears by some truly awful people. Kindness costs nothing, unlike their large half-strength extra-hot decaf soy latte with a sweetener.

    P.S. I admit to being one of the people who has skim milk then a chocolate croissant on the side. I'm under no illusion it will turn me into Superman - I just like the taste better :)

    1. Go right ahead! I can't claim I invented the term myself ;)

      It is odd that not everyone bothers to smile and use basic matters. Oh well, I suppose if everyone did it, we wouldn't appreciate it as much!

      I'll let your skim milk coffee situation slide ;)

      Thanks for reading!

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  13. This was a very entertaining post, and very relatable!!!
    Back in the day when I was 15-19 I too was a waitress/barista/counterhand...

    Customers that are etched in my brain:

    - blonde lady who would order a "half skinny, half fat milk latte"
    - guy who did coffee run for whole office and would pay in loose change and get loose change back for every one!!
    - tram drivers who would get the $1.50 instant coffee tram driver special

    It was so fun being a waitress/barista/counterhand... but looking back, I don't know how I managed to multitask so well!!

    1. So glad you enjoyed it.

      Couldn't stand it when people paid in loose change for anything over $10! Please you gave him some of his own medicine though ;)

  14. I glad to read this post and there lots of thing to read and learn
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