Chronicles of trading in Corporate America for a waitress's apron during my very own quarter-life crisis.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Weeded

Thursday, as I'm technically writing this after midnight, was my day off from the restaurant.  It started and ended well:  I spent the morning half-asleep in my cool blankets, listening to hours of soft thunder and rain, and I didn't lift my princess head from the pillow until almost noon.  Then I had a rare date with my boyfriend in the evening, where he helped me make chicken tacos with rice in his kitchen, and then we sprawled on the sofa, laughing hysterically at comedy shows and kneading each others' shoulders.

Between those nice moments, however, I did my taxes.

I'll occasionally stop and think, with some remorse, "Hmmm.  I'm sure going to miss all the tax breaks that come with being a homeowner..." but then my pre-homeowner self, circa 2009, punches me in the face and yells, "No, jackass!  Think about all the other 364 days of the year when money is flushed down the three toilets in your soul-sucking house!"  I've decided to only make decisions that 2009 me would make.  Oh, whoops, except for when I got engaged to that one dude.  (Long story short, I picked the wrong guy.  Gave him the wrong finger.  I have a feeling that the wrong will be righted in 2014.)

Hemmmmingway, today I'd like to go into a little more detail about something I mentioned in my ABCs of Waitressing post, because it is without a doubt, the worst part about being a waitress.  Most of us have actual nightmares about it.  It has even made some of us cry.  Include me in both of those groups.

Rude customers?  No, that's mostly entertainment at this point.  Getting injured on the job?  Not even close, though receiving a bad burn can ruin your day.

It's what food servers everywhere refer to as being "in the weeds," which is a phenomenon that occurs when a server is absolutely slammed, behind, panicked, and overwhelmed beyond comprehension.

Me, after a particularly rough shift at a Mexican restaurant.  Note the flair on my shirt, juxtaposed with the "I will kill you and make it look like an accident" expression on my face.

Being in the weeds is way more than being busy.  I thrive on being busy; I love the challenge.  The weeds, however, is a place where you're so unbelievably fucked that you start messing up orders, you're forgetting things, guests get bad service and are unhappy, and you want to walk out of the restaurant and go crying to your mother.  What's interesting is that "getting weeded" doesn't automatically happen just because you're taking care of a lot of tables at once.  I've been weeded with two tables before; alternatively, I've handled eight tables with detailed perfection and a cool head.

It may depend on the tables themselves -- do their food orders have a lot of modifications (e.g., "no this, extra that, can I substitute this for that...")?  I mean, a lot?  That means it'll not only take longer to stand at their table while they order (as you eye the rest of your section and note the need for refills, plus the fact you just got sat with another table), but then you'll have to be at the computer for five minutes, typing it all in.  You're starting to get behind.  Now, you have to get that table their salads and soups, which of course you have to throw together yourself (not in every restaurant), but you managed to count five refills for the rest of your section.  You briefly stop by the table that was just sat to smile and say, "I'll be right with you folks," and if there is any justice in the world, they will just nod and continue to read the menus.

Now, normally, you can get all of the items you currently need -- salad, soup, iced teas, sodas, bread for the new table to save time, etc. -- on one tray, and then you can catch up with your section in one fell swoop.  Some restaurants describe this method as serving a "one-table section," meaning every time you leave the kitchen, you're taking care of every table with different things on your tray, instead of running back and forth to the kitchen for each table.  But sometimes...

... you deliver the refills to the rest of your tables, and each customer wants more bread, some ketchup, a change to their order, a cup of coffee, to ask your manager if he remembers Crazy Todd from college!, to-go boxes, extra sugar packets.  You vow earnestly to provide them everything they've ever dreamed of, but first you have to drop off salad and soup at your table of picky eaters.  And every single one of their drinking glasses is empty.  Within two minutes.  Of course.  They're the table that asks for something, then you bring it and they ask for something else, then you bring it and they ask for something else... instead of all at one time.  Then another table, who just received their entrées, waves you over to remind you that they never did get the salads that they wanted before their meals.  Oh, fuck, you think, as the recessed memory of their order slams back into your frenzied brain, and now that's a manager visit and probably a comp on a portion of the check.  All night, every computer in the restaurant is occupied by servers who are chatting while typing, taking a million years, oblivious to how you're about to jump out of your skin.

So this is generally how a server falls into the weeds.  You might think, "Well, can't the server just get all those things and bring them out on the same tray as the picky table's refills?"  Sure, of course she can, and then she'd just go back to "being busy" -- but the thing is, she just got sat again with a party of eight, she hasn't even properly greeted the table that was sat when she was taking the highly picky order, and table 79 will not stop trying to chat with her.  Insult to injury, she really has to pee, and some kid just ran smack into her while getting cheese all over her apron, so there's another trip to the sink.

Thank you, sheltering suburban mothers (who are generally poor tippers, FYI).

It isn't, however, just the list of things to do that puts servers in the weeds.  The list of things is simply "being busy," most of the time.  It's mental and emotional.  The sweat, the flushed cheeks, the anxiety.  The panic.  Knowing that, at some point, these eight people are going to ask for eight separate checks at the same time that those six other people are going to ask for desserts to-go each and "have to leave right now to make it to the movie theater," also with all separate checks.  The thought that you could get sat with another table.  The fact that when another server asks if you need anything, all you can say is "Um... um... fuck, I don't even know anymore," while running around the kitchen or scrambling to get someone their change.

Being in the weeds is so bad, in fact, that I would occasionally have bad dreams about it when I had my cubicle job.  I'd come in the next morning and tell co-workers that I had a stress dream, and they'd say things like, "Oh, yeah.  I had a dream once where our copier broke."  At that point, I had to admit to them that my dream was actually about waitressing.

I see "busy" all the time.  But I recognize "weeds" when a server looks like she seriously could shit herself at any moment.  Without help from her fellow servers, the only way out is time and a bit of meditation.  Plus, I've developed a few personal tricks, most of them cerebral:
  • Ask for help as soon as you start to slip into weeded territory.  Have a server or a cool manager greet a table for you and take their drink order, run bread/to-go boxes/lemons/anything somewhere, help you with some of your running sidework (filling ice, bringing clean glasses up from the dishwasher, etc.), or keep an eye on your section so you can finally and blessedly go pee.
  • Breathe.  Sounds simple, but consciously breathe, and calm yourself down.  I estimate that probably 90% of being in the weeds is panic, so breathe, and come up with a mantra.  My mantra is, "This will be over in just a couple of hours.  It's just a restaurant.  I'll be fine."  Gain some perspective.  This has really helped me.
  • When you start to get busy because your section has just become full, you can avoid the weeded horizon by reminding yourself, "Okay, so my section is full.  This, right now, is the busiest I'm going to get tonight, because I can't get sat again for a while."  Technically, something could happen to knock this reasoning off course, but the mindset helps in the meantime.
  • If you feel like you want to cry because the restaurant lobby is packed with waiting customers, standing room only, you feel them staring at you, and you're already overwhelmed as it is -- just remember that 90% of those customers are going to be served by your co-workers, not you.  The waiting list eventually dries up.  You eventually will be let off your shift.  The restaurant will eventually lock its doors for the night.  

Honestly, a lot of it can be chalked up to mentality, but for what it's worth, that's my take on being in the weeds.  I'll be posting this blog to some networking sites soon, so feel free to chime in, fellow/former/non-servers!

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