Ties That Bind Us – The Service Industry

When I was 21 I was a successful college student:  studying aerospace engineering, president of 3 extracurricular clubs, work history with NASA and the DoD.  Despite my successes, I needed to increase my income so I picked up my first waitressing job.

I had worked in the industry before.  My first job had been working at a Quiznos for nearly 2 years and I had a seasonal stint at a department store.  I assumed that waitressing would be relatively easy and quick money.  I never would have guessed that this little job would change my view of the world nor my career trajectory.

I was a diligent server with dedicated regulars.  Despite the usual chaos most servers experience, I had a series of regular shifts and sections of the restaurant.  Meaning, if you came in on a Tuesday at 1pm and sat at table 31, I’d be your server that day and again if you did so a month later.

One day shift I was doing side work in the kitchen when I received my first table of the day.  An elderly woman, who ordered a glass of chardonnay and a Cali sushi roll.  She had received her glass of wine and was waiting on her roll when my manager came to me in the kitchen and asked me why my guest was crying, she wanted to know what I had done to her.  Of course, I was shocked and told her I had no clue what had upset her but I would talk to her and make it right.

I approached the woman carefully.  Cautiously trying to ease into a normal conversation with her before I asked if she was ok so as to not embarrass her.   When I asked her what had her upset she looked at me silently at first.  Tears were welling in her eyes.  I felt like she was staring me down to see if I was genuine or just asking out of some perceived obligation.  After a long pause, she began to speak again.

The Elderly Lady:  I doubt you remember this but I was in here about a month ago.  I sat right here at this table and you were my server.

Me (scared that I was about to be told how awful I was):  Oh!  Well, I hope it was a good experience and I took care of you…

The Lady (with spontaneous joy):  Oh yes, sweetheart.  It was a wonderful time.  I was here with my best friend Carolyn.  You see we had been friends all our lives. Well, since we were 6.  But when you get to be my age (she looked about 80) that might as well count as all your life!  We’d both been busy, you know how that goes, and we finally took some time together again.  We sat right here, split a Cali roll, and got silly wine drunk on chardonnay all afternoon.

Me:  That sounds wonderful!  I’m happy I was there to help you two have that day.

The Lady (suddenly sad again):  Yes… that was the last great moment in our friendship.  Two days later her illness took her over and she was hospitalized.  We lost her this morning about 2 hours ago… But all in all this is only a small moment in our relationship.  So I came back here to where we had such a lovely time.  I’ve ordered my wine and will have this sushi while thinking of all of the great times we had.

I spoke to my manager and had her meal covered by the restaurant.  She left a very generous tip which was wrapped in a note that said she had included an extra amount on behalf of the deceased Carolyn.

That was the day everything changed for me.  I suddenly realized the significance of the service industry.  Restaurants and bars have a unique view of the world.  You see every aspect of the human experience:  celebrations of births, first dates, breakups, engagements, divorce parties, proms, finals week, graduations, and even death.

The best server or bartender is not the one you remember.  It’s the one who takes care of everything so you can remember the moment.

Since that time I have left engineering behind.  I’ve worked in several positions including management.  I branched off into the world of tobacco and now into the world of producing alcohol.  I’ve also branched my thoughts on the service world into the products behind it.  But every day I try to think of how my job will affect others’ lives.  I teach about alcohol and tobacco because I know that this knowledge I’m sharing will be a tool used to frame great moments in the lives of whoever reads it.

So I encourage you to take a moment today.  If you are in the service industry look around at your guests today and appreciate that you get to be a part of so many lives and so many memories created today.  If you find yourself at a bar with loved ones look at all those working around you that are making it possible for you to have that experience.

You may never see that guest or that bartender again, but you are bound together forever by these ties.

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