We’re posting weekly transcripts of David Plotz’s Working podcast for Slate Plus members. This is the transcript for Episode 7, which features “Paul,” an L.A. waiter in an upscale Italian restaurant. To learn more about Working, click here.
You may note some differences between this transcript and the podcast. Additional edits were made to the podcast after we completed this transcript.
David Plotz: What is your name and what do you do?
Paul: Hi, my name is “Paul,” and I’m a waiter at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles.
Plotz: And just to be clear, “Paul” is not Paul’s real name. But we’re calling him “Paul” because he has the kind of job where he could get in trouble if he uses his real name.
How did you become a waiter?
Paul: Well, when I moved to L.A. I didn’t really have any prospects for work. So I just figured I’d work in a restaurant, not realizing that it’s highly competitive because everyone wants to work in a restaurant, because everyone’s pursuing something else. So, I kind of had to fabricate a lot of things on a fake resume, saying that I did it in college. I asked my friends to be references, the whole thing. I totally lied my way into this job.
I had no idea what I was doing. I was actually bussing tables, though. I didn’t get a chance to be a waiter right away. And that’s pretty awful work.
Plotz: When you faked your resume did your employers go check? Did they call people and say, “Was this guy a good waiter?”
Paul: That’s interesting. I don’t think so. I think they just—they interviewed me, and I think they slowly figured over the course of the interview that I lied. But I think it’s really, really common so I don’t think they cared. They just obviously didn’t give me the job as a waiter, but they’re like, okay, you seem hardworking and responsible. We’ll hire you. But I kind of had to prove myself, I guess, in the interview and then in the training process.
Plotz: What time do you get to work at the restaurant you’re working at now?
Paul: It’s fairly early, anywhere between 4 and 6 in the afternoon.
Plotz: And what is the first thing you do when you get there?
Paul: Well, if I work at 4 that’s considered, like, an opening shift. The restaurant’s closed, you know, in the sort of slow hours in the midafternoon. It does a lunch service and then it does a dinner service. So, you essentially look at the amount of reservations that are in your reservation booking system for the day. And at this restaurant—it’s different at a lot of restaurants that I’ve worked at—but at this one we specifically map out where everyone is going to sit.
You detail everything on the dining floor, and so you make sure there’s no water spots on the silverware and glasses, the napkins are folded correctly, you put out ice buckets for wine. You just essentially get the dining room ready for service. You put out the olive oil, pepper.
Plotz: Are you getting paid for this shift before the customer’s get in?
Paul: Yeah, so, you clock in the second you get there and then, you know, I guess minimum wage is $8 an hour now in California. So, yeah, I’m getting minimum wage.
Plotz: And you’re getting—this may be getting ahead of ourselves—but you get paid minimum wage and some percentage of the tips that you make? Or a shared pool of tips? How does that work?
Paul: Yeah, so, at this restaurant it’s a pooled house, which means that all the waiters work together. Everyone essentially is in a big team. That has positives and negatives we could talk about. So, at other restaurants where I’ve worked, if it’s not a pooled house people can be incredibly selfish. And so you’ll notice, actually—I think a savvy diner could notice if they go into one of those restaurants, because if you’re sitting there and you drop a fork on the ground, and you motion to a waiter who’s really hustling because they’re in the weeds—which just means that you’re really busy—they might be less likely to get you a new fork, because they’re like, “This guy’s not paying me.”
At this restaurant, everybody works together. I’ve never been at a place where people constantly ask, are you okay? Do you need help? Is there anything I can do for you? Which is great, but at the same time you can end up doing a ton of work. You know, you do more work than someone else and you all make the same amount of money.
So, it’s interesting—restaurants are this interesting little microcosm of capitalism, I think, because you’re really incentivized to work very hard for the tables that you have. But when you create a pooled house, it’s a form of socialism, I guess! [Laughter]
I mean, that’s getting dramatic, but you know what I mean. It causes some resentments, I think, at times. But, there are different resentments when you don’t have a pooled house, because people get better tables—there’s seniority there. There’s definitely sections in restaurants that are better. People want to sit by the window, or they want to sit not by the bathroom. So, the hostess will try, or the maître d’ will try and give you tables if you’re in one of those bad sections, but people just won’t sit there, and so you’ll just make less money.
But yeah—so here, at this restaurant, it’s a pooled house. So all of the tips that all the waiters bring in—let’s say, if there’s $1,000 in tips from five waiters—half of that immediately goes into the support staff, which is composed of the back servers—which is a busboy, back servers, same thing essentially. Although I guess if you’re calling it a “back server” they’re a little more skilled. They know the menu a little better. They can sell you food, they can sell you wine, as opposed to just clearing off your table.
The food runners, which just take the food from the kitchen. We have a scullery at this restaurant, which is someone that polishes all the silverware, polishes all the glasses. And then there’s also a percentage that is just tipped out to the bar, because they make your cocktails and they pour your wines by the glass. So, half of it immediately is gone. So in that scenario where five waiters bring in $1,000, we end up with $500, so that would be $100 each.
So, a lot of people—I think a lot of people when they think about tipping, they say, “Wow, 20 percent, 20 percent on $100, that’s amazing. That’s $20. This guy just made $20.” But he didn’t, he made $10 and then he’s getting taxed on that $10.
Plotz: What do you do as customers start to come in?
Paul: Being a waiter in California you can’t work six hours unless you take a break for 30 minutes, so it’s pretty hilarious. You’ll come into the restaurant, you’ll work for a half hour, you’ll take a 30-minute break where you eat—because they make, you know, they’ll make you food, which is always, like, the scraps of stuff they’re not going to serve everybody, it’s always really awful. So, we all sit down and we all eat like we just worked this big shift. You know, we all worked for 30 minutes.
And then at this restaurant I work at now we have what’s called a pre-shift meeting. So, the chef will come out. He’ll talk about the specials that are being offered. He’ll talk about anything that’s different on the menu that day, anything that’s been changed. He’ll talk about, “We only have six salmon left so try not to push that,” things like that. We’ll go over the reservation list, who’s coming in, important people, friends of the restaurant. VIP customers, investors, friends of the chef.
And then we’ll talk about the wine, just because wine is so hard to keep in stock. You know, you run out of a lot of bottles and so you just want to know, like, don’t try and sell this bottle when you go to the table. And that’s typically about 10 or 15 minutes after your half-hour break, and then people just slowly start coming in. They break the floor into sections, like I said, even though it’s all pooled. You still want to know that you have these specific tables to worry about.
And then, yeah, it’s typically slow-ish in the beginning. Because we open at 5:00, and a lot of people don’t go to dinner at 5:00. Although—like I said, it’s a pretty fairly early dining restaurant. The kitchen closes at 10:00. It’s just about five hours of service. And if you’ve seen—I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Waiting—well, a lot, probably, of the people listening have seen the movie Waiting—it’s pretty hilarious. They’re, like, psyching themselves up for basically just craziness for the next three hours. And a lot of nights that’s how it is. You’re just like, “Ah! I can’t think!” Because this is a nice—it’s an upscale restaurant, but it’s also really high volume.
So you’re trying to sort of maintain your steps of service, which just means vaguely: you want to greet the table and tell them about the specials; obviously hand them the menus; take a liquor order; see if they have any questions—you know, there’s minutes in between all of this stuff—but you want to touch the table as many times as you can, essentially. And that’s just hard when you’re dealing with a lot of people.
Plotz: Does the chef or your manager or whoever your boss is tell you, this is a thing that’s really profitable for us, let’s try to sell that. Is there that calculation or is it not that specific?
Paul: I’ve always wondered. … The profit margin on some food items is not very high, but they are really popular. And so, the chef, he wants the people to enjoy the food more than he wants to make money, but we do definitely do that on wine. If you get a good deal on wine and you’re saying, a glass of this will pay for the entire bottle that we have and so the other three glasses in the bottle is all profit—the sommelier will definitely mention that, saying, “This is great for us. You should try and sell this. It’s a good wine, people will like it, and we make good money on it.”
But typically, no, there’s not really a talk about—there’s no breakdown—I’ve never had any breakdown of, “We make more money on this; we make less money on this.” But yeah, I’ve wondered that. I’ve wondered that. We’ll do black and white truffles when they’re in season. I don’t think we make money on the truffles, really. But it’s a luxury item and people want to go to a restaurant that offers that, and hopefully if they’re going to buy white truffles for $105 for a pasta, they’re going to also be buying expensive wine and things like that.
Plotz: Who is your boss?
Paul: Ultimately the general manager of the restaurant. Well, ultimately the owner of the restaurant, but he doesn’t really do anything. He just kind of comes in and shakes some hands. I mean, he doesn’t make the food, you know? Which is very funny, because the most popular dishes in the restaurant weren’t even created by him. But, you know, people want to see him, they want to talk to him—“Oh, this is so good!” And he’s always wearing, whatever that chef shirt is, you know, slapping them on the back, “Glad you like it!”
And I always find that funny because he didn’t make it. But, you know, obviously he taught everyone the recipes and does some sort of quality control, so maybe that’s not fair. But generally it’s my general manager who is just keeping the restaurant running. Like, a lot of times he’ll just be in the office, like, ordering things, doing payroll, doing whatever it is that he does.
That’s what’s nice about being a waiter. You have a lot of freedom. Within reason, you can do things mostly your own way.
Plotz: Who are you talking to most of your colleagues? Are you talking to other waiters? Are you talking to the back servers? What’s the kind of relationship that you have with them?
Paul: So, the back servers are great. They’re really, really nice guys, really supportive. I mean, they’re—
Plotz: Just to interrupt, are they all immigrants? Are they all Latino?
Paul: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’m just totally blown away by these guys, because they have, like, three jobs. Working in a restaurant is really physically difficult, and these guys will work all morning at a lunch place, and then they’ll come and they’ll work all night. And they all have families, you know?
But, so yeah, certainly I talk to them. But that’s more like, “Hey, can you get me this on this table? Can you make me these cappuccinos?” You know, “We need more bread,” whatever it is. The interactions between the waiters are pretty hilarious, because it’s typically just complaining about people that you’re waiting on and how stupid they are. Just basically, everyone has a great story every 20 minutes of, like, “Man, you will not believe what this guy just did.” And then everyone’s just in on it together.
It’s funny. After you’re a waiter you’re on your best behavior when you go into restaurants, because you know that everyone is just talking shit about you. [Laughter]
Plotz: I don’t know if you can summon to mind a couple of great examples of things that you dealt with or that one of your colleagues dealt with recently?
Paul: Sure, so, in general what bothers me a lot is just stupidity. I know that people, like, for a living I’m supposed to know what’s in all of these dishes. I’m supposed to know about wine and all of these things, so I forgive people that don’t understand.
But what really bothers me is when someone will be at a table, I’ll walk up, and I’ll be like, “Hey, everybody!” And no one will look up. And then someone will say, “Hey, Tom, what’s a ‘branzini’?” And I’m thinking to myself, well, that’s pronounced “branzino.” And he goes, “Oh, I think it’s a fish? What is that?” And I’m standing right there and I could say, “Hey guys, that’s a Mediterranean Sea bass, a flaky white fish. It’s really delicious.” And they’re, “Oh, what is that? Pull out your phone and Google it!” And I guess I’m putting on that accent, but it’s hilarious to me, you know? It’s completely hilarious. That feels rude.
So, I’ll complain about that all the time.
Plotz: So, what are interactions with customers that are pleasant or delightful for you? Or are there no such interactions? Is the work always “work”?
Paul: I don’t like small talk, really. I find it a little awkward. I think there are some people that will go to a restaurant because they want to, like, talk to the waiter. And if they’re pleasant, that’s great. But a lot of people kind of think it’s time to joke around, and I always just think to myself, “I’m not here to be your friend, pal.” You know—if it’s slow, whatever. I’ll sit and talk to you all you want. I’ll talk about the food, I’ll talk about the surrounding areas you want to go to check out, totally.
Like, I’m not a grump. But when it’s busy you need to know that I have a job to do.
A classic thing that I will always hear is, “Hey guys, welcome to the restaurant, I just want you to know that we’re out of our tuna tonight.” “Oh, great, that’s what I came in for! We’re out of here! Yuk, yuk, yuk!” And everyone looks around, and I always want to say, “I’ve heard that 30 times tonight. I’ve literally heard that 30 times, just shut up!” You know? You did not come here for the tuna.
And actually one time did actually come for this dish, and I was like, “Yep, sorry, I got the joke. You’re really funny!” And he’s like, “No, seriously, I really came for that.” I was like, oh, “I’m sorry, everyone before you was such a jerk. It’s ruined that experience for you.”
But no, I mean, people can be nice, but in general I just kind of want to get your stuff and I just want to move on.
Plotz: Do you think that is true of all waiters? Or do you think that this is your personality?
Paul: I think there’s probably a pretty good split. I know—it’s an Italian restaurant, like I said, and we have a guy from Italy who is an awful waiter. Like, other than his tableside manner, if that’s a phrase—he’s super friendly. He’s really fun. He puts on this big accent. Everybody loves him, but he can’t remember an order to save his life. He’s just really slow—so, I think, you know, I wouldn’t want to go out to eat and have him wait on me. Because I want what I want to order and I want it on time.
But I think it’s a split. I’d be the first one to admit that I kind of have an attitude problem about it. And certain days are different. Like, I’ll be in a really good mood some days if I have a lot of caffeine, and other days I won’t want to be there. That’s generally what’s just hard dealing with people, because, you know, if you work in a cubicle by yourself you can just kind of be in a grumpy mood.
But people are there, they want to spend money, and maybe it’s their special night out. You kind of have to decide to be in a good mood and give them a nice experience even if you don’t want to. And you do it every day, so it’s not special to you. So, you kind of have to maintain that perspective, I guess.
Plotz: Are you or your colleagues high, stoned, snorting coke most of the time? Or is that just over-told?
Paul: I worked at a really trendy restaurant in Hollywood and I was completely shocked. I’ve never done cocaine, but so many people were on cocaine. And, I’ll go—every shift I’ll drink coffee or an espresso, because it just helps. It puts you in a better mood and it gives you a lot of energy, and you’re moving around so much. So I guess I could understand, from what I understand about cocaine, that that’s really helpful. But the other thing is, at this restaurant one of the busboys only had this job as sort of a cover, but he essentially had cocaine coming from South America.
And he would go up to the people that would buy it from him—I mean, it was brilliant—he would just be, like, “Hey man, here’s a little bit for the night. Just for free.” And then once you’re high, you want more. And so I would see these guys, spend all of their money. They’d come with $150 in cash or whatever from the night before—it would all be gone, and then they’d spend everything they made that night. But people are very drunk in restaurants, very drunk.
We used to start at that restaurant—I mean, I was younger, I was in my mid-ish, early 20s—we would start the shift with two shots of tequila on a Saturday night. Bartenders are probably—if you’re not at a nice place, the bartenders are probably pretty drunk, mostly. The sommelier will try wine all night where I work now, and he’ll definitely be drunk by the end of the night.
Plotz: Does being drunk help you do the job?
Paul: It doesn’t help you do the job. There’s such a high level of multitasking—well, not multitasking—you’re just juggling a lot of things in your brain. So when I worked at that restaurant, I would probably be a little tipsy every Friday and Saturday that I worked there. I was so much friendlier. Everybody was like, “You’re the greatest!” And it was that kind of restaurant, where you wanted to go for sort of the experience. And so everybody would be a little tipsy, otherwise you’re like [mumbles], “Hey guys, what’s going on?” As opposed to [Animated], “Hey guys! Welcome, what’s going on!?”
But where I work now is a lot more serious. I’ve never been drunk there, and I would not want to. It’s totally a different vibe. But you’ll know, if you go into sort of one of those more fun—like, I could imagine, if I was a girl that worked at Hooters, I’d probably have to be drunk the entire time. Because how miserable would that be?
Plotz: You’re a handsome young man, and I presume—this is Los Angeles—that all the waiters are good-looking people. Are people getting hit on all the time?
Paul: Again, I feel like I’ve sort of gotten to a restaurant now where that’s not very common at all. But in restaurants past, yeah, totally. People are hit on all the time. The girls are hit on a lot. You know, the extent of it is, maybe someone will leave a number on the check or something, or they’ll just kind of flirt with you but—I mean, I’ve seen—I worked with this guy who would lift his shirt up and, like, flex his abs so that—because, you know, a big group of girls would come in or something and they’d all be drunk, and they’d think he was cute.
So he’d be waiting on eight girls or something and they’d all be drunk and they’d think he’s good-looking. And he’d be, like, “Hey Paul, come over here! Let’s, flex our abs!” And I just thought it was the douchiest thing on the planet. I’d be like, “Nope, you have fun!”
Plotz: What’s the mental work of being a waiter?
Paul: Well, certainly there’s a lot of memorization you have to know. You have to know every item in the food. Anything that’s a potential allergy. You know, a lot of menus they just don’t put that there’s something fried in peanut oil. I mean, that’s a bad example, you probably would now. But there are things that people are allergic to that’s just not literally written on the menu. You just need to know all of the items.
What can be substituted for what, descriptions of wine, descriptions of the cocktails, the beer, all that stuff just generally. If someone says, “Hey, can I get some butter?” You say, “Absolutely. I’ll be right back with that.” You’re going to go to another table first, you’re not going to run back to the kitchen, get the butter, and come back. You’ll be asked four or five different things that you’re not literally writing down, that you just need to keep in your head, and then you have to prioritize those things.
Because if someone asks for butter, someone needs more bread, and then someone’s steak is undercooked or overcooked, the steak is the most important thing. So, you have to go the kitchen immediately and say, “You guys, the steak is cooked wrong,” talk to them for five minutes about how to solve it, or however long. And then say, “Oh, I need that bread. I need that butter. That guy’s iced tea was low, which I noticed as I walked by. That person needs more wine. This guy needs a beer over here, and I think need to get these people the check.”
You’re just looking at all the things that need to be done and thinking four or five steps ahead.
Plotz: Is that flow, is that artistic at this point? Or is it an analytical process in your head?
Paul: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think that it is flow, and it’s actually the best part of the job for me, is when I’m a little more busy than is comfortable. I can find myself really enjoying it. And I think that’s actually when I’m in the best mood.
When it’s slow I do find that I can be a little grumpy, and it will take someone to kind of get me out of that - like, a table that’s, like, so excited to be there I’ll be like, “Okay, yeah, this is a nice place. I’m happy for you guys. Can I talk to you about the food?”
There’s just a bandwidth where that’s true. But when you go beyond it I can find myself to be pretty annoyed.
Plotz: Do you work at a restaurant where the waiter writes down the orders? Or do you have to remember the orders?
Paul: I write down the orders. I sort of came up with a system for myself that I’ve always repeated everywhere I’ve gone, of how to write things down. In this restaurant you take seat numbers. That just means, around the table it goes clockwise—just one, two, three, four, you know, until whenever. So, I’ll just typically write those numbers first, because a lot of people won’t order in order.
So, a lot of people will just write things down and then forget. Especially if you have 20 people that you’re taking an order, you really need to write all of that down.
And then in terms of courses, the thing that I think I do that a lot of people don’t do is, if you order this item, I will only write it a specific way that is visually very different than other items. If you are ordering chicken, let’s just say that I’ll write “CHX.” I guess if you were ordering chicken wings, I’d write “CW.” Nothing would look—“CHX” does not look like “CW.” So I kind of create my own shorthand. Because a lot of times people are talking very fast. They’re ordering very quickly. So you just have to write—you’re not literally writing, “Pan-fried blah, blah, blah,” right?
I actually made a bet once with one of the guys in the kitchen at this restaurant where I worked. I said, “I’ll bet you $100 I don’t make a single mistake this month,” and he was like, “Oh, you’re on!” And I won. I won the bet. I didn’t make a single mistake. And that was a really, really busy restaurant. But I think I have I take on a lot of volume everywhere I’ve worked because I don’t make a lot of mistakes, but I think it’s just because I came up with a system for myself that makes sense.
Plotz: Going back to your system, so, it’s clockwise. You were about to say how you do different courses?
Paul: Oh, yeah, sorry. So, different courses. Let’s say you’re going to order a mixed green salad. I would write that and just make a very clear delineation between that and the next course. But a lot of people will say, “I think this is what I want to start with. I don’t know my entrée yet.” And so I will actually not—I’ll come back to you, because I want to keep it really organized for myself visually when I get back to the computer.
Ringing something into a computer is fairly time-consuming. Scould make a lot of money creating a very intuitive, user-friendly computer system in a restaurant. In my experience there just aren’t a lot of them. So, you’re going to take ten minutes to put in an order for a large party, and that’s ten minutes that you’re not helping everyone else.
So, a lot of people I think can—I mean, “stress” is a strong word. It’s not like I’m hanging telephone poles 50 feet up or something, right? But you know what I mean. There’s a level of stress there that I think can become distracting. And I’ve done it long enough to try and block that out, focus on it, and not care if it takes too long. Because also, you can look at what you wrote—it’s never legible, it’s never clear. At least, a lot of ways that I see people write down their orders, and they’ll screw it up and they’ll ring in the wrong thing.
Plotz: You’ve never worked at a restaurant where the waiters were required to do it mentally?
Paul: I never have. I don’t understand why you would ever want your waiters to do that. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ve worked with people that try and do that, but they’ll make mistakes all the time.
Plotz: What are the physical demands on you? What are the things first physically that you had to learn? Where do you hurt at the end of the day?
Paul: Carrying things on trays, there’s a pretty steep learning curve. Like, I dropped so much stuff when I started working in a restaurant. I’ve become pretty good at it, though. Obviously you’re just dealing with weight distribution.
But now that feels kind of second nature, to where you’re coming around a corner and you slightly move your hand and tilt the tray to account for the fact that the momentum is going to push it one direction. You can kind of walk very quickly through a restaurant moving your hand and the tray. So I definitely had to learn that. But I work now on marble floors, which I find exhausting. I would love to how much I walk in a given shift. I mean it’s far and it’s a hustle, so it is exhausting. It’s hot here, too. Outdoor seating is difficult because you’re just sweating so much.
Like, last night I got to work and I was dripping sweat in the first five minutes, where people were looking at me like, “Is this guy OK? Can we get this guy a glass of water?”
My back hurts a lot. I’ve complained about to everyone that will listen, that, you know, I really want to get off my feet. I find it hard. Maybe it’s a circulation issue, but I’ve always kind of had very sore feet. At the end of a shift, I just—my feet really hurt. My lower back hurts a lot. But I’ll just sort of notice it more and more, though, as I get a little older.
Plotz: Have you worked on other kinds of floors than marble floors?
Paul: Yeah, I worked in this restaurant that was on the second story and it had carpet floors, and that was awesome. And we would all be, like, so thankful that it was carpet, but it was a nightmare to clean and so I understand why people don’t do that. But, yeah, like, if you work behind a bar there’s a lot of mats. So it’s a lot softer, which is nice.
Plotz: What kind of shoes do you wear?
Paul: I wear—I had some sort of expensive orthopedic shoes where I went to the store and they, like, calculated how I stood and did this whole thing. And I don’t know if helped, to be honest. So, now I just went back to generic all-black cross trainers. They’re certainly comfortable. They’re Nikes or something.
Plotz: What’s your uniform? And is it—do you have to buy it and take care of it, or is it there at the restaurant when you get there?
Paul: Where I work now we wear an apron, which I think is like $15, a really stupid shirt that you can’t find anywhere—it’s a custom long-sleeved shirt, button-up that maybe was, like, $20. And then we wear a vest, which is, like, $60.
And if you ruin your uniform you have to buy another one. And then, all-black pants and all-black shoes, which you have to buy yourself.
I basically just hang my work shirt and my vest in my car all the time. I wear an undershirt, just a white shirt and the black pants, and I wash those as much as I can. I don’t probably wash my work shirt as much as I should, which I’ll notice reaching over the table, I’ll be like, “Whoa! This is getting ripe! These poor people.”
I wear it every night and I’m not doing laundry every day—so, sorry. I don’t want to pay money to get a bunch in rotation.
Plotz: Do your bosses generally treat you well? Do they know who you are? Do they care about your life? Or are you a piece of meat?
Paul: Where I work now, I work with some of the friendliest people that I’ve ever worked with. I’ve worked in restaurants where—chefs in restaurants have massive egos. If you watch Gordon Ramsay, that’s not actually unrealistic of what chefs will do in restaurants. I’ve worked with a guy who would put someone in tears every night. They know the food so well, top to bottom, especially if they are creating the dishes, and a lot of places where you work you’ll never try the food. You literally have no idea what anything tastes like but you’re expected to sell it and talk about it knowledgeably.
So, I get it, you know, but I don’t think I’ve ever been talked to by people I work for with so much disrespect than anywhere else in regular life. I mean, the owner—I worked for this restaurant company, this restaurant group here in Los Angeles—they didn’t care too much about the people that they hired, but we all made good money at the restaurants and so people would put up with it.
I remember the opening of this restaurant—these guys will bring all of their D-list celebrity friends and all of the people they’re trying to impress, in what’s called a “soft opening,” where it’s just friends and family of the restaurant. Generally no one has been working at the restaurant very long because the restaurant is opening. So, you don’t have a lot of autonomy yet. You’re just being told what to do by the people in charge.
My manager at that restaurant gave me a dessert. We were sort of doing the friends and family dinner like you would a wedding, where everyone just sort of brings out the courses. We would clear it, we would bring out the next; we’d clear it, we’d bring out the next. And my manager at the time thought it would be a really good idea to take the first desert to the owner of the restaurant, and he was sitting in this booth with what must have been, like, 17-year-old girls. They were impossibly young.
And he’s sitting there, like, Mr. Big Guy, right? And so I’m like, OK, I’ll bring you the dessert, you know? I’m just really happy to have this new job. And he goes, “We still have fucking food on the table! What the fuck are you doing! Get it the fuck out of here!” But like, the level of—and then he literally looked at the girls next to him and went, “Ha, ha, ha!” Like, see how I talked to that guy? Wasn’t that awesome?
And I went back to the restaurant and was, like, I can’t work here. I can’t. Because you see red in a way where you’re like, I don’t deserve that. That said, I ended up working there for, like, four years! [Laughter]
Plotz: How long is a shift and how much do you end up making?
Paul: So, a typical shift is going to be four to six hours. The hours don’t matter, because like I said, you’re going to be paid $8 an hour for four to six hours, so that’s a difference of $16. But where I work now, the average is, the tips that we make can be anywhere from, like, $270 at sort of the top end, we kind of top out there, to about, like, $150. The benefits of working in a pooled house is that it’s very stable. Like I said earlier, we all share tips—it kind of lifts all boats, I guess you’d say, to the same level.
No one really has a bad night, but you don’t ever have, like, great big nights. Which is something that used to happen, not to everyone but, someone will come in and order a huge bottle of wine and they’ll just really have a great time, and they’ll tip you a lot of money and then that person will walk home with $600. So, that doesn’t happen where I work anymore, but, yeah.
Plotz: So, you make $200 to a bit more than $300 for a shift?
Paul: Yeah, I mean, again, getting above $220 is pretty rare. It’s generally between, like, $170 and $220, and then, you’re, what? $40 or $50 in hourly.
Plotz: You only do this several nights. You don’t do this every night?
Paul: Yeah, so I’ll work, like, three to five. But in a two-week pay period I generally have eight to nine shifts on the pay period, on the paycheck. So, that’s typically about $1,400 or $1,500.
Plotz: So, you’re making, 40 or 50 grand a year?
Plotz: Do you ever get health insurance from a restaurant or any benefits?
Paul: I’ve never had benefits. There are certain places, it’s really funny the way it works. We sort of get locked out at a certain number of hours a week. Typically that’s about the number of hours a week you need to qualify for benefits. So people in the kitchen will. But these poor people in the kitchen make no money. I mean, they make such little money. It’s only hourly, and it’s very rare that the kitchen ever sees any of the tips from a restaurant.
So, I think they get benefits. But again, a lot of times it’s not very friendly between what’s called the front of the house and the back of the house, because of that reason. Because when it’s busy the front of the house makes more money, but when it’s busy the back of the house just gets slammed and makes the same amount of money, and I think there’s a little bit of animosity, especially where I work now. I have ton of friends that work in restaurants, and they’ve echoed that also in a lot of the places they’ve worked.
Plotz: How does the animosity manifest itself where you work now?
Paul: Well, it’s very funny. So, you’ll have—when you work in a kitchen there’s different stations. So you have whoever makes salads makes only salads that night. So, here obviously it’s an Italian restaurant, great pasta. I don’t know what people that work in a kitchen really think the power of a waiter is, but if you come in and you want pasta, you’re getting pasta. Like, I’m not going to tell you to get a steak. Like, typically don’t you sit around and you go, “What do you want to have for dinner tonight?” “I feel like pasta.” “Oh, let’s go to a good pasta place.”
I’m not going to talk you into getting tuna fish. I don’t think the pasta guy likes me very much. I think he’s that type of person anyway, to generally not be very friendly. But I had a table of like 12 people and every single person ordered pasta. And I walked back into the kitchen to get something, and he was like, “12 pasta orders? Fuck you, dude.” And I was like, all right ... That’s one thing if we’re friends and you’re giving me a hard time, but I think that was the first time he ever spoke to me.
And I was like, “All right, man, I think we’re all on the same team but, cool.”
Plotz: If food gets sent back, do you guys get to eat it?
Paul: Sometimes. Typically they don’t want people eating food during the shift. I think that’s a health code violation. I’ve seen people box it up before. I mean, there’s a fine line I think between what’s legal and what’s maybe beneficial. Like, if something gets sent back and is literally not touched, sometimes they’ll say, “Hey, you guys should try this dish, you’re never going to get a chance to try this.” There’s also, like, in the dish pit, which is where you take all of the dirty dishes - people just eat the food, they just eat it.
There’s things that will be eaten family style, where, like, no one’s fork that touched their mouth touched the food, and people will just woof that down. And then there’s always the random guy. So, like, if I put in the center of the table let’s just say, egg rolls, someone is going to eat those egg rolls. It’s pretty much guaranteed that someone will eat those egg rolls.
But it’s kind of gross when you see someone just eating leftover pasta. But, you know, if you’re around food and you’re really hungry—I mean, that’s a pretty miserable situation to be in. Like, I’ve not eaten enough before and just gotten really hungry, and you’re just dealing with all of this food. Which can be kind of painful, you know?
Plotz: If you get sick are you strongly discouraged from working?
Paul: Not at all. I have really bad allergies. I’ve been allergic, I think, to places where I’ve worked, where I’ll go in—I worked at a brewery, and whenever they would brew the beer I would just be sneezing and everyone is just, like, “Oh man, make sure you wash your hands a lot.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m trying!” But no, I mean, there’s an interesting gamble I think when you’re a manager of a restaurant, where you’re trying to have the least amount of staff that can do the maximum amount of work. So, you’re generally never overstaffed in a restaurant. They’re trying to walk that line between where we can give good service but also save money on labor.
So if you call up sick a lot of times, they’re like, “I need you; I need you to work.” But, you know, if you call up early enough in the day they’ll try and call other people to come in for you. But sometimes it’s, “Sorry, it’s really busy tonight; we need you to come in.”
Plotz: At the end of your shift are you so hyped that you have to go do something else? Or are you able to just go home and chill?
Paul: I think it’s really hard to go to sleep. I mean, so many people will go out and get drinks afterwards. I’ve never really done that.
I mean, the reason to be a waiter is so that you can be productive during your day, and maximize your time your free time. So I would tend not to do that. But I do find it really hard to fall asleep. Like last night I probably got home at 11:30. And I tried to go to bed at 12:30 and it was really difficult.
Plotz: Have you saved any money?
Paul: No. It’s really sad. I mean, I can’t go to my friends’ weddings.
I don’t know if it sounds like it’s a lot of money. $260 sounds like it’s a lot of money, maybe it isn’t. It certainly isn’t when I’m getting a $1,400 paycheck.
Plotz: So you’re in your early 30s now. I take it you don’t see yourself doing this job in your 60s?
Paul: Yeah, I mean—I never saw myself doing it at 32. Definitely—I don’t think I could do it at 60. I don’t think I can do it at 40. It’s interesting when you work in a restaurant, there’s such a goal to get out of a restaurant.
Plotz: If you were asked by a friend of your mom’s, “What do you do?” Would you say, “I’m a waiter.” Or would you say—because you are also in the film industry, too. How would you answer that question?
Paul: Well, it’s interesting. I remember, I had a lot of shame about deciding to try to become an actor and join the film industry. Not really acknowledging that I was passionate about it.
But I remember one of my best friend’s moms, when I was, like, 23, I came back for Thanksgiving. She was like, “What are you up to?” And I was like, “Well, you know, I ended up being a theater major and I moved to L.A. I’m going to try to be an actor.” And she straight up said to me, “Oh, that’s so sad. You had so much potential!”
Plotz: Let’s say your work in the entertainment industry doesn’t go great. How do you think you stop being a waiter? What’s your move to stop being a waiter?
Paul: It kind of freaks me out a little bit, to be honest with you. Because, I look back at, like, the 20-year-old that thought this was a great idea, and I think, well, it still might be but I could have done a lot of things. At 32, I would have had ten years’ experience doing something. So like, working in a restaurant for ten years I’m just really good at it. Everyone would be, right?
So, it’s interesting to think—there’s a weird problem of being, like, “Am I stuck in this at 32?”
There’s a time at which I guess everyone has the breaking point of, I’m not going to do this any longer. And I think mine—even though I just said I’d stop at 40, I don’t think that’s true, you know? So, I just wonder, I just look at the future and I go, well—What’s it going to be? Am I going to be working in restaurants, like, off and on forever? It’s possible.