TALES FROM THE TRENCHES - A holiday tribute to food-and-beverage workers

publication date: Nov 25, 2019
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author/source: Catherine Rourke

(Editor's Note -- This article is from years ago, but we like to highlight every year around this time.)

"Everybody can be great because everybody can serve." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

It's 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, and Rich Edwards, a sommelier at L'Auberge de Sedona, kisses his son Devon goodbye. He won't return home until long past 10 p.m., when Devon is fast asleep. A brief embrace is all they will share together this holiday.

The heat is on. Long lines form at the hostess stands of Sedona's restaurants. Foodservice workers report for duty like Marines headed for combat, armed with comfortable shoes, caffeine and determination. Before them lies a 12-hour stretch of nonstop service in which they will dish out hundreds of turkey dinners without a break or a meal. For these food-and-beverage workers, Thanksgiving is no picnic.

The restaurant industry employs 12 million people nationwide, making it the largest private-sector employer. According to Sedona resident and economic analyst Bob Eggert, publisher of The Red Rocks Economic Newsletter, it also represents more than half of Sedona's work force, including those at hotels and resorts. In a city where tourism constitutes the backbone of the economy, this means the majority of its workers report for duty on the holidays.

"It's a real sacrifice to work on the holidays," said Eggert, who himself dined out with his family at a local restaurant. "I personally thanked every food server for their good effort. They all deserve the commendation and extra credit."

Just another day

From diners and drive-throughs to gourmet restaurants, The Red Rock Review made the rounds on Thanksgiving to talk with Sedona's foodservice workers and see what they had to say about working on the holidays.

What we found were dedicated employees with smiling faces, cheerful attitudes and even enthusiasm for the stressful, if not Herculean, task at hand. For them, the holidays are the best of times and the worst of times.

"We take it in stride," said Faith Spicer, a waitress at Shugrue's who has served food in Sedona for more than 12 years, five of them at the Hillside restaurant. As the mother of two boys who also juggles two jobs, Spicer works a "double" on Thanksgiving, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. "It's a little sad for us, but we'll get together tomorrow," she said.

Others, like Steffan, a father and a waiter at Bice, really look forward to holiday shifts. "For me, every day is Thanksgiving," he said. "Working the holidays is always interesting and rewarding. It's like a giant cartoon, and I'm an entertainer."

Over at the Red Planet Diner, "earthlings" munch away at Buffalo wings and fries instead of turkey and mashed potatoes. Here, servers work in two rotating shifts, some of them filling in so that others can enjoy the day off with their families. According to one waiter, a musician named "Michael Rock Star," it's just another day of burgers and milkshakes, even though there's turkey on the menu.

The holidays offer a chance to pocket some extra cash in preparation for the long, lean winter months ahead when, according to many Sedona servers, their restaurants resemble mausoleums. Feast or famine. But today, it's feast - or rather, feeding frenzy - as servers scramble to keep up with the maddening pace.

Grace under pressure

This is no job for the faint of heart at any given time. During the holidays, the demand requires servers to be fast on their feet with a mind quicker than lightning. Every second counts, and the loss of a precious five minutes while customers ponder their salad dressing choices can spell disaster. One simple, innocent mistake can completely ruin someone's holiday dinner - and the server's gratuity.

From restaurant to restaurant across town, a similar situation repeats itself. Stretched beyond the imaginable with an unusually high volume of patrons, Sedona's eateries look like a loaves-and-fishes scene from some Hollywood Biblical epic. By some small miracle, foodservice employees will feed hundreds at a time with pure finesse.

"At any given moment, I have a dozen or more people demanding my attention and plates in the kitchen awaiting delivery," said a server at Joey's Bistro. "There's an endless to-do list running through my brain at all times. I have to appear calm. If I lose it, I can lose my tip. It's not based on effort; it's all about the guest's perception of your performance."

In the nearby Hyatt complex, martinis line up at Bice's bustling service bar. The kitchen is in full-tilt-boogie, all visible through the open pick-up window. Still, both cooks and servers maintain their outward composure despite the proliferation of turkey dinners piling up in the window. Stress runs high in a business where anything can go wrong and often does. And then everybody wants a separate check.

"We get absolutely slammed," said one resort food server. "There's gonna be lines; there's gonna be a wait for food; there's gonna be mistakes. After all, we're human, but we do the best we can. Anyone who goes out to eat on the holidays should bear this in mind."

A waiter brings out a combination fajita to a woman who insists she ordered the chimichanga. A foreign tourist wants to know why he got beef when he ordered the chicken fried steak. A family complains that their soups are cold. One customer is furious because the bar doesn't stock his preferred vodka. A mother becomes upset when a restaurant runs out of high chairs. The kitchen loses a ticket, and food is delivered to the wrong table. Everyone wants a window table, and no one wants to sit near the door.

Stress? Maybe it's why food servers rank high on the list of the Top Ten Stressful Jobs in a recent health magazine article, along with coal miners, air traffic controllers and EMTs. Yet they remain unflappable.

Time and Money

At L'Auberge, sommelier Rich Edwards is missing his son as he pours wines paired with each segment of a seven-course menu. "Empty" is the word he uses to describe the emotions he feels during the holidays. "This time of year is really tough," said the single dad and 25-year beverage veteran who's working a 12-hour shift. "Many people just don't realize what it's like for restaurant workers."

Like a surprising number of his colleagues, Rich is well-educated. Despite a degree in business, he chose to remain in the beverage industry. "Believe it or not, this business paid me the highest salary, far more than some marketing firms," he said. "And more importantly, working a night job allowed me to spend the day with my son as he was growing up. Sure, we make money, but that's not why we're here today. There's no amount of money that can compensate for being with our families. That's priceless."

Also making similar tradeoffs is Melody Rennie, a waitress at Denny's and the mother of a two-year-old. This Thanksgiving, she's getting ready to serve 65 passengers of a tour bus due to pull up at any moment. "I miss my little girl right now, but I do get to spend a lot more time with her than I would in most regular jobs," she said. "Working the holidays really doesn't bother me."

"Daily cash and daylight hours," declares a waitress at the Coffee Pot Restaurant. "I'm out by 2 p.m. and still have time to spend with my kid. No other job offers me that."

Another server does it for what she calls "creative freedom" so she can hike, paint and garden. "With regular jobs, all you get are the weekends," she said. "But with restaurant work, I can do what I please each and every day. And a uniform saves me a fortune on clothes. I can't imagine getting up at dawn to dress up and be stuck at a desk all day."

A waiter at Dahl & DiLuca said, "When I look at the awful jobs in Sedona, I'm thankful I have one that pays tips; I'd never make it here without them. This business gets in your blood, and the holidays just go with the territory. I'm used to it by now."

Cheerful troopers

By late afternoon, people descend in droves on the Los Abrigados dining rooms, where the staff will serve several hundred meals in the next few hours. The scent of food fills the air, along with the perennial sound of whirling cocktail blenders and wailing infants.

Diners fix their gaze on the swinging door, anxious for a server to emerge with their food. Bussers scurry back and forth like ants, in a frenetic dance between the bar, the kitchen and the dining room. A hostess scans the room for an empty table, desperate for loitering guests to vacate their seats. The staff appears cheerful and upbeat despite the great duress.

And that's exactly how Tami Green, an effervescent bartender at the resort's Shef's Billiard Room, is handling the holidays - cheerfully. But, with two kids and one grandchild, she describes holiday time for employees like herself as "a heartbreak" because of the time lost with their families.

"What helps is that I'm in a lot of really good company," she said. "My co-workers constitute my family on the holidays."

As a 21-year veteran of the bar business, Tami said she's worked every single holiday to date. But, in the spirit of service, she always manages to look on the bright side, with a barkeep's trademark sense of humor. "I never have to cook or do dishes," she said with a hearty laugh.

Today, Tami's working 14 hours; "maybe" she'll get a break. So why do they endure the loss of holidays, the stressful nature of the work and the long hours standing without a meal? Perhaps her reply speaks for most servers and holds the secret to their remarkable resilience and indefatigable enthusiasm.

"This is what I love. I thrive on public contact and the instant gratification you get from this work," she said. "I love people. Plus, I don't have a set income. What I love about this work is that there's no limit to how much income you can make. But, it's not just about making money; it's all about the fun interaction with people."

The work begins

By nightfall, it's pure pandemonium at many restaurants. No parking spots, long lines. Frantic hostesses struggle to accommodate hungry families without reservations. Bussers race like supply workers on the front lines in Iraq.

A waltz through the swinging doors into the back of the house reveals a world of heat, chaos, grease, cuss, sweat and debris everywhere. Armies of kitchen workers perform a host of prep duties, and the cacophony of shouting cooks, chopping knives and sizzling saucepans permeates the air. Weary servers, now in their eighth hour without a break, grab a bite of a roll and a sip of coffee while adding checks. There's still four more hours to go.

"We just keep going," one server explains. "We're prepared for this every year - the holiday haul. And teamwork is what makes it a success."

At 9 p.m., Sedona's foodservice workers, blood sugar now plummeting, still brave a smile to welcome the final strays of Thanksgiving diners. Like their colleagues around town, they've been running on their feet hauling turkey dinners for several hours now - without one of their own.

Their work has just begun.

When the last person has been fed and the doors are shut, servers still face "side work" - closing cleanup duties performed before they can clock out and return home to eat leftovers.

Tables must be reset and napkins folded. Silver, still wet from the dishwasher, is wiped and polished. Counters encrusted with 12 hours worth of caked soup spills and gravy splatters must be scrubbed. Refrigerators are wiped, beverage machines cleaned, pitchers emptied, salt shakers and sugar bowls filled, food wrapped and put way, floors swept and mopped. By 11 p.m., the restaurants are hushed and littered with debris like a stadium after the game.

Coffee breaks, sick days, weekends, holidays and health insurance? These remain as remote to most foodservice workers as the comfort of a leather-back desk chair. But the lure of the job lies in normal work shifts of 4 to 6 hours, daytime with their kids and "not having to get up at dawn for some low-paying desk job." And, best of all, there's the daily cash.

The truth about tips

Is the public more considerate on the holidays? According to most of Sedona's servers, yes, despite the occasional grump.

"I had a few 'turkeys' today," laughed one waiter, referring to some of his more challenging customers. But overall, everyone was really nice."

"It's our Thanksgiving too," Tami said. A little compassion and a lot of humanity go a long way." Apparently, so does a little generosity.

"Most people were pretty generous on Thanksgiving," claims one waitress, "but tips are definitely down. People are clinging to that extra buck they used to leave on the table. I couldn't believe that some were leaving 10% tips - or even nothing at all - for excellent service. The verbal tips just don't help us make the rent."

Others describe their tips as "Russian Roulette," claiming that "they turn customers into employers." While most reported decent income for their Thanksgiving labors, others said they earned less than expected. "I didn't even make 15% of my sales," declares one resort waiter, "yet I'll still pay taxes on all of it. People don't realize we only get two bucks an hour."

"My hourly wage hasn't risen since I first began serving in 1991, and neither have my tips," said a veteran waitress. "Years ago, we always got 20-percent tips. Now I feel lucky to get 15%. Still, hour per hour, I earn more money in less time than I would in most of the jobs around here."

Add to this the contradiction of "zero paychecks." The IRS requires servers to report all tips and then taxes them based on their sales. Base wages insufficient to cover the amount of standard deductions and tip taxes translates into no paycheck. In fact, according to many servers, they often "owe" money on payday.

The U.S. Dept of Labor reports that America's foodservice workers rank among the nation's lowest wage earners, with an average annual income of $15,000 including tips. While they comprise the largest employee sector in the nation and one of the largest in the city, restaurant workers still lack a unified voice in Washington, as well as in Sedona.

Sedona's ambassadors

Foodservice workers are often the first people visitors meet upon their arrival in Sedona. They are also the stewards of celebration for our birthdays and anniversaries, proms and promotions, galas and weddings. What if we had no bartender to mix our margaritas and no busser to clean up the mess? What fun would it be to stay housebound all the time and eat Hamburger Helper?

As multitasking professionals, restaurant workers deserve far more credit for their mental expertise and physical prowess than our condescending society extends them. Serving others is actually a privilege - yes, privilege - and it should be performed with a sense of grace and pride. Instead, scorched dignity seems to come with the job description, along with burning feet and burnt toast.

This holiday season, let's sprinkle some kindness on these ambassadors, the salt of Sedona, for their tireless performance. While they're not all saints, they certainly work hard. We thank each and every one of them for being there, especially at this time of the year.


Originally printed in the Sedona Red Rock Review. Catherine Rourke is an award-winning workplace journalist who specializes in the foodservice industry, as well as social reform issues. Through her pen she celebrates the working lives of waiters, dishwashers, restroom attendants, trash collectors and other unappreciated segments of the American workforce. Her mission is to restore pride and dignity in these service "professionals" and to evoke greater respect in American society for their contributions to humanity. In 1991, she won First Place in Restaurant Hospitality magazine's nationwide essay contest to define the true meaning of hospitality and she is now working on her first book. Contact her at rourkescribe@aol.com.