According to Twitter user @ahousley__, being a server is like “being a babysitter except they’re in charge.”
As a proud server at a busy pub in Calgary for the last three years, I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve worked in nearly every industry of customer service in the past decade, but nothing quite compares to the late night, Red Bull-fuelled, unofficial acting audition slash babysitting gig that is serving at a restaurant, especially since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Upon starting a shift, it’s customary to greet all the line cooks and secretly hope your bright attitude warrants a “mess up” from the kitchen you can secretly devour when nobody’s looking. The first 10 minutes of a shift are usually the most hectic, simply because it means your whole section is being transferred to you by a server who is finally escaping their shift. Between trying to memorize the orders of tables you haven’t yet met and listening to your coworker’s gossip from the night before, no day is ever dull.
Serving has consumed parts of my life I never imagined, causing intrusive thoughts at any point in the day. Sometimes I’ll be fast asleep and wake up to the overwhelming memory of forgetting to bring a ranch to table 34 or I’ll be studying for an exam when I remember that table 67 never got lemon with their water.
The customers, though, take the cake for being the driving force behind every server’s fake smile. Brody Thomas, a server at The Keg in Calgary, recalls a time he had the wrong idea of what gremolata, a green sauce made of chopped parsley, lemon zest and garlic, was when a woman pulled him aside to ask.
“I just improvised and didn’t miss a beat. I was like, ‘Oh, gremolata. It’s a type of cheese. It’s in the mozzarella family and it comes on top of our gnocchi. It’s a cheese that usually melts by the time it comes out.’” It was only after the fact that Thomas realized his mistake, but the woman loved it nonetheless. Thomas adds that he regretfully pictures her scouring the aisles of a supermarket for the gremolata cheese that doesn’t exist.
Stories like these put emphasis on the reality of being a server, which is acting. From my own experience, I can recall making up not-so-pleasant soup flavours to deter customers from ordering it based solely on the fact that I didn’t actually know what the soup of the day was and I knew asking the kitchen would incite a stream of lecturing that I wasn’t prepared to endure. Nobody wants to order hotdog and asparagus soup.
The reasoning behind these acting acrobatics is that there is nothing more important to a server than building a connection or rapport with the customers they’re serving. Not only does this influence the tips we get, but it makes the job itself less stressful.
American researchers Wansoo Kim and Chihyung Ok, in a paper surrounding the relationship between service employees and customer contentment, say “the behavior of employees plays a central role with regard to a customer’s perception of satisfaction and service quality.”
They add that “effective social communication and mutual personal interest between an employee and a customer is likely to contribute to stronger relationship bonds and the establishment of rapport” and “rapport can cause a customer to have positive feelings about an employee, which are likely to be translated into affective commitment to the employee’s firm.”
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent closing and reopening of dine-in restaurants, this dynamic has changed with new guidelines in place to ensure the safety of everyone involved with the dining process.
In Calgary, this means keeping tables two metres apart or installing barriers between tables, keeping groups to less than six per table, removing condiments and cutlery from tables, enforcing masks while customers aren’t at their tables, removing bar service and an 11 p.m. curfew, among many other guidelines and restrictions.
To some customers, this seems like overkill. A Leger 360 online poll taken of just over 1,500 Canadians in April shows 22 per cent of Albertans view the virus’s impact as being blown out of proportion. Alternatively, some customers still haven’t returned. In early June, 52 per cent of the 1,505 Canadians questioned by Angus Reid for CTV said they plan on avoiding restaurants in the coming months to protect their own health.
A study done by Project Pandemic shows that between July 4 and Aug. 10, just over 500 cases of COVID-19 were linked to public venues including restaurants, stores, bars, schools, daycares, and other public spaces in Canada. Of the 40,161 total cases in Canada reported on Aug. 10, this is a relatively small amount.
During a COVID-19 update on Nov. 6, Premier Jason Kenney shut down concerns surrounding transmission via restaurants, saying “0.7% of identifiable transmission has occurred in restaurants and similar businesses,” though the origin of many cases in the province are unknown.
Thomas says that one of the biggest challenges for him is masks, both convincing reluctant customers to wear them and communicating while wearing one himself. “Half of serving is reading lips so obviously you lose that kind of rapport with your client — all the smiles and facial expressions and everyone looks the same.”
Similarly, Jordan Ridders, a server and bartender at a Moxie’s in Calgary, shares a story of a time before COVID-19 when she was serving a big party for a celebration. “At one point, they got up and they started dancing and I came in to see if everything was good and they got me to start dancing with them. It was really, really fun and it was just kind of nice to think I could dance with them. Like, holding hands dancing. That couldn’t happen now. That’s crazy.”
Ridders also describes a more recent memory in which a woman she was serving had grabbed her hand to look at her nails. “I don’t know where [the customer’s] been. I don’t know who [they’ve] come in contact with. […] It’s just so scary to think of really, when you sit back and look at it.”
Despite the restrictions causing a loss of customer interaction, stories of weird customer encounters are at an all-time high.
Just the other day while I was at work, a customer pumped our complimentary hand sanitizer all over her food and continued to finish off her plate only to ask what kind of vinegar was in the bottle. After a chaotic scramble to make sure we hadn’t inadvertently poisoned her, the poor lady became the talk of the kitchen.