- Restaurant servers are often the people who can make or break a dining-out experience.
- Insider spoke to servers about things only those who’ve worked in the industry will understand.
- Laughing with customers can often indicate a better tip, but harassment can also happen.
Being a restaurant server is a lot harder than you’d think, but there are some benefits to the job.
From making someone’s birthday a little more special to connecting with customers over the lunch rush, servers are on the frontlines when it comes to how customers feel after dining in a restaurant. There are also challenges to being a server, including low wages, rude customers, and even harassment.
Insider spoke with three restaurant servers in three different states — Texas, Georgia, and Connecticut — who have more than 10 years of serving experience between them. They defined the things only servers understand, and what they desperately want customers to know.
Small gestures from customers go a long way
One server, Cassidy B., who works at a restaurant in Texas, told Insider there are small ways customers can help make their server’s day go much smoother.
“Just a simple smile, helping stack plates, or giving just a $1 extra can really mean the world when you are surrounded by five-to-six tables of people expecting you to be on top of every detail,” they said.
There are ways customers can ensure they get good service
“Most times it’s super easy to correct a mistaken order or food quality issue, but you’ve got to be kind,” a former employee at Olive Garden in Kennesaw, Georgia, told Insider.
“I’m so much more likely to offer to help or even offer to comp an item if you’re kind about it,” they said. “What’s the point of demanding a refund or making me feel bad over a plate of pasta? Relax.”
If a customer doesn’t like their meal, accepting something else from the menu is usually the best course of action.
“On occasion when a customer has expressed their dislike of something, I appreciate it if they are willing to accept alternatives,” Megan Feragne, who worked at The Vanilla Bean Café in Putnam, Connecticut, between 2014 and 2020, told Insider. “For example, if they thought their latte was too sweet, I would be happy to make them another. It can be awkward if a customer tells you they do not like something but do not want you to do anything about it.”
Laughing with a customer often means a better tip
“If I found myself laughing with a customer, it almost always meant a bigger tip and a more smooth transaction,” Feragne told Insider, but she ensured good service in other ways too.
“One of my favorite things to do when taking an order from a customer is to let them know my personal favorites on the menu and how often I order them. After all, the food that the servers crave is usually well-researched,” she said.
An unsupportive manager is far worse than a rude customer
“Rude customers come and go, but having management that is nasty and willing to throw you under the bus is always worse,” Cassidy B. said. “This isn’t in all restaurants, but I have had this happen and it is frustrating. It leads you to being ridiculed for things outside of your control and often tipped less because the manager sacrificed you to save face. Which means I don’t get paid.”
You’ll see your coworkers at their worst
Work in service long enough, and you’ll learn that bad days do not equal bad people.
“You see your coworkers at their worst. You will literally be fighting one minute and best friends the next. One of the perks is that everyone understands what you’re going through because they are going through it too. It’s really nice to have that community,” Cassidy B. said.
Low wages are often an expected part of being a server
The average minimum wage in the United States for tipped employees, which includes servers, varies by state, but eight states allow them to be paid a “subminimum wage” that can be as low as just $2.13 per hour, the New York Times reported.
“I am getting paid $2 an hour to be here. If there is an issue with the food, etc, all restaurants are happy and willing to fix it for you and even provide discounts,” Cassidy B., who works in Texas where server minimum wage is $2.13 per hour, said.
“There is no reason to get nasty with people making poverty wages,” they continued.
And sexual harassment is common
“This is particularly true for female servers, but I have seen male servers harassed as well,” Cassidy B. said. “It’s disturbing and makes the job way more draining than it needs to be. And there is no support when it happens, you’re meant to just suck it up, but often that can put you in dangerous situations.”
According to NPR and a 2021 survey by One Fair Wage, more than 70% of female restaurant employees have experienced sexual harassment in their careers, and tipped workers who receive a “subminimum wage” experience sexual harassment at a higher rate than non-tipped restaurant employees. A majority of restaurant servers and workers who rely on tips are also women — 67%, according to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit organization that works to improve working conditions for restaurant industry employees.
NPR also reported that restaurant-industry workers report harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission more often than any other industry.
There are perks to working odd hours
Though hours as a restaurant server can be unpredictable, Feragne said there are benefits to working as a server versus a standard 9-to-5 job, “particularly for scheduling the daunting tasks of life like doctor’s appointments, oil changes, etc,” she said.
“Unfortunately, working as a restaurant server can also take you away from family events like Saturday afternoon first-birthday parties, given how restaurant capacity increases over the weekends,” she said.
It’s not always a bummer to work on a holiday
“I live in a household where multiple people work at restaurants, so shifting a holiday a day or two from its calendar date because we are all scheduled to work on the actual date is a usual occurrence,” Feragne told Insider.
“In my opinion, it is so special to work on a holiday, especially the busiest ones like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Valentine’s Day. It is really nice to be a part of a family or a couple’s story, even just for a few hours,” she said. “I especially love to wait on customers during an important birthday, when I can sneakily light candles in the back and bring a cake to their table while singing.”
However, depending on where you work, serving on a holiday can also mean worse tips and a harder shift.
“Valentine’s Day is a beast,” a former Olive Garden employee told Insider. “The worst tipping I’ve ever experienced. I’m generalizing, of course, but most people are already feeling obligated to buy their partner’s dinner, so an extra tip on top of that is a no-go.”
“I have witnessed three proposals though,” they said. “In Olive Garden. On Valentine’s Day.”
It’s so awkward to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to a table by yourself
“When another server’s table wants you to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to them, you join and sing. It’s an unspoken thing,” the former Olive Garden employee told Insider.
“I’ll sing for your table if you sing for my next one. It’s peak embarrassment to sing alone to a table of strangers,” they said. “And also, why do they always beg you to sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ but never join in for their own loved one? No free solos. Never.”
Work somewhere long enough, and there’s no need to write down orders
As a customer, you might be surprised to see your waiter not writing down their tables’ orders. However, for many servers who’ve been in the industry for years, remembering orders becomes second nature.
“I am more apt to write an order down if it has a lot of modifications, for example, no lettuce, hold the onions — simply because I care too much to jeopardize forgetting something,” Feragne said. “This rings true with allergies as well. If there is a gluten or dairy allergy, I am certain to take detailed records of what can and cannot be served to the customer.”
You can always tell when a customer has been a server
According to the former Olive Garden employee, “knowing what they want to order, ordering all at once, and being direct” are all telltale signs someone at your table was once or is currently a server.
“There’s almost an understanding with them that eases the anxiety of getting a bad table,” they said.
You’ll have some sort of food all over you by the end of the night
“For me, I had Romano cheese basically ground into the bottom of my shoes, in every pocket, in my apron, in my hair, and somehow always down my shirt,” the former Olive Garden employee said. “It’s a messy job that you have to pretend is the opposite.”
As a server, you have the ability to impact people’s days in a positive way
Though working as a restaurant server has its challenges, you are also able to make someone’s day.
“Everyone is entering the doors with their own lives, and their interaction with you, as the server, is powerful because although you may only intersect for a moment, you have the ability to set the tone for the rest of their day,” Feragne said.