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As restaurants continue to face pandemic-related challenges, servers weigh in on why service matters

3 Photos
Server Virginia Samsel talks to customers about the drink menu at Light Sleeper on Capitol Hill on Friday, April 1, 2022, in Seattle, Washington.
Server Virginia Samsel talks to customers about the drink menu at Light Sleeper on Capitol Hill on Friday, April 1, 2022, in Seattle, Washington. (Jennifer Buchanan/Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — “Service sucks now.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard uttered a lot the past two years. When pressed, the person might say it was because service was slow or harried, there wasn’t enough — or too much — conversation, they felt ignored, or the server hovered too much.

To be fair, it’s been a rough two years. It’s been tough to figure out how to best support restaurants, and it’s been tough for restaurants to figure out how to operate while navigating shutdowns, rising costs, labor shortages and supply chain issues.

Even without a global pandemic throwing a wrench in how we feel about eating at a restaurant, going out to dinner has always been about more than just the food. And people are complicated. Deciphering what a person wants from an interaction during dinner and delivering on that successfully is what separates a good server from a great one. Service is what makes eating at a restaurant special for the diner. But what makes it special for the servers? What draws people to this career path and what makes them stay?

As restaurants continue to adapt and face challenges wrought by the pandemic, including labor and supply shortages and safety concerns, we will be examining, through a series of stories, the experiences of Seattle’s restaurant service workers, the challenges and rewards of serving in the Seattle restaurant scene, and their hopes for the rapidly changing industry.

Here, we spoke to four servers at five restaurants about what it takes to be a server and why they do what they do.

The special skills of service

Read any Yelp review and there will be a line or two about the service — regardless of the level of service that is expected. “This review would’ve been much worse had it not been for Annie,” reads a review for a neighborhood Italian restaurant. “Our server (Josh) was very pleasant and professional, but we felt like we wanted a bit more conversation,” reads one for a posh dining room.

Diners ask so much of servers. Even if you’re reading this shaking your head, thinking “not me,” there is probably an unwritten list of conditions that must be met for you to walk away from an evening having totally enjoyed yourself.

There’s a well-worn idea between people in the hospitality industry that a restaurant needs to provide three things: service, food, atmosphere. People will keep coming back if you succeed at just two of them, but one of the two must be good service. Now, there isn’t a quick or easy definition of what “good” service is, or what it means to be a “good” server. But there are some guidelines.

“It’s being able to read people and have the skill to become — in front of the guests — what it is they want and what they expect. It’s a chameleonlike trait,” Kristen McAuley, server at Kirkland’s Cafe Juanita, says.

A server must anticipate needs and do it in an unobtrusive way. They must sell you on an experience, while making you forget the amount of money you’re spending. They must be quick to fix any mistake, efficient, anticipatory and forge a million tiny relationships every night — some of which turn out to be bigger relationships. And they’ve got to do it all while being questioned about why they even want to do the job.

If you’re a server at a fine dining restaurant — the list of skills is even longer. Plates should be placed on the right and cleared from the left of the guest, using a specific hand. Certain dishes might need to be finished tableside, and the entire menu and every dish’s components should be committed to memory. And while there is most likely a wine steward, a working knowledge of a wine list is expected.

Still, society struggles to see restaurant service as a legitimate career. And, while some wait tables as a temporary gig, others proudly dedicate decades to the art of service and develop expertise in a trade that is largely based on intuition and the ability to “read” people.

The ability to read people is important no matter the kind of restaurant you work at. But when it comes to eating at a “fancy” restaurant, the expectation from diners is that of a performance. Everything from the lighting and music to the interaction with the waitstaff is part of the act.

McAuley has worked at a lot of different types of restaurants, from cocktail bars to fine dining establishments like Cafe Juanita. Her favorite style of service is fine dining.

“The guests at Cafe Juanita are so fantastic. The reception of what we do and what Holly [Smith, chef and owner] provides — it’s almost like they’re thanking us, which is a really cool feeling,” McAuley says.

While there are “rules” to fine dining, McAuley says it’s ultimately about “what’s best for the guest in the moment,” even if that means breaking rules. Again, it’s a performance. As Mark Canlis once said, “The promise of Canlis is that it will be worth it, and that, no matter who you are, you will feel safe.”

But service looks different in different restaurants, whether it’s precisely placed forks and waiters with napkins draped carefully over their forearms or a waiter who sits down next to you to take your order and winks when you take her suggestion to trade the fries for the tots. Like with any job, where you want to work depends on the kind of server you want to be.

Where everybody knows your name

There’s something about going to a restaurant where the bartender knows your drink. Regardless if the restaurant is high-end or the neighborhood dive, good service is having that ease with another person, that feeling of acceptance.

“It’s having places to go to where I know I can have a connection and be around people who I can feel comfortable with,” Virginia Samsel says.

Samsel has been working in the service industry for 20 years as a server, bartender and wine attendant. She works doing vineyard reiki, “to better connect grape growers and winemakers with their land” and is also an artist — and feels hospitality and art are her tandem careers. It took her a while to realize her passion for wine — and now learning about the intricacies of natural winemaking is what drives her. Right now, she works as a server at Capitol Hill’s Light Sleeper and as a wine attendant at Ballard’s Brimmer & Heeltap and the wine shop inside Brimmer, Halfseas.

The connection, she says, goes two ways.

“I approach [working in restaurants] as a postgraduate program where you’re working to develop your skills and theories. Maybe I overintellectualize my process, but it makes it to where I can find dynamism for myself in it,” Samsel says.

For some longtime servers, the human connection isn’t what drew them in, but it’s what helped them stay in the industry for decades.

On March 30, Tamara Voight retired, working her last shift after spending 40 years at Vince’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria in Federal Way. She’s made a lot of connections with people.

Over 40 years at the same restaurant, she’s hidden countless engagement rings in bowls of ice cream, met some of her best friends and met her husband all while at work. She’s seen generations of families have dinner at Vince’s, and while she doesn’t remember everyone’s name, “I know them by what they eat.”

“I don’t think I’ve realized I was going to spend 40 years at Vince’s, it just happened,” Voight says with a laugh.

While Voight says she didn’t walk into Vince’s 40 years ago with the intention of making it a career, the ease of the schedule — working days while she was pregnant, trading to nights when her kids were little to save on child care — plus the people she met and connections she made were what kept her there.

“The tips aren’t bad either,” she quips.

Conscious decision or not, 40 years at Vince’s wasn’t just a job, which meant all the difference.

Her last three shifts were the retirement party she never expected. Longtime customers showered her with gifts, there was even a framed letter from Mayor Bruce Harrell. It was something she’ll never forget.

“I was shocked to actually find out how many people really cared about me I guess,” Voight wrote in a text.

Career mindset

The way Samsel sees it, jobs are a “means to an end.” A career is about investing in your future. She moved to Seattle from Virginia a little less than a year ago. In Virginia, she was always asked about her job.

“A guest would say ‘what else do you do, what’s your other thing? This has to be more than what you do.’ You have to have a strong ego to put up with that, well-meaning or not,” Samsel says.

But for Samsel, this is the thing. She’s spent nearly a decade focusing on wine, and knows her connections to winemakers help enhance the dining experience, making her role of server as a kind of teacher. For her, there is real joy in “helping people realize things are more than what’s in a glass or on a plate. There’s a whole history there.”

McAuley, the server from Cafe Juanita, actively turned down a job that is more traditionally considered a “career” in order to pursue service full-time.

She got her start in the service industry in 1995 as a host as a “hobby job.” She was quickly promoted to manager, which led to a string of management jobs at different restaurants in Kirkland and Bellevue. Then, she realized she wanted more flexibility, less stress and she left management and became a server. She’s never looked back.

“I like walking into work with a lighthearted approach and leaving feeling accomplished. Management did not ever end,” McAuley says.

She’s worked at Kirkland’s Cafe Juanita since 1995. The restaurant, known for its attention to detail and high level of service, has moved to a tasting menu format, which means less verbal interaction with guests.

“There’s no flair like in the past with tableside service. But there’s certainly a trust [from guests] that my knowledge is there,” she says.

She once read an article that equated the level of stress a server felt to that of an airline pilot. She brushed it off, saying every airline pilot goes through the same training. With waiting tables, some of it is innate.

“You just kind of find yourself either good at it or not good at it,” McAuley says.

“It’s going through a very busy evening and at the end [saying], ‘Wow, what just happened? How did I just get away with that?’”

For some, however, serving is just the beginning of a career in restaurants.

Michelle Magidow, owner of Wallingford’s Union Saloon, began cooking in restaurants when she was 18 years old and living in California. After moving to Seattle, she spent years working both in the kitchen and on the floor waiting tables or managing at places like Salumi, Harvest Vine, Lark, Licorous and Delancey. She opened Union Saloon in 2017.

“It was time to put the whole of me into my own space,” Magidow says.

Union Saloon is a neighborhood spot — casual and comfortable. “You’re not going to get your fork and knife on the right side, but we’ll get it, and the bartender will know you want a Negroni,” Magidow says.

“For me, I want everybody’s food to get there while it’s hot, but I had a customer who started crying and my server just sidled into the booth with her and put her arm around her and just listened. And that was amazing.”

With restaurants closed, then opened but sparsely attended and socially distanced, moments like those have been missing from the dining experience these past two years.

We’ve eaten a lot of takeout these past few years. More in the beginning of the pandemic when restaurants were shut down — and less as things began to open up again. It wasn’t the same, and it wasn’t just because we were eating out of boxes or our food got a little cold. Good service is at its core about connection. If it wasn’t, we’d all be happy eating fast food or at fast-casual counter service joints and ordering takeout.

The act of leaving your home to go sit down in a restaurant is an act of wanting. Yes, you want dinner, but you’re also wanting someone who can help turn that evening into something special. Slide into the booth with you. Hide a ring in a bowl of ice cream. Call out something on the menu you might have missed.

And for the servers? It’s like with any gig. There’s satisfaction and pride in turning on the magic and creating something special out of an ordinary evening.

“I’d work in places and years later run into customers who I haven’t seen, and they’re like ‘We still think about you.’ You’re a part of people’s lives,” Samsel says.

It’s somewhat about the atmosphere and the food, sure, but without the right service it’s still just eating.

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