More than once, while I was waiting tables, I was asked what it was that I did—in other words, what I wanted to do with my life besides wait tables. The question came from customers more than from other staff—many of the latter knew better than to assume serving wasn’t my central ambition.
You see, there are two kinds of servers: the server for whom the job is an (often temporary) means to support some other, unrelated end—most likely an art—and the career server, for whom the job is both a means and an end in itself (a model historically more prevalent in Europe, where the absence of a lower, tipped wage made the occupation more reliable and less socially stigmatized). Upon closer look, within this second category exists a sub—or third—category still: those for whom the job is simply a means to survive—just for now, or longer-term. The distinction between these three servers in the United States, and increasingly in Europe, often falls along lines of class and geography (there aren’t many musical theater actors running to casting calls between double shifts in Wisconsin). If one server were to ask another, “What do you do?”—and you can usually tell the actors by their theatrical manner and enunciation of the specials—it would be after she’d been given reason to inquire: a show he’d mentioned he was playing in Bushwick that weekend, or an off-Broadway play opening the next night. A novel-in-progress.
“It’s a job, certainly, but not exclusively,” opens Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbitter. “There’s a transparency to it, an occupation stripped of the usual ambitions. One doesn’t move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter.” Twenty-two-year-old Tess has moved from Somewhere, USA—escaping “from what? The twin pillars of football and church? . . . The sedated, sentimental middle of it?”—and improbably lands a job as a back waiter at one of the trendiest restaurants in New York City (unnamed, but known to be modeled after Union Square Cafe). In the tradition of the nineteenth-century novel, she is an orphan of sorts—her mother is gone, her father distant; we know little about her past—and so she’s left for the big city, to start a new life.
Everyone around her has an artistic ambition (their corresponding dedication to it varies, but no one’s quitting their day job), but Tess doesn’t know what she wants to do, really, because Tess doesn’t know who she is. An interest in photography is mentioned, but we never see her with a camera. Tess is wholly dedicated to excelling at her new job—to support herself, we understand (at home, she drinks cheap Coronas and eats toast with peanut butter), but also to reinvent herself. Of the many reasons others moved to the city “to be a singer/dancer/actress/photographer/painter . . . to be powerful/beautiful/wealthy,” Tess thinks, “this always seemed to mean: I’m stopping here to become someone else.” This description is as much about New York City as it is about the liminal position of serving. But place, too, is important here: the only kind of prior experience that matters in New York City restaurants, Tess is told—and so was I—are other restaurants in New York City. It’s understood that a certain amount of faking-it-until-you-make-it is required.
In contemporary literature, the waitress—now more correctly called “the server,” though people, in books and in life, still slip—often exists within this transitional space of waiting, of becoming. She is the main figure of a particular type of female Bildungsroman, and her apprenticeship is very different from that of the male characters with whom we formerly associated the genre.
Today service work is one of the most rapidly expanding professions—along with care work—two fields that are both culturally associated with and presently dominated by women. Emerging alongside the growth of the industry is a new interest in the literary expression of this kind of labor, with the female worker at its center. This wider genre includes Lucia Berlin’s stories, published last year in A Manual for Cleaning Women, as well as Violation, Sallie Tisdale’s recently collected essays, in part about working as a nurse. In these works women narrators demonstrate the tolls of emotional labor, the gendered responsibility for others, and the siphoning-of-self often required of caretaking and service work. The server is an increasingly common figure in the genre, exemplified by Tess in Sweetbitter, as well as the protagonists of Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back and Adrienne Shelly’s film The Waitress (adapted for and currently on Broadway). The most sensual of female worker characters—surrounded as she is by taste and excess—the waitress is an apt container for the projections and desires of those she serves, and she knows it. In Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a character describes her waitressing as performance art.
She might also be a device through which we stage debates around service work. In Zadie Smith’s 2013 essay on tipping, she narrates the differences between America’s smiling “service culture” and Britain’s lack thereof: “I don’t think any nation should elevate service to the status of culture. At best, it’s a practicality, to be enacted politely and decently by both parties, but no one should be asked to pretend that the intimate satisfaction of her existence is servicing you, the ‘guest,’ with a shrimp sandwich wrapped in plastic.” With upscale American eateries experimenting recently with the no-tipping model (meaning, in theory, they’re instead paying a living wage), “to tip or not to tip” has become a signifier of more general cultural chatter about the ethical, practical, even philosophical issues of service work. Are we talking about all this now because we Americans, blinded by our own creation myths, have only recently realized that class and inequality are phenomena that operate here as well as over there?
Sweetbitter’s Tess labors to develop a palate and vocabulary for food and, especially, for wine. She also gains a drug habit and a precarious position within a love triangle—finding herself enmeshed in the raw, after-hours scene—between Jake, an icy-eyed, tattooed bartender (and philosophy PhD drop-out) and Simone, an older, sophisticated head server and wine expert. It’s integral to any work about a restaurant that the sensuality of the setting is properly conveyed, and Danler’s understanding and description of flavor has rightly been remarked upon: the “small wet stone” of an oyster; tomatoes, bursting at the seams, “like summer lightning”; the drip of cocaine dregs “flooded down [the] throat, dirt, Splenda, sulfur”; “the precipice of rot [that] becomes the only flavor worth pursuing,” often called umami. “The ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet.”
The intimidating head cook, called Chef, who refers to his kitchen as a church and screams at those who dare to disrespect it, is the creator of these tastes and therefore a key player in Tess’s tutelage, if behind the scenes—we rarely see him, and when he leaves at the end of the night, his rage and chef’s whites removed, he appears a regular dad with a backpack. Another important distinction shares space, in a growing diagram of concentric circles, with both career servers and those for whom the job is temporary: there’s front of the house (or “FOH”: servers, hostesses, managers) and back of the house (chefs and other kitchen staff). Again, the distinction is often marked by class, and in this case, race (though head chefs may contradict this; it’s notable that the books of celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Gabrielle Hamilton exemplify a genre of restaurant reads specific to back-of-house: the kitchen memoir). Tess, a waiter in training (basically a glorified busboy) befriends a teenaged, Latino kitchen prep guy, and the cooks are often at a nearby table during after-hours benders. But they are still clearly of different worlds—“the back of the house had separate kitchen beer,” Danler writes.
And yet, one final distinction unites us all under the umbrella of service work: between those who have worked in the restaurant industry and those who haven’t (as Tess remarks with narratorial hindsight, those who get it and those who don’t). Tess learns that, while 49 percent of the job is mechanics, which “anyone can do,” 51 percent is an often-referenced, never-defined quality the owner and manager look for in a server: more simply put, it’s being conversant in rich people things. In response to Sweetbitter, the tendency of many reviewers to focus on descriptions of food and wine has left the specific setting and the work itself—and Danler’s keen eye for class expressed as cultural signifiers—with less exploration than it deserves. There’s a shared architecture to the experience and a visceral memory that we carry with us. Tess can’t forget even after hanging up her apron.
She recognizes this intimacy even in Simone’s old friend, formerly a server at the restaurant. Her visit for lunch with her wealthy new husband visibly shakes Simone, who has fallen somewhat from grace in Tess’s eyes by the novel’s end: she no longer writes as she once did, Tess discovers. The restaurant has become her entire life. In witnessing Simone’s vulnerable reaction to her friend who has moved on, we’re meant to see that Tess is judging her older idol, maybe even pitying her. At the restaurant, servers say things—in a series of unattributed quotes, a recurring form that adds to the novel’s impressionistic rendering of a particular kind of restaurant culture—like “I’m obsessed with Campari right now,” and, “I mean, Stalin was an angel in comparison.” In this rarefied world of service work, one is supposed to learn from the restaurant, maybe go to grad school, and then move on.
In parallel to her developing palate, we see Tess building a stronger sense of self, learning to leave the party when it’s still good, and to stand up for herself in circumstances where before she would have molded herself into whatever she imagined was desired—a useful skill for a waitress, but less so for a young woman.
If serving others seems like not a particularly empowering position from which to come of age, it’s important to remember that restaurant work has historically been a route for American women to work and, in some cases, to gain independence and autonomy. The concept of eating out developed in the early nineteenth century, and by mid-century, women of different races and ethnicities worked in kitchens, while men dominated visible positions. Announcements advertising “lady attendants” around the turn of the century demonstrated how this departed from the norm. By then some women already ran or co-operated, with their husbands, dining rooms in taverns and inns even before female managers became prevalent—and (mostly white) women-run tea-rooms were popular through Prohibition. By the First World War, the number of women servers had exceeded men.
After the war, tension grew between waiters and the waitresses who’d taken up their positions, and the feminization of food-service work was due in part to the resiliency of female servers’ unions. With the support of middle-class feminist allies (and in some cases, loyal customers) female union membership increased, and female leadership was at a high in the 1920s. In 2004 the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), formed in 1891, officially dissolved, merging with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) to form UNITE HERE. Today, most servers don’t belong to unions: just 14.4 percent of restaurant workers receive health insurance from their employer, 8.4 percent are included in a pension plan; the median hourly wage across the restaurant industry, including tips, is $10.00—for servers, $10.15.
Tess and (though they are not the same) Danler by extension—who was thrust into the spotlight when in 2014 she fulfilled the server-novelist’s dream, landing a six-figure book deal by handing off her manuscript to a book-publishing regular—are not representative of most women working as servers across the country, at the local diner or at an IHOP along the Turnpike. Most of them won’t get a book deal, many are supporting kids, and few are making the incredible wages available only to those working in the swankiest restaurants in major cities.
Marie, the protagonist of Merritt Tierce’s 2014 novel Love Me Back, works her way up to such a place: an upscale Dallas steakhouse, in which at least one star server—an incredibly charming black man named Cal—is making six figures (and the Bronx-Italian manager and his clique are rolling in dough and coke). Still, “you never lose the feeling that it’s fragile, your connection to the money,” Marie says. Now in her early twenties, she’s had a baby at sixteen—the result of a high school missionary trip affair and a Southern Christian upbringing, we can assume, free of contraception other than abstinence—and is deeply depressed. The book is as much about the psychological effects of an unplanned pregnancy as it is about the restaurant industry, which serves as a numbing distraction for Marie. “I didn’t understand how to be a wife or mother,” Marie tells us. “But there were rules to being a waitress.”
If serving is a source of potential growth for Tess, for Marie it is a period of experimentation and self-destruction. The root of this destruction is the lack of social support that allows Marie to feel so alone, without validation or choices. While writing the novel, Tierce worked as Executive Director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, a Dallas-based nonprofit abortion fund, from 2011–2014. In the book, we learn that Tierce’s Marie has few options once pregnant: smacked by her father “for the first and only time. [He] whacked the side of my head and said we needed to plan a wedding before I started showing.” Marie is the third kind of server: someone holding on by a thread, working to make ends meet, but also to distract herself from her own perceived inadequacy and despair. “I learned how to anticipate and consolidate, which is all waiting tables is,” she says. “I learned how to use work to forget. I learned how to have an orgasm and I learned I was a bad wife.” Marie sleeps with customers and fellow workers—episodes that are described with plain candor and sometimes a hint of dark humor—and separates from her also young husband, with whom their daughter primarily lives afterward.
Around her, the chaos of restaurant culture—the drugs, the sex, the performance, the exchange; wild regulars, vulgarity, debauchery, grotesque wealth—seems only to intensify the straightforward control of Marie’s voice as she describes her state of mind, deadpan and seemingly incapable of self-pity: “Her dad’s a good guy and I love her like nothing. Neither of those changed the fact that I’d felt crazy since she was born, like I wasn’t meant for it.” Marie cuts herself, in order to “synchroniz[e] all the pain in the rest of my self that I cannot manage to organize.” All the while, Marie is becoming a strong server and a workaholic, known to cover anyone’s shift—and to sleep with most anyone. Becoming someone who excels at taking care of other people is a way Marie can avoid caring for herself.
In the high-end Texas restaurant to which she’s ascended, no one is working to support their art. These are people making a living. There seems to be more camaraderie between the front and the mostly Latino back of the house, perhaps because this is not New York and the servers are seemingly less privileged, but even still there is a separation.
By the end, we feel we’ve seen Marie hit rock bottom. She’s up early after an intense and taxing late night—an alienating experience that involved fucking a fellow server and his drugged-out brother in his car—and calls her daughter before school. We watch her get ready for the shift ahead, no easy answers in sight—and yet, I felt a hint of hopefulness couched between the sad, bitter cynicism with which she practices her routine and the last lines of the book: “My name is Marie, and I’ll take care of you tonight.”
What she, the character of the waitress, is for her customers is different from what she is for us, the readers. We are here (reading the book) for her, rather than there (in the restaurant) for the food, the friends, the experience (decidedly not for the staff, at least, not usually). In both cases, though, the waitress is our guide. And the discipline required in both cases—for the writer creating a narrative world, and for the server performing and working for tips—is total.
“It’s just dinner,” Tess learns to say, parroting the tongue-in-cheek mantra of more experienced servers, when things become so stressful you almost lose control. “You can’t be in the weeds”—that is, dangerously overwhelmed—“if you don’t care,” a fellow server tells Marie. I learned a version of this sentiment while working at an upscale American restaurant in Midtown—where businesspeople came to lunch and wealthy European tourists dined, and we, the servers, wore gray vests and white button-downs, black ties, and knee-length white aprons over our black slacks. Nina, a seasoned server, showed me the ropes my first week. We were expected not only to take orders and “manage the guests’ experience,” but—beyond the normal duties of a server—to run and bus food, make all nonalcoholic drinks, and load and unload the dishwasher, all in a seamless cycle of leaving and entering the kitchen.
My hands would shake, and I had to grip the hot plates out of the washer to steady myself. I’d practice the calls and responses—“Can I get a follow?” “Look left!”—in my head before shyly speak-yelling them aloud. It’s a particular kind of terror one has as a server before mastery (and I would say I never quite made it there): constantly on the brink of humiliation, a desperate desire to Not. Fuck. Up. Just. Make. It. Through. Tonight.
One of three black front-of-house servers in a group of thirty, Nina, was showing me where to restock the salt and pepper dispensers between shifts, and perhaps I’d asked how she dealt with the stress—or maybe she could just tell how green I was.
“This job can be really easy if you realize nothing is the end of the world,” she said. “These people, paying $25 for a hamburger? Joke’s on them.” Maybe not the prideful attitude, full-of-purpose, one might hope to be served by, but it did help—like imagining a naked audience while delivering a speech. When someone later that night asked about our salads, I pointed him to that section of the menu with a smile, knowing I should make small talk about the California-sourced kale, or tell him the special Caesar was my favorite, and instead rushed away to make a cappuccino for a grumpy matron in a feathered hat.
Neither in Sweetbitter nor in Love Me Back is the prevalence of wage theft in restaurant work central; nor do advocacy organizations like the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, working to improve wages and working conditions, appear. Although, in The Waitress, another kind of corruption occurs: the husband of the pie-making diner waitress Jenna confiscates her day’s pay. The books don’t include today’s debates, mostly in coastal cities, about whether tipping should or shouldn’t exist. What they do is demonstrate the struggle, both physical and sociocultural, that female servers go through on a daily basis—the emotional labor, navigating between performance and professionalism, the balance between service and self-preservation. The aching body. The echoing mind, chanting orders into your dreams.
Another aspect of the industry unexamined by these works is the digitized landscape of Yelp and other rating services, which, in addition to helping you find the nearest and best-rated $25 burger within ten blocks, also embolden irascible and spiteful customers. Once, when working at a different restaurant, a tapas wine bar, I was at one end of a dramatic and unjust review—calling me out by name, as well as the “devious . . . maitre d,” for “con[ning]” these patrons of their “hard-earned CASH”—for which I was brought into a meeting with the owner and managers. No matter the clear silliness of the reviewers, my job was in peril. (It should be said that one of the managers was known to take a cut of the pooled tips, despite this being illegal because of her salaried position, so the place was not otherwise without malfeasance.)
Most servers must fantasize about the opportunity to confront a difficult customer later when power dynamics are equalized. I was lucky enough to have this dream come true. A few months later, after I’d quit that job (a decision not possible, of course, for some other staff members), I spotted the same two women responsible for the review at a bar a few blocks from my apartment. I had my boyfriend stand nearby while I introduced myself and explained that their review had had the potential to really screw me over. In my mind, this was a private lesson about actions and consequences, service and the people on the other side of the bill. I expected nothing but the reward of integrity, having spoken my mind.
At first they were caught off guard and defensive, but then they softened. They apologized. They offered to buy me a drink. The barricade between customer and server, between those who’d worked in restaurants and those who clearly hadn’t, was momentarily lowered. I turned down the drink and went on my way.
Lucy McKeon is a writer based in New York (lucymckeon.com).