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Your Local Diner Waitress – An American Icon
When was the last time you ate at your local restaurant? If it was in the past couple of months you are not alone. The National Restaurant Association recently announced that restaurants this spring have actually had their busiest season since September 2007. As more and more Americans decide to eat out it’s a clear sign that our economy has turned a corner.
And when it comes to comfort your time-tested local diner is hard to beat– classic comfort food, classic atmosphere, and classic service. Service most likely from a seasoned waitress, who’s not afraid to tell you why the specials have been marked down.
She’s not only an American icon, she’s part psychiatrist, part grandmother, part friend. And she’s paid her dues. Many of the waitresses you’ll find at established diners have been working for thirty, forty, even fifty or sixty years. Based on my own serving experience, I assumed that a lifetime of slinging hash would leave these women physically and emotionally drained — even bitter from having to deal with hostile customers’ over the years. But that’s not what I found, over ninety percent said they “loved” the job and if given the opportunity, wouldn’t do anything else. As Linda Exeler of the Colonial Cottage in Kentucky says, “Waitressing is my life. It’s my calling. This is what I was born to do.” And Sharon Bruno from Betsy’s Pancake House in New Orleans quips, “It’s in your blood.”
Take pride in your work. Love what you do. These are the basic ingredients to their success. Diner waitresses they take the job seriously. They care if your bacon is soggy or if your hash browns are overcooked. They warm the coffee cup for their favorite regulars and can always find a warm spot in their heart for strangers. They know the test results of their regulars’ last medical check up and they know if their kid graduated from school or spent the night in jail. They are not your average, everyday servers — they are the cream of the crop.
Lifers become a part of the diner. Just like the soft, comfortable, vinyl stools that line the counter. After seeing them day after day, we start to take them for granted. Georgina from Gold ‘n Silver in Reno, NV says, “People think we’re a dime a dozen and that anyone can do this job, but it’s not true.” Georgina’s right. Most servers aren’t cut out for the job. It is estimated that although one in five people have waited tables at some point in their lives only one in 100 is really able to do the job well. Not only does waitressing require years of experience, the good ones have to be extremely organized, with a strong work ethic and a memory that rarely fails them. Jean Joseph from San Francisco has been waitressing since 1947, she says, “Seventy percent of the waiters and waitresses out there should not be waiting tables.”
Over the years these waitresses grow roots, build friendships with the staff and the customers, and many choose to work past retirement age. Some waitresses have tried to retire but went back to work because they missed it so much. The social, physical and mental work is actually keeping them healthy. They are models of healthy aging. Ina Kapitan who waitressed at the Miss Florence Diner in Massachusetts until she was 85 says, “I just keep moving. I see people come in here and they’re only in their 50s and they are more decrepit than I am. It’s because they’re sitting around…the doctors say, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing but keep doing it.’”
We assume that seasoned waitresses will always be there to dish out blue-plate specials and coffee warm-ups. But with economic realities causing managers to hire younger help, we shouldn’t take these women and the places they work for granted. The best way to keep these restaurants open is to become a regular. Go to your favorite diner, grab a stool and become a part of the counter culture. After all with May 21st being National Waitress Day make a point to see your favorite server and tell her how much you appreciate them. Bring a thoughtful gift like cushioned shoe inserts or a special pen and whatever you do, don’t forget to leave a good tip!
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