Counter Culture Waitress Blog

Celebrate National Waitress Day

Linda - The Colonial Cottage. Erlanger, KY

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.

Sharon - Betsy's Pancake House. New Orleans, LA

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.”

Carol - Sears Fine Foods. San Francisco, CA

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.”

Ina - Miss Florence Diner. Florence, MA

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.’”

Dolores - Ole's Waffle Shop. Alameda, CA

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!


Diner Culture
Four Sisters Owl Diner

Four Sisters Owl Diner

All of the restaurants featured in the book are neighborhood institutions with a large, local following and most have been in operation for at least 30 years. When I was searching for waitresses to interview it was very important that they worked in a diner or a coffee shop. What’s the difference? Well diners are prefabricated structures that can be moved to a site for business. They are mostly found in New England. During the late 1800s they were strategically parked across from factories to serve laborers on their lunch breaks. A coffee shop on the other hand does not have that “dining car” look and is not a prefabricated building that can be moved. Similar to a diner, a coffee shop is a casual restaurant that serves breakfast, often with a counter and stools. It was important that I find waitresses who were working in coffee shops and diners because I imagined that their work environment would be more relaxed and as a result they could be themselves, which is very liberating in the service industry.

Diners and coffee shops aren’t just for eating. They are places where Americans go to socialize, swap stories, make and break business deals, fall in love, break-up and get back together… all over coffee and pie. We nestle into the soft, worn, naugahyde booths, next to the frosty window with a neon sign. It’s a quintessential, American experience, a casual eatery where simple pleasures are fulfilled. The food isn’t always good, but it’s usually familiar, sometimes the coffee is weak and grey with age, and the hash browns may be overcooked, but most people don’t come just for the food anyway. All walks of life come and go. The camaraderie among familiar faces at the counter creates a comfortable atmosphere for the staff and the customers. People don’t feel as though they need to edit their thoughts or behavior as they might if there were eating in an upscale restaurant. It feels like home. Jodell at the Pie ‘N Burger in Pasadena, California says, “Some regulars come in 2 and 3 times a day. I’ve served four generations of the same families. It’s like a small town in here.”

Jodell at the Pie 'N Burger.  Pasadena, California

Jodell at the Pie 'N Burger. Pasadena, California

More Coffee Hon?

The purpose of this blog is to build a community around my research on my project Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress. I want to spark a new appreciation for the hardworking women who race to our tables, quarrel with the cooks, and bring warmth and culture to the American roadside dining experience. The project consists of a traveling photo exhibition, a NPR radio documentary and a forthcoming book and film documentary.

I hit the road in 2001, traveling over 26,000 miles throughout the US. I  interviewed and photographed 59 waitresses in 43 cities. Each interview lasted 1-3 hours, all of which were transcribed, logged and indexed for the book and the exhibition. The waitresses are 50 and older and have worked in coffee shops or diners for at least 20 years and have a loyal following of regular customers.

I will post a new blog entry 2-3 times a week. Most of the writings will be the material that didn’t make it into my book. I hope you enjoy the posts and please SHARE YOUR STORIES ABOUT YOUR MOST MEMORABLE DINER MOMENTS!  To start the conversation, tell us about the last diner you visited.

Candacy A. Taylor

The American Coffee Shop Waitress
April 6, 2009, 5:59 pm
Filed under: Restaurant, Uncategorized, Waitress | Tags: , , , , , ,
Sondra at the Butter Cream Bakery & Diner.  Napa, California

Sondra at the Butter Cream Bakery & Diner. Napa, California