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!


Santa Barbara book signing

I did a book signing in Santa Barbara today at Chaucer’s bookstore. It’s a fantastic bookstore that has been there for decades. There were about 25 people at the reading and Renee, the waitress who works at Harry’s in Santa Barbara,  came along with her regulars. Renee and I both signed Counter Culture and everybody was so excited to see her. She was such a star.




Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress

Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress

Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress will be in bookstores on September 1st. I will be on book tour from September 3rd through November 18th. The tour starts in San Francisco at Modern Times – 888 Valencia St on September 3rd at 7pm.

See website for more details and tour info:

Hope to see you there!


charlotte@work-orgI was born and raised in Seligman. I’m Mexican. My mother was born here too and it was so neat because the house I was born in was a two-story house and they just, a few years ago – done away with it, and it was such a neat house.

I started washing dishes when I was 10 and they put a crate on the floor for me to stand on. I used to love to go there. My first waitressing job [was] at 13, my x-brother-in-law was the one that broke me in.  It was just a little old restaurant just across there, it used to be called the H&J. I was really shy then. I didn’t want to be around all the guys because they were all railroad guys.

Harvey House

I worked at the Caverns, when old [Route] 66 was popular for Fred Harvey in the late 60’s. I was 21 years old. They had a write up in the paper with me and Fern (her sister) about the Fred Harvey Girls. Me and  Fern and my older sister Josie all worked there at the Fred Harvey restaurant and we had to wear the uniforms. They were black dresses with the white pinafores. Oh I hated them things! We had to wear dresses, we couldn’t wear pants. You had to wear your hair down. If you had long hair you had to wear your hair in nets. I remember when I just started working for Buster Collins, he was from Arkansas and that guy was strict. We had to serve our coffee with saucers and if you spilled a little bit of coffee, he would call me back there and you had to re-serve again. He was real strict. But at the Caverns we had to wear the uniforms. You couldn’t chew gum, and there was no smoking either. You had to be real neat and you had wear a starched uniform everyday. Everyday.

A lot of people say it’s [waitressing] stressful and if people give them a hard time, they can’t take it. They can’t do it. You have to put up with a lot sometimes. And you think, well people are tired and they’re going to be like that. I’ve gone through a lot of bad experiences but I’ve also had people send my gifts from different countries, from Germany, Taiwan. I get to talking with them, like one day this guy came in from Los Angeles,  he was really, really  nice. And few days later in the mail, he sent me a little gold metal. He was wearing a religious metal and I said, “Oh your metal’s so pretty.” Things like that. You get postcards from people that you’ve met.

Some people from Taiwan, they came in here, there were three of them, they were having lunch. They asked for a plate and they poured this stuff onto the plate, it looked like strips of squash and tomatoes and it looked so good. I asked them what they were eating and they told me what it was. They said “Would you like a taste?” I said “Sure,” there were vegetables and I said “That is so good” and when they left they asked me for my address and I never thought anymore about it. Well like a few months later I get this box in the mail and it was from Taiwan. I still have some at home. They sent me packages of different types of vegetables with the hot sauce that they use and my husband and I were looking at it and it took about 3 months for that package to get here. It passed inspection and everything. I thought that was really neat.

Copper Cart - Seligman, Arizona

Copper Cart - Seligman, Arizona

And then I had some German people here, they had two kids and they had their comics. We were talking at the table and it had the Disney characters in German. I said “Oh that it so cute, can you read to me in German?” Then they too asked me for my address and I got this package from the mail with the comics from Germany.

You know the most I’ve ever made here was $350.00. It was the “Fun Run” and we were the only restaurant open.  Lilos was remodeling.  I would go home with over $200 everyday. Maybe it was more that I made. I really cleaned up.

I’m in the New Yorker!!!


The New Yorker published a slide show of the waitress project. I’ve attached the text portion below, follow the link to see the pictures.
July 14, 2009
Counter Culture: A Photo Essay

“Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress” is a book by Candacy A. Taylor about “lifers”—career diner waitresses. The author, who worked for close to a decade as a waitress herself, interviewed fifty-nine waitresses in forty-three cities across the country. All of the waitresses were fifty and older (many of them were in their seventies) and all of them had worked in diners for at least twenty years.
Many of the waitresses Taylor interviewed grew up working on farms or doing physical labor from an early age. This gave them a strong work ethic, and an interest in a job that requires constant activity, as opposed to sitting in a desk chair. Several of the waitresses interviewed turned down careers in the business or professional world because they made more money waiting tables, or because they liked having the freedom to set their own schedule, or enjoyed the kinds of interaction they could have with their customers in a restaurant setting.
The first American diners were horse-drawn lunch wagons that would set up across from factories. Now they are places where form follows function. Condiment holders are designed to be ridge-less so they are easier to clean. Formica tables are curved at the corners to avoid injuries. Some older diners have mirrors on the ceiling above the counter, so the waitress can check for drink refills and empty plates just by looking up, rather than walking back and forth.

Taylor writes that in many case the seniority status of older waitresses “earned them a higher hourly wage and respect from their coworkers and managers. Ironically, the physical and mental exercise kept them healthy instead of wearing them down, and most important, their regular customers made the job more enjoyable and profitable—they left better tips than strangers who were just passing through.”
Key-lime cake at the Busy Bee Café in Atlanta, where everything is made from scratch.
Taylor writes that the seven years she spent working on this book helped her “to redefine my perspective on life, work, and happiness,” and advises that the next time you see an older waitress wiping down tables in a diner, you should not feel sorry for her. “More likely than not, she’s content right where she is.”
(Images from “Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress.” Copyright 2009 by Cornell University Press & Taylor Made Culture.)


Candacy A. Taylor;
Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress;
photography books
Posted by Andrea Walker

Jodell Kasmarsik - Pie 'N Burger.  Pasadena, CA
Jodell Kasmarsik – Pie ‘N Burger. Pasadena, CA

The waitress’ ear-piercing twang, mixed with the reverberating ring of the kitchen’s bell, creates the atmosphere that diners have marketed for decades. Grease carries the burnt smell of the range, while the aroma of frying bacon permeates the senses. You know breakfast is cooking when you hear the hollow crash of the frying pan hit the grill. The smells of bacon grease, watered down coffee, mixed with blueberry pancakes, curdled fat, and fried starch drift in the air. It’s not just the odors that make up the atmosphere of the diner but also the cacophony of clanging silverware against thick glass cream-colored plates laid over the chatter of patrons – all mixed up like a syncopated jazz riff. This environment with legs, mouths, arms, eyes, hands, and the silent breeze of the waitress rushing by; stirs up to a breakneck pace in a centrifugal spin. All managed and controlled by the well-seasoned waitress who race to our tables, quarrel with the cooks and bring humor and culture to the American roadside dining experience.

Nevada Waitresses: Dishing It Out in the West
Henderson, Nevada

The Rainbow - Henderson, Nevada

Nevada was unlike any other state I visited in terms of the benefits that waitresses received. Virginia Brandon moved to Nevada from California because of the benefits Nevada offered to restaurant workers. “The union makes a big difference.” says Susan Thurmond, Virginia’s daughter, who worked with her mom at the Rainbow in Henderson, Nevada. She continues, “We get retirement benefits, maternity leave, health insurance….we get it all. We had to fight for it though.” Even if a waitress doesn’t work in a union house, the union is so strong in Nevada that non-union restaurants still have to offer health insurance and retirement benefits to attract workers.

I wouldn’t do anything else,” says Virginia who’s been waiting tables for almost 50 years. And when people question Esther Paul’s career choice, (she’s waitressed at Sharkey’s in Gardnerville, Nevada since 1969) she says, “So many of them look down their noses at you. ‘You do this for a living?’ And I say,  ‘Well it’s an honest living. What’s the big deal?’”

People assume that lifers are struggling in roadside dives picking up loose change that cheap, disgruntled, customers leave behind; when the truth is that the waitresses who have paid their dues make a very comfortable living wage. Georgina makes around 30 dollars an hour — not bad for a job that requires little or no formal education. Esther worked at a hospital and said, “I had to quit because I made more money waitressing.” And to boot, many longstanding coffee shops are recession-proof since the majority of their clientele are already on fixed incomes. Virginia says, “We get the same regulars, day after day, no matter what, and they always order the same thing. Our business is as good as it ever was.”