What 14 Years of Waiting Tables Taught Me About Life
07.10.17

It’s been exactly 38 days since I waited my last table. The last time I wore my stained, potato-sack apron and stinky work sneakers, the last time I was flagged down to refill a water bottle that was still half full and the last time a customer asked me the question that 99% of all service industry workers dread: “What else do you do?” At 36, I was about six years past when I swore I’d get out of the business. When I finally did, it didn’t feel quite like I expected it to.

I took my first restaurant job at 22, after graduating magna cum laude with a degree in the very lucrative field of art history. I owed $40,000 in student loans and had moved into my first shitty studio apartment, so I needed to start making some cash. When you’re that age, working in a restaurant is actually pretty awesome. As anyone who’s ever been in the business can tell you, it’s a uniquely dysfunctional family. There are the inevitable hookups and love triangles, the partying and the after-partying — and yes, I’ve participated in all of the above.

There were plenty of late nights, too much good Chateauneuf du Pape and questionable romantic decisions. There were also plenty of inevitable lows beyond what I’d consider a right of passage. I’ve hostessed for hours in stilettos on a marble floor, placing tufted stools (“tuffets”) under customers’ handbags so they’d never have to touch the floor. I’ve been told I have a nice ass by one (married) restaurant owner, and called a see-you-next-Tuesday by another. But it wasn’t until I turned 30 that I started to transition into the bitter, Negative Nancy server that no one wants to be, and certainly no one wants to be served by.

When I first moved to LA to pursue writing, I waited tables at a hip restaurant in Silver Lake frequented by my idols — including Jenny Lewis and Miranda July. The gig was tolerable because I was still in my twenties and on the side I got regular magazine-writing jobs, made art and curated shows. Then the economy tanked and many of my go-to magazines bit the dust. I took a second server job to make ends meet and at the same time, embarked upon my first grown-up relationship; between those two commitments I was too busy to think much about the fact that I was no longer pursuing my dream. Plus, I was able to pay my bills. Soon enough, though, I noticed my already limited time with my boyfriend (a cook, also working two jobs) was dominated by my complaints about work: the customers that dared to ask for a side of Dijon with their filet of beef in bordelaise or requested to swap the cumin-roasted carrots that came with their chicken for plain mashed potatoes.

The closer I got to 30 — the age I swore I’d be done with waiting tables — the more I honed my craft of artfully showing my annoyance at customers without actually getting myself fired. It took a lot of energy, to say the least. My then-boyfriend told me that I was “a writer who didn’t write” and though he was an ass for saying it, he was totally right. That ever-present question — “what else do you do?” — didn’t help. I compared myself to everyone around me who seemed like they were living their dreams, or even worse, living the dream I thought was mine.

When my ex left me, I broke down in a way I never knew possible. But a funny thing happened: instead of misery, my heartbreak manifested itself as empathy for others. I started seeing a therapist and at her suggestion I took a writing class. I began writing again and the years that followed moved by swiftly. New gigs were trickling in, waiting tables was simpler and more painless. I no longer cared when someone asked what else I did; I felt confident in my answer (not that I owed them anything). I wouldn’t say I reveled in customers’ often inane requests, but I sure as hell didn’t mind them the way I used to.

By the time I found out that the restaurant where I worked for nine years was closing, not only was I past the days of feeling sorry for myself, but I also was genuinely going to miss it there. During that time, I had been witness to so much life. Customers went on first dates and then got married. Some divorced. Some had babies and others lost them. Little ones turned into grownups before my very eyes. There were those who had confided in me the intimate struggles of their relationships or their childhoods. Customers learned my name, hugged me when I ran into them at the grocery store — some even told me that I was their favorite server.

As the end neared I was happy and excited about what was next for me, but it was still so bittersweet. On my last night, a regular came in, one who just so happens to be a well-known actor and comedian. “What are you going to do, Ashley?” he asked with genuine concern. For the first time I told someone what else I did and it felt pretty freaking great. 38 days and no restaurant nightmares later (“I forgot to bring table 2 that second glass of Pinot!”), I still feel proud and hopeful. But if I have to take another order again, that’s okay, too.

Ashley Tibbits is an LA-based freelance writer. She’s still not sure whether its appropriate to mention her cats in these things. Follow her on Instagram here and check out her website here. Ice cream from Morgenstern’s, follow on Instagram @morgensternsnyc. Lizzie Fortunato bracelets. Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

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  • This gurl

    Just left the industry myself post age 30 (also my cutoff where I thought it “appropriate” to wait tables) Such a strange and bittersweet transition! I still worry about my younger coworkers and hope they don’t party too much and are drinking enough water. Restaurant mom forever!

    • Ashley T.

      What’s appropriate these days? We all need to give ourselves a break from being perfect. 🙂 The trick is finding ways to stay happy no matter your situation.

  • Engels_Beard

    I’ve been out of the industry for about four years now and I still miss the insane camaraderie of a hectic dinner shift. I’m glad I’m not still living the life but it’s something that really improved me as a person.

    • Alison

      More time here, but the same point. You can always tell when someone has not worked in food service.

    • Ashley T.

      It’s a weird little family! 🙂

  • Abby

    I left at age 25 and hope to never look back, although there is something vaguely comforting about knowing that, should my “career job” ever fall apart, I could probably be back in an apron describing tonight’s special in no time. It never really leaves you.

    • Brynn Sibley

      this.

    • bb222

      me too and I am 40 now but still hold on to that belief… I’m sure it would be a lot more tiring for me now, though.

    • Same! I loved being a waitress because I had so much fun doing it and, more importantly, I never HAD to do it. I always chose to do it among other possible jobs. I still work around hospitality (started a company with my family; we have tiny chain of spots with plant-based food) and when I want, I can go and do some shifts. I can see that I am good at it and it gives me a lot of comfort – a huge safety net.

      • Ashley T.

        Totally! When you still make time for what you love, the little stuff doesn’t get to you!

    • Ashley T.

      Sending you luck! Sounds like you’ve already got a great attitude about it! 🙂

  • Emily O’Halloran

    This is SO good! You’re an incredible waitress, woman and writer and all round human being.

    • Ashley T.

      xo

  • tmm16

    I was a server all throughout college. I honestly miss the environment, the fast-paced energy, and my coworkers (even though 2 years has gone by, we’re all still friends!) Similarly to you, over time I just became miserable and it was affecting my service (I also graduated, so I was wanting a job in my field). I really think everyone should work some sort of food service job at one point in their life!

    • Ashley T.

      Totally agree! They should be forced! 🙂

  • Danielle Cardona Graff

    I served my last drink at 31. I’m not sorry to have had the experience-even if for much longer than I ever planned. There’s a level of hustle and humility only learned from the service industry. At the same time though, I will do everything in my power not to have to make another cocktail in a mini dress-unless I’m making cocktails for guests in my own home in a mini-dress of my chosing!

    • Ashley T.

      Agree! I think there are two types of people in this world: those who worked in the service biz, and those who haven’t. And more often than not, you can tell who’s who by how they treat others. 🙂

  • C

    I just left the restaurant industry exactly 42 days ago after a 10 year on again off again waitress relationship with myself. I relate to everything in this article to a tee. It’s true what you said about empathy. I had all the ups and downs and eventually turned bitter for a moment. But once I got over my hang-ups for why I was still waiting tables , I actually embraced the job for what it was (the freedom to focus on what I should have been focusing on the entire time) and in the midst of that I really enjoyed getting to know all of my customers and co-workers on an entirely different level. I too hope I never have to take another order again, but if I do that’s also ok. <3

    • Ashley T.

      You get it!

  • This gives me so much bittersweet feelings, kinda like from reading Danler’s Sweetbitter. Realizing that so so so many wonderful incredible talented people went through the same experience as you did is overwhelming. Thank you so much.

    • Ashley T.

      What a huge compliment! I haven’t read but know it’s a beloved book. Might have to read now 😉

  • I’ve been serving tables here in NYC for just over a year now, but I can still relate to this! What most resonated for me was the part about the approach towards working in the industry. We can choose be bitter about the grumpy customers/wrong orders from the kitchen/shit that ALWAYS can and will* go wrong in restaurants, OR we can view it as a unique experience to make good money, have relatively flexible schedules, develop a family, all while pursuing projects/passions as a side hustle. It’s about the attitude towards the job. My favorite co-worker and bartender is a strong example of this. He uses his time at the bar to make contacts, share his music, invite people to his shows etc. and, in turn, fuels the fire for his career as a musician. That being said, I do hope to eventually turn in my apron at some point as it would be tiring to do this forever. But for certain phases of life, I think choosing the service industry over a traditional career path can be advantageous!

    • Ashley T.

      YES! That’s exactly it. Not always easy to have that mindset, but a game changer for sure. And it will probably be the case in any job—even ones you love and are passionate about. A truly good lesson for life.

  • Haily Zaki

    Great story. I totally only waited tables for the fancy wine leftovers

    • Ashley Tibbits

      🙂

  • Suzan

    Ashley, thank you for this article! I feel like I can relate, having a Cultural Studies BA and Film & Photographic Studies MA and being 31 and still working retail (a lovely little boutique, but still). I too have passionately freelanced in my field in my 20’s, until that dried up due to the economic crisis and I couldn’t be arsed anymore to pursue underpayed/underrated freelance jobs. Now I don’t know where I’m headed.
    Thank you for writing and sharing this article, and not ending it by being famous and insanely accomplished (like so many “coming of age” stories of people in their 20’s and 30’s do, it really negates the message in my opinion, since that is only reserved for the “lucky” few.) And well done on taking matters into your own hands, by taking writing classes (and seeing a therapist)! I need to reflect on such a similar scenario for myself.

    • Ashley T.

      I totally relate. I’m glad you could connect to this—great to know there are other experiencing some of the same struggles you have. And yeah, no picture perfect ending here—nor am I ever expecting that! I still hustle every day—just outside the restaurant biz 😉