Posts filed under Diners

Burn and Turn - The Labor of Waitressing

 Sharon Bruno - Betsy's Pancake House.  New Orleans, Louisiana

Sharon Bruno - Betsy's Pancake House.  New Orleans, Louisiana


To the casual observer, waitressing can appear to be a brutal, exhausting job but the women I interviewed for Counter Culture assured me they thrive on the madness. 

Virginia Brandon, age 68, works at the Rainbow coffee shop located inside a casino in Henderson, Nevada. At the Rainbow waitresses are trained to “turn” (seat consecutive customers) their tables as quickly as possible because upper management wants diners back out in the casino gambling. Virginia said, “We’re faster than McDonalds. They want servers who can ‘burn and turn.’ A four-top can sit, order, eat and be the hell out of here in twenty minutes. You put your toast in the toaster, hang your check, and them eggs will be cooked before that toast pops up. I’m not exaggerating. On my dinner shift, nobody takes a break. From five o’clock to nine o’clock you’ve got a waiting line of an hour. You don’t have a cigarette, you don’t go to the bathroom, you don’t even breathe—you just run, yelling at everyone in your way, ‘Behind ya! Behind ya! Coming through, arms loaded!’ If you don’t get out the way, you’re gonna get knocked out.”

Jodell said with a serious look, “Here at the Pie ‘N Burger, sometimes the orders come up so fast, you can’t keep up with them. You really have to hustle. But I love it. The busier it is, the better I like it.”

 

 Jodell Kasmarsik - Pie 'n Burger.  Pasadena, California

Jodell Kasmarsik - Pie 'n Burger.  Pasadena, California

The reward for managing chaos is the tip. Sprinting through the restaurant with dishes in tow, coffee sloshing from side to side, gravy sliding to the edge of the plate while catching up on the latest gossip with customers. . . it’s all in a day’s work. The body and mind work in tandem like a machine. Her mind instantly computes, tallies, and prioritizes while her eyes scan the room for drink refills. Fast waitresses can make twice as much money than slower ones simply because they are serving more customers in the same amount of time. Sammi DeAngelis says, “I’m really fast. I get tipped pretty well, not perfectly, but pretty well. I usually make out better than the other girls. While the they are ringing $600 a night, I’m ringing $1000. As long as they can seat me, I can fly and do it. I’m here to turn my tables and get the food out, hot, fast and fresh.”
 
It’s all about turnover. Time flies as their coffee-stained aprons swell with dollar bills forming bulges in places you normally wouldn’t want. If everything goes off without a hitch, they feel a sense of pride because they have managed a situation that most people couldn’t handle. After a Saturday night rush at the Pie ’n Burger, an observant customer told Jodell, “My God, you are absolutely fabulous.”

 Rachel DeCarlo - Sittons North Hollywood Diner.  North Hollywood, California

Rachel DeCarlo - Sittons North Hollywood Diner.  North Hollywood, California

Once her customers leave, her day isn’t over. Almost a quarter of the job is side work, which consists of scrubbing, slicing, sweeping, wiping, refilling, and restocking sticky condiments. Sometimes, it’s not until after she sits down to balance her checks that she begins to feel her feet throb. She’s usually too busy during her shift to notice the physical toll the day has taken on her body.

Rachel DeCarlo worked the graveyard shift at Sittons North Hollywood Diner from the age of 64 to 77. She said, “Of course I have the aches and pains of old age. When it’s a busy day, I go home and I practically die. But I enjoy it when we’re busy. I think it’s exciting. Last Sunday I was so tired from my Saturday night shift I didn’t even get dressed. But I feel better after I rest and then I’m ready to go back and do it again.”

 

 

 

 

Posted on August 30, 2014 and filed under Counter Culture, Diner Waitresses, Diners.

THERE’S NOTHING LIKE A SEASONED WAITRESS


When it comes to comfort, the relief of settling into a well-worn cushioned booth at the local diner and being served by a seasoned waitress who can tell you a thing or two about life is hard to beat.

Lifers become a part of the diner. Just like the soft, comfortable, vinyl stools that line the counter, they have aced the test of time. But 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 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 servers out there should not be waiting tables.”

 Jean Joseph - Al's Good Food.  San Francisco, CA

Jean Joseph - Al's Good Food.  San Francisco, CA

Over ninety percent of the waitresses I interviewed for my book, Counter Culture 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.”

 Ina Kapitan - Miss Florence Diner.  Florence, MA

Ina Kapitan - Miss Florence Diner.  Florence, MA

Over the decades career waitresses grow roots, build friendships with the staff and the customers, and many choose to work past retirement age. Some have tried to retire but went back to work because they missed it so much. The social, physical and mental work actually keeps them healthy and 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.’”

 Miss Florence Diner.  Florence, MA

Miss Florence Diner.  Florence, MA

We assume that seasoned waitresses will always be there to dish out blue-plate specials. But with managers hiring younger help every day, we shouldn’t take these women and the diners they work for, 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.

 Pat & Cowboy. Sip 'N Bite - Baltimore, MD

Pat & Cowboy. Sip 'N Bite - Baltimore, MD

Candacy A. Taylor is an award-winning photographer and writer in Los Angeles, and the author of Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress.

The Diner Preference: Leave Formalities at the Door

 Annie - Venus Diner. Gibsonia, PA

Annie - Venus Diner. Gibsonia, PA

Career waitresses have been dishing out everything eggs to insults for up to 60 years and they do a lot more than serve food. They are part psychiatrist, part grandmother, part friend, and they serve every walk of American life: from the retired and the widowed, to the wounded and the lonely and from the working class to the wealthy.

In a culture where chain stores mandate employees to speak to every customer who walks through the door, it’s refreshing to come to a place where people know each other and the staff can just be themselves. Diner waitresses are often rewarded for sharing their personality and their mood with the locals; whether they are pleasant, indifferent or cranky. Irregardless, there is an authenticity and honesty in diners that is missing in our everyday lives. Even though there are regulars who socialize at the counter at chain restaurants, corporate rules are still in effect. To avoid lawsuits, the staff monitors what they say to each other and to their customers, making it a more structured, formalized and regulated environment. Mae say she prefers working in a diner where formalities are left at the door. In her Kentucky drawl, Mae says, “I could never work in a fancy restaurant. I’m too liable to holler at people and ask them if they want their usual when they come through the door. You can’t do that in a fancy place.”

 Mae. Edith's Cafe. Central City, KY

Mae. Edith's Cafe. Central City, KY

In diners, waitresses are also free to tell their customers exactly what they think about the latest political scandal or local gossip — as opposed to servers who work in upscale places where the staff is told to never discuss religion, race or politics. Diner patrons tend to be friendlier than customers in upscale restaurants, where they expect a different type of service. When people are spending more money, they often expect a servant. Sammi, a waitress at the Seville Diner in New Jersey says, “I prefer working in diners. I’ve done the fine-dining where people think that because the checks are high, you’re supposed to kiss their butt. People who spend $200 for dinner think that you owe them something. I don’t care if the bill is $2 or $200, I treat everybody the same.” 

 Sammi. Seville Diner. East Brunswick, NJ

Sammi. Seville Diner. East Brunswick, NJ

So the next time you see a veteran waitress wiping down a table in a diner, take a second look and appreciate her lifetime of service. Say thank you and leave at least a 20% tip. National Waiter and Waitress day is next week on May 21st.

Celebrating Waitresses Who Love What They Do

 Jean Joseph - Al's Good Food. San Francisco, CA

Jean Joseph - Al's Good Food. San Francisco, CA

Why devote my career to studying and celebrating waitresses?  First of all they are some of the most under-valued workers in America. How do I know? I waited tables for almost a decade. I spent many nights rubbing my swollen feet and I knew how painful it was to be yelled at by a hostile customer. Most sociologists write about jobs they have never done. The fact that I had waitressed for so many years helped my research tremendously. I wasn’t an outsider trying to understand the plight of the hard-working server. They trusted me. During interviews we traded insider stories about the industry and tricks of the trade. I was one of them.

Based on my own waitressing experience, I expected to meet women who felt overworked and under-appreciated, but that’s not what I found. All but a few said they loved their jobs and if given the opportunity, they “wouldn’t do anything else.” I thought, how can this be true? Waitressing can be a grueling, thankless job. And where were all the complaints about carpal tunnel and varicose veins?

After five more years of research and listening to heartfelt testimonies about the job, I took a closer look at their lives. I analyzed their work environment. I studied theorists, academics, and historians who wrote about sociology, gender, ethnography, labor, restaurants, spatial politics, and power. I read Michel Foucault, John Berger, Barbara Ehrenreich, James Clifford, Dorothy Sue Cobble, William Foote Whyte, Studs Terkel, Richard Gutman, Mike Rose, Victor Burgin, and many others. I considered that, although we had the same job, an older waitress’s experience might be different from mine because we were raised in a different time.

Career waitresses know how to make the job easier. In many cases, their seniority status earns them a higher hourly wage and respect from their coworkers and managers. Ironically, the physical and mental labor keeps them healthy instead of wearing them out, and their regular customers make the job more enjoyable and profitable. Regulars often leave better tips than strangers who are just passing through. These are not poor, struggling women. Most of the career waitresses I know are financially stable, they own their homes, drive newer cars, and many have sent their children to private schools. That's why I wrote the book.

 Dolores Jeanpierre - Ole's Waffle House. Alameda, CA

Dolores Jeanpierre - Ole's Waffle House. Alameda, CA

"Counter Culture" is not a scholarly study, a memoir, or a historical account of waitressing. And even though there are over 100 photographs, it’s more than a coffee-table book of a pop culture icon. It combines oral history interviews, cultural criticism and photography to recognize an overlooked group of working women who have brought meaning and culture to the American roadside dining experience. It show how career waitresses are different from average service workers; it investigates issues of power in the workplace; it shows how older waitresses are physically able to handle the job; it explains why they are marginalized and sexualized in popular culture; it examines the work ethic of their successors, and reveals why they choose to keep working well past retirement age. Ultimately, it explains how these women have taken a job that many people avoid and made it their livelihood.

I have launched a crowd funding campaign to produce an App, eBook and product line to celebrate the incredible women I interviewed for “Counter Culture"

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/celebrate-the-women-in-counter-culture

Counter Culture Facebook Page  - https://www.facebook.com/CounterCultureDiner

Read it for yourself.

Meet Charlotte - A Fred Harvey Waitress

Charlotte Solberg was one of the first waitresses I interviewed for Counter Culture. I found her working in the dusty town of Seligman, Arizona on Route 66.

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"I was born and raised in Seligman.  I’m Mexican. My mother was born here too. I started washing dishes when I was 10. They put a crate on the floor for me to stand on. My first waitressing job was at 13.  It was just a little old restaurant, called the H&J. I was really shy then. I didn’t want to be around all those railroad guys.

fred-harvey-matchbook.jpg

I worked at the [Grand Canyon] Caverns, when old [Route] 66 was popular for Fred Harvey in the late '60’s. I was 21 years old. Me and my sisters Fern and Josie were all Fred Harvey Girls and we had to wear the uniforms. They were black dresses with white pinafores. Oh I hated them things! We had to wear dresses, we couldn’t wear pants. If you had long hair you had to wear your hair in nets. 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.

 Fred Harvey's Grand Canyon Restaurant, Route 66 in the 1960's.

Fred Harvey's Grand Canyon Restaurant, Route 66 in the 1960's.

A lot of people say waitressing is stressful and if people give them a hard time, they can’t take it. I’ve gone through a lot of bad experiences but I’ve also had people send me gifts. One day this guy came in from Los Angeles, he was really nice. He was wearing a religious metal and I said, “Oh your metal’s so pretty.” And few days later he sent me a little gold metal in the mail.

 Copper Cart - Seligman, Arizona

Copper Cart - Seligman, Arizona

Some people from Taiwan came in The Copper Cart. They asked for a plate and poured out what looked like strips of squash and tomatoes. It looked so good. I asked them what they were eating and they said “Would you like a taste?” I said “Sure.” After I tasted it, I said, "That is so good.” When they left they asked 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. It took about 3 months for that package to get here. It passed inspection and everything. Amazing."

 Charlotte (in white) and sister Fern (in red)  - Yes, that is their real hair.

Charlotte (in white) and sister Fern (in red)  - Yes, that is their real hair.

8 Interesting Facts About Diner Waitresses

8 INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT DINER WAITRESSES

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1. Women didn’t patronize or even work in diners until after the 1920s. Diners were parked across from factories and filled with laborers. They had a saloon-type atmosphere and women generally didn't feel comfortable in them. It wasn’t until WWII that women were encouraged to work and eat in diners.

2. In 1941 in The Diner magazine, writer Sam Yellin listed the reasons why women should work in diners, he said:

      A. Women will work for less pay

      B. Women will work harder than men

      C. Women are always happy

      D. Women can talk and work at the same time

      E. Women are cleaner and more efficient than men

      F. Women are more honest than men

      G. Women don’t steal

      H. Women won’t stay out late drinking and call in sick the next day

 Buttercream diner waitresses (est. 1950s). Napa, CA

Buttercream diner waitresses (est. 1950s). Napa, CA

3. The stigma that diner waitresses have loose morals may have come from the 1920s when prostitutes lied and told police that they were waitresses (to explain the cash they were holding). 

4. The average career waitress makes $20 to $30 an hour with tips.  

5. Regular customers are their lifeline. Some regulars come in three times a day. Many career waitresses in Counter Culture have waited on four generations of the same family and if a waitress quits and moves to another restaurant, her regular customers will follow her throughout her entire career. 

6. Seniority pays off. Despite the common assumption that waitressing offers no benefits, some diners offer their longstanding waitresses a higher hourly wage, health insurance, retirement benefits, Christmas bonuses and paid vacations. 

7. Waitressing is easier for lifers. Being experienced and having regular customers cuts their serving time and labor in half.

8. The physical nature of the work actually helps older waitresses age better. Ina Kapitan, age 83 says, “Waitressing helps my arthritis. If I stayed home and did nothing I would be crippled. My doctor says whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.” 

For more about diner waitresses see Counter Culture

 

 Ina Kapitan. Miss Florence Diner. Florence, MA

Ina Kapitan. Miss Florence Diner. Florence, MA

 

For the Love of Diners

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Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner in the desert town of Yermo, California has a sign above the door that reads: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone — Regardless of who you are, who you think you are, who your daddy is, or how much money you make.” This is why I love diners. In a society where money and class takes center stage, in diners, fur coats hang next to cowboy hats and Jaguars and junkers sit side-by-side in the parking lot. 

In neighborhood institutions the counter is a makeshift community where 'everybody knows your name.’ It’s like Cheers without the liquor. Customers bring warmth, character and vitality and become extended family members to each other and to the restaurant staff. One regular at Betsy’s Pancake House in New Orleans says, “It’s like sitting on your front porch with your neighbors.”

I love to stay connected to the places I documented for Counter Culture. Has anyone visited any of these diners?  Does anyone have stories to share about these places? If not, tell me about your favorite restaurants and the people who work there. Let's make this a forum to celebrate them! 

 Gold 'N Silver Restaurant.  Reno, Nevada

Gold 'N Silver Restaurant.  Reno, Nevada

 Florida Avenue Grill. Washington DC

Florida Avenue Grill. Washington DC

 Pie 'N Burger. Pasadena, California.

Pie 'N Burger. Pasadena, California.

 Butter Cream Bakery & Diner.  Napa, California.

Butter Cream Bakery & Diner.  Napa, California.

 The Venus Diner. Gibsonia, Pennsylvania

The Venus Diner. Gibsonia, Pennsylvania

RESTAURANTS IN COUNTER CULTURE

Al’s Good Food - San Francisco, CA

Betsy’s Pancake House-  New Orleans, LA

The Boulevard Diner - Worcester, MA 

The Busy Bee - Atlanta, GA

The Butter Cream - Napa, CA

The Colonial Cottage, Erlanger, KY

The Copper Cart - Seligman, AZ 

The Crystal Diner - Lawrenceville, NJ

The Crystal Grill - Greenwood, MS

Edith’s Cafe - Central City, KY

Florida Avenue Grill - Washington, DC

George J’s - Glasgow, KY

Gold N’ Silver - Reno, NV

Harry’s Plaza Cafe - Santa Barbara, CA

Louis’ Restaurant - San Francisco, CA

Mastoris Diner - Bordentown, NJ

The Meadowthorpe Cafe - Lexington, KY

The Melrose Diner - Philadelphia, PA

Miss Florence Diner - Florence, MA

Mojo’s Bowling Alley - Sun City, AZ

Mt. Vernon - Somerville, MA 

Ole’s Waffle Shop - Alameda, CA

Pie ‘N Burger - Pasadena, CA

The Rainbow Casino Coffee Shop- Henderson, NV 

Ryan’s - Florence, AL

Sears Fine Foods - San Francisco, CA

The Seven Seas - Sausalito, CA

The Seville Diner - East Brunswick, NJ

Sharkey’s- Gardnerville, NV

The Sip ‘n Bite - Baltimore, MD

Sittons Diner - North Hollywood, CA

Trio Restaurant - Washington, D.C.

The USA Country Diner - Windsor, NJ

The Venus Diner - Gibsonia, PA [Closed]

 

How it all started

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I started Taylor Made Culture in 2002. Wow, I can't believe that was over 10 years ago. I had just graduated from the California College of the Arts with a Master's Degree in Visual Criticism. It's a fancy liberal arts degree that may take me the rest of my life to pay off, but it was an incredible program and just what I needed. My Bachelor’s degree is in Painting & Drawing. I entered grad school as a scenic painter for film and television productions and left as a critical thinker who could tell a story in any medium. Viz Crit (that's what we called it) liberated me from a world of canvas and paint. It was one of the most challenging things I've ever done. I studied semiotics and deconstructed Foucault, Derrida, Burgin, Benjamin, and others. I felt like I was in way over my head but it taught me to think differently and find meaning in everyday experiences, like getting my hair done or eating in a restaurant.

My thesis was on diner waitresses which evolved into the book and exhibit, Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress. The idea came to me while slinging sushi in San Francisco. After a busy Friday night, I sat down in the back with the other servers to count my tips. The back table was a place to do paperwork, tip out coworkers, and relive all the drama of the evening. We swapped stories about our futile attempts to reason with irrational customers and commiserated about the great effort it took to get the food out of the kitchen. While eating our late-night dinners at 1:00am and balancing our sales reports we dreamed about what we were going to do with our lives after we left our service jobs for our true calling. We complained about how tired we were—our feet throbbed, our legs ached, and our arms were sore. I thought to myself, if we are this tired, how do waitresses twice our age (I was in my early thirties at the time) do this, and how do they feel about their jobs? Are they bitter after years of dealing with difficult customers? Do they have dreams they never realized? Are they worn out from the physical and mental demands of the job? And what about those who worked in coffee shops? They average eight to ten-hour shifts, and my workdays were only four to six hours. I made decent money serving sushi in San Francisco but what about those who worked in greasy spoons in small, remote towns? What about health insurance? Aging in the workplace? Retirement?

 Truck Inn - off Route 80 in Nevada, near Reno.

Truck Inn - off Route 80 in Nevada, near Reno.

The questions kept coming. I did some research and found that very little had been written about this subculture. Although there were several excellent books about waitressing only a few featured older career waitresses who refer to themselves as “lifers.” Realizing this window of opportunity, by the end of the month I was on the road with a digital camera, a recorder, a scanner, and a map (that was back when we still used maps to get around). Over the following six years I traveled over 26,000 miles interviewing diner waitresses. I loved being on the road capturing the stories of these American icons. I was hooked. 

 Jean Joseph has waitressed for over 60 years - Al's Good Food. San Francisco, CA 

Jean Joseph has waitressed for over 60 years - Al's Good Food. San Francisco, CA