Raising the bar: An inside look at the realities of the restaurant industry

By Julie Skinner

ST. JOHN’S (CUP) — Glancing over her shoulder, Vanessa Stanley smiles back at the young waiter who just took her lunch order. As soon as the server’s out of earshot, Stanley leans across the table and quietly divulges an observation: “He’s new. He seems sweet . . . but he’s definitely new.”

Stanley’s spidey sense is impressive, but not surprising, considering her years of experience in the bar and restaurant industry.

“I’ve been bartending since Aug. 5, 2008,” Stanley says with pride. “I know the exact date I started.”

Stanley remembers how she first got into the business: she was tired of her minimum-wage job as a grocery store cashier and was looking for something new. After dropping off her resume at a Mount Pearl pool hall, she was offered a position as a bartender.

“I got promoted after only two months,” beams Stanley. “I got bumped up to supervisor and then eventually got promoted to assistant manager.”

Stanley says that it wasn’t until later, when she began working at another bar, that she realized just how poorly the pool hall had been managed.

“Our boss just wasn’t involved at all. It was mostly me and another girl — she was 24 and I was 21 at the time — and we ran the place.”

Aside from manning the bar, she says she had to manage liquor orders, stock the refrigerators, and even step in as an occasional bouncer when things got out of hand. The environment was not an ideal one in terms of safety, either. “I had a few guys steal my liquor from behind the bar one night,” Stanley recalls. “They reached over the bar, grabbed three bottles of liquor, and barred themselves in the men’s washroom. We finally had to call the police.”

Stanley was often the only employee working during the night shift and had a hard time managing everything on her own.

“I had a guy overdose on the couch . . . right in front of me. I had to call an ambulance because we couldn’t get him up,” she says. “It was more drama than I’ve ever dealt with in my life.”

Drug use was an issue in the hall, but it wasn’t something Stanley concerned herself with at the time. “It was bad for drugs and that kind of stuff. But again, there was nothing that you could really do about it. It wasn’t until I’d go to clean the bathrooms at the end of the night that I’d find white powder on the counters.”

Danielle Collins, an education student at Memorial University, has worked in the restaurant business for almost four years. “Personally, I think a serving job is the ultimate job to have while in university.”

According to Collins, if you’re lucky enough to land the right job, part-time servers can often earn full-time wages thanks to the tips. That being said, Collins warns that the work itself is not easy. “It can be stressful and exhausting and you definitely work for your money,” she says.

“I also think you have to be a certain kind of person to work in a restaurant,” Collins says, citing a dedicated, hard-working personality as essential in making it as a server. She also warns that the business toughens you up quickly. “When I started serving, upset customers used to bother me, but over time you get a thicker skin.”

Collins says that working in a restaurant is more demanding than any other job she’s had, which includes working as a day-camp counselor, a cashier and a swimming coach.

“It can be stressful and physically draining at times,” she says, “but I’ve definitely acquired better people skills.” Working in the restaurant business keeps her on her toes and has also shown her the importance of teamwork.

Working in the restaurant industry has helped Collins gain a newfound appreciation for gratuities. “I definitely think it should be mandatory,” she says. “People in the service industry work hard. When people go out for a meal, they’re going out for more than just the food. They also pay to be tended on and entertained — and us servers work hard to ensure that.”

Collins says that, while she’s always been a generous tipper, she’s gained a greater respect for those who work in the service industry.

“I often tip a lot more than what’s expected,” she said. “The funny thing is, I think all servers would probably tell you the same thing. It’s usually easy to determine who the servers are because they tip so generously.”

Collins says that there’s an unspoken mutual respect for one another: “We all know how hard we each have to work.”

When asked how she feels about waitressing, Stanley has no qualms about articulating her distaste for the job. “I’ll never be a waitress. Never, ever, ever,” she asserts. “Waitresses have to be nice, and I’m not. I mean, you have to stand there and listen to people bitch about the stupidest things and put a smile on your face.” Stanley says that she just doesn’t have the personality to be an accommodating hostess. “I’m the kind of person that if you get in my face, I’m going to tell you to go fuck yourself — that’s just the way I am. And that’s perfect for behind the bar. That’s exactly what they want.

“I’ve found that for the most part, a good food waitress is not a good bartender. You definitely get some people who are able to go back and forth, but most waitresses have a more timid personality,” said Stanley.

While Stanley and Collins’s experiences in the restaurant business differ, both agree on the importance of splitting tips.

“I definitely think tips should be shared with the people you work with,” says Collins. “There are people who may work in other parts of the restaurant that don’t necessarily make tips. We all work together as a group, and they deserve it just as much as I do.”

Stanley now works at a popular bar and restaurant in downtown St. John’s, and says that her coworkers are fair when it comes to sharing the wealth. “Whatever tips we make in the run of a night, we kick back a percentage to someone else. For instance, a food service waitress will give 10 per cent of their tips to the bar — and I think that’s absolutely fair.”

Working in a bar is a team effort, says Stanley, explaining that it’s not uncommon for workers to switch up their roles when business gets busy. “If one of the girls is really busy on the floor and there’s no food runner, I’ll go get the food and bring it to the table for her,” said Stanley. “And if she notices that I’m busy behind the bar, then she’ll come help me out.” Stanley goes on to say that if you’re doing more work, you’ll generally get “kicked back” more money.

At the heart of it, both women are in the restaurant business because they love it — and because they can make a killing. Stanley doesn’t hold back when it comes to talking strategy, either.

“Bartending is a game, plain and simple. A lot of times, you’re playing a character,” she admits. “Me and another girl used to pretend that we were sisters. And to be honest, we made a bloody fortune doing it.”

Stanley divulges that she’s often fibbed to get a good tip. “You pull at people’s heartstrings,” she said. “You can be whatever you want to be. And it’s fun. It’s entertaining. I pretend that I love you and that I’m interested in what you’re saying, but then at the end of the night, I take your money and go home.”

While Collins has spent the last four years balancing part-time waitressing with university classes, Stanley has been working full time behind the bar — neither schedule is easy. Stanley says that she’s often thought about returning to school, but isn’t sure if that’s the right path for her. “It treats me so well that I sometimes think about going into management,” she says of her work.

In the end, both women agree that for the time being, there’s nothing else they’d rather do.

“You just have to have the right personality for it all. I’d never be able to work nine-to-five and sit behind a desk all day. That’s just not for me.”