It's an oft-quoted notion: "Everyone should wait tables at least once in their life." There are myriad reasons for the sentiment: So that you know how hard it is; so you know what it's like to be treated like the help. But for many waiters, the answer would be more along the lines of: So you understand the joy in service and the camaraderie of the restaurant industry. And while much love is given to the chefs and now bartenders of our city, Atlanta's servers are the faces of the restaurants we come to love, and their passion and enthusiasm are integral to the industry. Stephanie Dazey speaks to six of the folks who've moved beyond the extra-cash-for-college phase of waiting tables, and turned service into a career, for better or worse.
Lari Rowe has thought about what else she could do, and she always comes back to the same conclusion: There's nothing else she would rather do than wait tables. "I love working with people," she says, "and I love working with food." Rowe, a 13-year veteran of the Silver Skillet, eases into one of the diner's timeworn vinyl booths. Her smile is motherly and warm. I ask her how long she's been a server, and with tired eyes she looks down and laughs.
"I've been waiting tables since I was 15 and I'm 52 now," she says. "You can do the math." Rowe got her start at a truck stop diner in Wyoming. She worked in the kitchen, but quickly grew tired of the heat. "I wanted to be up front where the air was."
"I was just kind of thrown into it when I was young and circumstances have kept me in it," she says. My mother waited tables at the Silver Skillet when I was young and my daughter waits tables for a living as well," Rowe says. "It's just what we do."
At one point, Rowe owned a pet store that went down with the economy. She also spent a summer working as a flagger for a construction crew. No matter what she tried, she always came back to the familiarity of waiting tables. "There's no other job where you go home with money in your pocket," she says. "You're never really broke and you never have to wait for a paycheck to buy gas or groceries. That's the upside."
The downside, Rowe says, is that the job is physically taxing. "I wouldn't recommend it unless you like to work hard. You're on your feet all the time, and some people aren't so generous."
For Rowe, the benefits of waiting tables ultimately outweigh the physical demands. "This is the kind of job where you don't take anything home with you," she says. "You just kind of forget about whatever happened and start over the next day." She says the most difficult part for her is managing so many different personalities. "You have to be tolerant and accepting of different kinds of people, including your co-workers. Sometimes dealing with co-workers is more challenging than taking care of customers."
Despite the challenges, Rowe has found a way to make it work. "I don't get stressed out about it anymore. I used to, but when you've been doing it as long as I have, it just doesn't seem that serious anymore." Rowe's advice to her peers is simple: "Just enjoy your job and enjoy your customers. They're just here to eat, it's not anything serious. It's just breakfast."
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