4 Useful Things I learned while waiting tables

It was roughly one year ago that I quit my day job at Webb deVlam to focus on getting Po Campo off the ground. My first goal was to generate enough business to be able to pay myself something. Anything! Since I wasn’t able to do that yet, I had to find another job with a flexible schedule. Freelance was out because I wanted to save my design and business brainpower for my own endeavors. Instead, I decided to find a job at a nice restaurant waiting tables.

I had always thought waiting tables in a nice restaurant would be the ultimate escape from the 9-5 world, so I was incredibly delighted to be offered a job at Bistronomic (Chicago Magazine’s 2011 Best New Restaurant!). I worked about 4 shifts a week from mid-May to mid-December, which was how long it took me to reach the aforementioned goal.

My friends and colleagues were surprised to hear that I took a job in a restaurant but I enjoyed it. My co-workers were great, it took me out of my element and challenged me. In addition to learning a lot about French wine, I learned a lot of other things that were helpful in starting my business. Here’s four:

1. People are just plain weird. 
I learned pretty quickly that there are many, many people out there who are 1) strange, 2) unreasonable and/or 3) come to dine with weird expectations outside of your control. You do your best to make them happy but sometimes you have to say, “that guy’s just weird,” and get on with your night.

When a Po Campo customer is abrupt on the phone or writes a nasty email, my first reaction is a knot in my stomach as I think about how this is an indicator that my company will fail. Now I take a moment to objectively assess the situation before jumping to conclusions. I often end up with the same conclusion of “Oh, she’s just weird” and move on.

2. You can’t do it all at once.
Bistronomic was bustling every night of the week. When my section would get slammed, I’d look around at my tables and realize every one of them needed something. I’d panic, then pause to strategically plan how I was going to get everybody what they needed, as well as anticipate the next wave of requests to try and get ahead. It took a lot of practice but was very gratifying when I got it right.

Most days at Po Campo HQ start feeling organized, with a neat, attainable to-do list. About an hour in, the day starts to scramble out of control as unforeseen emergencies bubble up to the surface. It’s similar to looking up and suddenly seeing every seat in your section taken. I pause, then try to bundle as many similar tasks together to do things more efficiently. Sometimes bundles need to move to the next day, but, like in a busy restaurant, it is better to wait until several water glasses are (near) empty so that you can refill them all at once.

3. Separation of front of the house and back of the house
The kitchen was often a madhouse, not unlike TV shows. Lots of yelling and cursing and frantically cutting more vegetables and whatnot. Out in the dining room, guests are eating, laughing and drinking and having a merry time. As a server, I had to traverse both worlds and, in doing so, learned that the guests didn’t really need to know what was going on the kitchen. All they needed to know was that the food was going to come out hot and delicious.

The Po Campo kitchen is me in our basement studio, fretting about my inability to get financing, or things being delayed, or how a finished product turned out different than expected. It can be messy and it can be ugly. But that’s okay, because out in the front of the house, out in the real world, people see these gorgeous bags and love them. They don’t need to know about what is behind the curtain and I don’t have to let them know.

4. Fake it ’til you make it.
Wine is a key part of a meal at a French restaurant and I didn’t know much about it other than knowing that I liked to drink it. My unfamiliarity with the wine list was what made me most insecure with my position. I didn’t understand how my manager could just say nonchalantly, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll get it.” How was I supposed to help someone choose between two expensive bottles of wine that I knew nothing about? But he was right, I did start to get it. More importantly, I learned how to fake what I didn’t know until I had a chance to learn it.

This, more than anything else, was such a powerful lesson for  me. I was used to learning things in a classroom, where you don’t try to apply what you’ve learned in the real world until you are finished with the course. Until you are deemed to be “ready”. Learning on the job is different. You are never “ready”, you just continue to get better.

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