What It's Like to Work at a Restaurant on Thanksgiving
"About half of the guests who come out on Thanksgiving seem to be looking for something wrong with their meal or overall experience, and they usually find it."
Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments.
I have worked as a server for four years and currently work at a steakhouse in Arizona. On Thanksgiving, we open at 11 AM and have reservations from the time we open until 9 PM. That makes it a 10 hour day with no breaks: table, Red Bull, repeat.
Thanksgiving is much busier than other holidays like Christmas or New Year's Eve, because it seems like—at least lately—a lot more families are willing to go out to eat and have someone else cook for them. I think the idea is that they'll avoid the stress of cooking and cleaning for themselves, but they aren't going to get any more relaxed at our loud, busy restaurant. In fact, they seem to be more stressed, and they don't get any leftovers or get to enjoy the comfort of their own home. I don't get it. I can't imagine how going out to a restaurant and paying three times as much seems like a better choice.
Our customers seem so grumpy, like cattle being herded. It always feels like maybe this isn't anyone's first choice, just the lesser of two evils (at least the house stays clean). But to me, going out to eat on a holiday is just way too stressful. You have to wait for a table and get seated, and then you're probably not going to like the table and have to wait to be re-seated somewhere else. This seems to happen way more often on holidays, when everyone's expectations are way too high.
About half of the guests who come out on Thanksgiving seem to be looking for something wrong with their meal or overall experience, and they usually find it. ("This ice is too cold!") We're serving food, not saving lives. There's only so much we can do.
No server is ever particularly excited to be working that day either (shhh, that's a secret). At my restaurant, we do a great job of creating a positive experience, but sometimes, on some days, there isn't much a server can do to exceed expectations. And it's even more frantic than usual for the kitchen staff. If you've never worked in a restaurant, you should know that working in the kitchen is like fighting all night to put out a fire that never goes out.
I seem to notice the same kinds of customers in our restaurant every Thanksgiving, and they are: the over-the-top micro-manager mother, the "yeah fuck it, I'll take another beer" dad, and of course the kids/aunts/uncles/grandparents who seem like they were excited, but the family argument that just took place in the car on the drive over has already ruined it. A lot of my tables are big families that have come together for the day, combined with little-to-no alcohol, which equals STRESS in all capital letters. So here's another sullen "I'll just have water, please," while they're all sarcastically thinking to themselves, "Well isn't this great, everyone! Good thing we went out!"
As a server, you are going to spend some days in the weeds. (And the 'weeds' is my acronym for Worst Ever Employee Doomsday Scenario; most of the time, if you find yourself in the weeds, the only thing you can do is go home and get drunk). On Thanksgiving, I've watched servers spend all day in the weeds, but end up having a $500 day. I've also seen many more servers spend the day in the weeds and have literally the worst day of their lives, with an $80 to $100 day. Don't even calculate the hourly rate on that.
On Thanksgiving, the dreaded 'verbal tip' is at an all-time high. The verbal tip is when the table goes out of its way to tell you how great you were and how much they appreciate you working on Thanksgiving (which I love hearing, because it's because of people like them who won't stay home). The agony of the verbal tip is, when you receive it, you can almost always assume that the actual tip will be lower. It's as if the guest believes that the nice words are better than cash. Come on. If I work for you, I'm literally your servant. If I did a great job, let the tip line reflect that. I'd prefer it if you treated me like a dog and left me 20 percent. Instead, what usually happens is that I hear "Thank you so much for doing this today. I hope you get to see your family, blah blah blah, I hate you, blah blah, 10 percent tip."
I will say that I'm a great server. I make great money working all day on Thanksgiving, and a shift like that is hard not to work. But on the years when I'm not scheduled because of some Thanksgiving miracle, I cry tears of happiness on the inside. Hell, I cry on the outside too.