The Career Servers Oral History Project surveys men and women who built careers waiting tables in New Orleans, Louisiana; Charleston, South Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; and Atlanta, Georgia. They share experiences and personal philosophies of service. Servers do more than take orders. They nurture relationships on both sides of the table.  They prepare the dining room for service. They educate themselves about the food and drink they serve. Doing this skilled work, they build careers.

“It’s not necessarily a respected industry,” says Magnolias waiter Slade Stokes. “I have friends that have bought a house, put their kids through school . . . it deserves more respect than it gets.” The restaurant is a social space, and diners expect good food and a good experience. “You are on the stage. People look at you. You have to be ready,” says Ali Zarbashi, who serves at Bone’s Steakhouse in Atlanta. “It doesn’t matter what happened [the] night before. When you come here, you have to put that face game on and be ready.”

Waiting tables requires strong interpersonal skills. Servers navigate personalities and guest needs on a table-by-table basis. Miller Union waiter Princeton Saunders says that working as a server is like being a chameleon. “In a lot of cases [you] almost change your personality per group, per table,” says Saunders. “They came here to have dinner, and you’re to work that out for them, however they need.”

Good servers are essential to a thriving restaurant. Servers balance fulfilling guest orders and the fast-paced reality of the kitchen. Pascal’s Manale server Wendy Gruntz advocates for her guests. “We always have special orders for the kitchen, and it drives them crazy,” says Gruntz. “You treat people well. That’s why they keep coming back.” Servers like Gruntz build regular patrons through sustained rapport with their guests.

Listen to these career servers speak of their work at table.

TAGS: Ali Zarbashi, Barbara Brown, Benjamin Lyons, Bernita Joyner, Brenda O'Neill, Brenda Salser, Brian Boyle, Cindy Sweatt, Dan Mathus, Darryl Smalls, David Evans, Donald McGill, Edward Murray, Harold "Rick" Hughes, Jackie Baity, Jackie McCray, Jeanette Meyer, Jeffery Heard, Joe Larson, Jon Otterstrom, Kathy Payne, Lori DeVine, Maggie Marx, Mark Casias, Mark Mindykowski, Michael Failing, Mickey Bakst, Nelson Gonzales, Patricia Cummings, Princeton Saunders, R. Scott Harrington, restaurant, Ronald Leonard, Sarah Tucker, service industry, Slade Stokes, Sonya Twitty, Steva Casey, Victor Pizarro, Wanda Ware, Wendy Gruntz