The waiting game: Asheville servers dish about life on the job

PEOPLE PERSON: Rachel Tondi, a server at The Mediterranean on College Street, believes part of her job is to nurture community connections. "My purpose is to make my customer's day a little better," she says. Photo by Pat Barcas

We’ve all seen it: the customer who wants her french fries a little browner, the couple who move three times before they’re happy with their seats,  the guy who never looks at the server and then stiffs her on the tip.  Oy, if only servers would dish, the stories they could tell.

Turns out, servers love to dish, and, boy, do they have plenty to ladle up. The good news is that most of them love their work and savor offering a meal to remember.  The bad news is that we, too often behaving like cranky babies, don’t make it easy.

A server’s reality

For Kevin  Antonovich, a waiter at Table on College Street, and a waiter and bartender at the Inn at the Biltmore Estate, sleep is a rare commodity. He often works more than 60 hours a week, sending part of his paycheck to help his  hospitalized mother and unemployed stepfather pay their bills and mortgage in upstate New York.

Antonovich — both a waiter and restaurant manager for 11 years — doesn’t complain. But servers in North Carolina are paid only $2.13 an hour plus tips. At Table, tips are pooled, then divided at the end of a shift. “Sometimes I walk away with $40, sometimes with $240,” he says. At Biltmore, waiters’ individual tips are added onto their paychecks.

THE GOOD WITH THE BAD: Waiter Kevin Antonovich, pictured here at Table, says life as a server is a mixed bag. "There can be days when you hate every moment," he says. "But some days you can't imagine doing anything else." Photo by Pat Barcas
THE GOOD WITH THE BAD: Waiter Kevin Antonovich, pictured here at Table, says life as a server is a mixed bag. “There can be days when you hate every moment,” he says. “But some days you can’t imagine doing anything else.” Photo by Pat Barcas

In winter months, when the number of customers shrinks, tips do too.  “You have to save for winter,” says Kristen Bryan, an assistant manager at Rhubarb, who has been working in restaurants for 15 years.

Every April, waiters also face taxes.  “It’s a problem if you don’t stay on top of taxes quarterly,” says Denise Cornell, who has waited at The Market Place on Wall Street for eight years and worked in restaurants for more than 35 years. “The tax situation is the worst thing about working as a waiter.”

Hunger pains

Babies and toddlers can pitch a fit when they’re hungry — and apparently some never grow out of it. Lisa Marie Lienberger, a server at Nightbell who has been working in the food industry for about six years, once had a customer throw a napkin at her face. “A colleague offered to finish serving the table,” says Lienberger. “I said no. You have to keep a cool head and not let anyone get to you. When I’m about to freak out, I go into the walk-in refrigerator and take deep breaths.”

Once, while working at a restaurant in Nashville, Tenn., Bryan had a man say to her that his dish tasted like “donkey dick.”  The other man at the table complained of excess salt. “You must take stock out in Morton’s salt,” he said.

“It’s quite amazing what some people will do,” says Bryan,  who has a degree in hotel and restaurant management and is also trained as a yoga instructor. “But unfortunately you can’t tell customers how stressful the job is. And you can’t tell people who don’t tip that you only get $2 an hour. But that’s part of the job.”

Cornell has learned a unique way to deal with rudeness: “I lean down and ask the person to repeat what he’s said, and I make sure everyone at the table hears me. Most often, the person won’t repeat it.”

Cornell’s joke, shared with colleagues when a diner misbehaves, is that the customer “wasn’t held enough as a baby.”

“You have to be a psychologist sometimes. People have issues about food.  They’ll wipe a glass before and after I touch it or get upset about the size of an ice cube. Such primitive issues — this comes from something else.”

The best of the business

Still, despite occasional customer meltdowns, many Asheville servers love their jobs — and even wince a bit when a customer asks what they are actually trying to become.  “It feels like a criticism, like you’re just serving to get through to the next part of your life,” says Bryan.  “But serving can be great. It’s flexible and you can travel. There are benefits customers don’t get to see.”

Organic farmer Rachel Tondi, a server at the The Mediterranean on College Street on and off for 15 years, sees her job as community connector. “My purpose is to make my customer’s day a little better,” says Tondi, who notes that she didn’t find the same connections in office and sales jobs.  “I see my role as doing good in the world, like a facilitator.” One day, for instance, Tondi decorated a longtime customer’s booth for his birthday, reserving it for him all day so others could sit with him, share a coffee and wish him well.

Lienberger, nominated for a  2014 Stooby Server of the Year Award by Ashvegas, also loves pleasing customers.  “I like introducing something new to people, like steak tartare, and seeing them go cross-eyed over it.  I love seeing the joy that a great dining experience can bring to people.”

Cornell, who grew up  as a 4H-er raising sheep in California, loves talking with customers about Asheville’s local purveyors. “Theirs are family businesses, and I feel like I’m promoting them with a sense of pride for them,” says Cornell, who also sells real estate and takes care of her elderly mother.

Most servers also love the people they meet both as customers and colleagues.  “I’ve met some of my favorite people ever as a server,” says Bryan.

Antonovich, who has  been in Asheville only since August, agrees: “The best moments are with co-workers. In New York, they became my family.”

As in every profession, some shifts are rotten and others splendid: “There can be days when you hate every moment,” says Antonovich, who hopes eventually  to own a small restaurant.  “But some days, you can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Kevin Antonovich has set up a crowd-funding site to support his seriously ill mother at gofundme.com/fq1h6o.

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