I eat in restaurants. I write about them. And I actually worked at one during college.
One day I was sitting in a coffee house in San Marcos, circling want adds, when this young guy came up to me and said he and his brother owned a restaurant and would hire me to wait tables there.
And just like that, I started working in a restaurant. No experience and probably an hour of training and there I was, taking orders and serving food to paying customers.
And here’s what I learned about waitressing:
a). There is no excuse to be rude to servers. They are people, too. And their job is to serve you. OK, maybe they are having a bad day, maybe the manager hasn’t scheduled enough wait staff for the lunch rush, whatever. You being rude or yelling at them is not going to make anyone’s experience better. And, yes, they just might spit in your food in the kitchen.
According to SimplyHired.com, the average salary for a waiter in Houston is $49,000 a year, and some can make a lot more than that.
b). It’s hard work. Physically hard and emotionally taxing. And if you want to make good tips, you had better bring your A-game to the floor.
c). There’s a reason a lot of restaurant workers do drugs and drink.
Oh, and I also learned to make sure you know the restaurant where you’re dining and what goes into the food. Not all chicken fried steak is really steak — or even meat.
But that was a college town and a long time ago. Here in Houston, with our glut of eateries and so many fine dining joints, you’ll find a whole culture of professional wait people. Wait staff that aren’t college kids or would-be actors.
These are people who make their living waiting tables, and it’s not a bad living. According to SimplyHired.com, the average salary for a waiter in Houston is $49,000 a year, and some can make a lot more than that.
“I’ve being doing this for 10 years,” says 28-year-old Michael Brand, who works at the just-opened Triniti. A 2008 graduate of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at UH, the Houston native has worked at several restaurants around the city.
“It can be seasonal,” he says, “but I make good money and it’s not the same ol’ same ol’. I never saw myself as a nine to five guy, and in this job I get to pick my shifts. Plus, there’s the food and beverages. I get to see and taste things I probably couldn’t afford otherwise.”
“It’s not an easy job,” says restaurateur Tony Vallone of Tony’s and Ciao Bello, who worked as a waiter himself when he was starting out. “But my guys make great money and the longevity is just unbelievable.”
Raul Larios has been with Vallone for 37 years. He started at 17 years old in 1974 at the Tony’s on Post Oak, just two years after it opened. And he shows no indication of stopping.
“It’s the best place to work,” he says. “It’s like family here, and I’ll stay forever.”
“I just love my job, and the atmosphere here,” says Caesar Martinez, who’s worked as a waiter at Tony’s for 25 years. “My son worked here for a few years, too.”
Tony’s uses the traditional high-end service model of employing front and back waiters for each table and captains who oversee seven tables.
But if you’re looking to make a long-term living as a waiter or waitress, it doesn’t have to be at an expensive restaurant. Just look at the wait staff at Molina’s Cantina, a popular Tex-Mex eatery with two and soon-to-be-three locations.
"The longevity is just unbelievable,” Tony Vallone says of his waitstaff. Raul Larios has been with Vallone for 37 years.
“I’ve supported my family my whole life doing this,” says the charming silver-haired Joaquin Alvarado. He’s been a waiter at many Houston restaurants over the decades, and he’s been with the Molina group for 21 years.
And he likes it so much that even though he’s reached retirement age (he’s 71 years young) he still works four days a week.
“Sometimes my legs hurt,” Alvarado says. “But I want to stay here. I get a lot of customers asking for me, they are very nice people and they tip well. Basically I’m retired, but I work for beer money now,” he says with a wink.
Margarita “Mago” Neri is second-generation Molina worker. She started 27 years ago when her parents worked there. Her mother was a cook at the time and her father, who is still a kitchen manager with the Molina group, helped her get the job.
“I like it because I make money to support my family and it’s like we’re all part of the Molina family. Everybody’s so nice,” Neri says. “I never thought I’d stay this long, but I like seeing the regular customers.”
Maybe if I’d started my serving career at a Houston restaurant I’d still be waiting tables, telling you what the specials of the day are and asking if you want flat or sparkling water — and probably making more money than I do as a writer.
But then you wouldn’t be reading this right now. And you wouldn’t know that you could have a career as a restaurant server. Of course, even if you don’t go down that work path, please remember to respect your server.
And be nice about it. Or I’ll come spit in your food.