March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Career waitresses are happy, financially stable, researcher says

Thursday, Dec. 8 — Today’s American Dream perpetuates a need to have an important job with a lofty title in order to be happy, but a cultural critic and author says that’s not necessarily the best path for some.
Many career waitresses — despite the stereotype of the worn-down, underpaid, harassed server — love their jobs and are financially stable and able to support themselves, said Candacy Taylor, cultural critic and author of "Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress".
The San Francisco Bay Area resident spoke as part of the Michigan State University Museum’s Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives series, discussing her 10-year research project about career waitresses and why they do what they do.
“I expected to find this weary, kind of overworked, tired underappreciated waitress, and I learned that there are many physical and emotional rewards from the job,” Taylor said.
Taylor got the idea for the project in 2001, when she was working as a waitress in a sushi restaurant to help pay for graduate school at the California College of the Arts. The idea turned into her thesis project, and continued to evolve after her graduation when she obtained her masters in visual criticism.
“On a busy Friday night, we’d sit at a back table and just be completely exhausted and complain about how hard it was,” she said of her waitressing colleagues. “I thought, if we’re this tired, how do women in their 50s, 60s and 70s do this work and how do they feel about it?”
She focused her study on diner waitresses with 20 years of experience. Each subject was older than 50 and had a large following of regular customers. Each diner served breakfast and had a counter that veteran waitresses used to serve clients in a hurry.
Instead of finding struggling women emotionally, physically and financially, Taylor said most of her subjects told her that they “absolutely love this job” and that they “wouldn’t do anything else.”
“I was really surprised to find that they were financially stable,” Taylor said. “They swore that the physical labor of waitressing was keeping them healthy instead of wearing them down.”
Taylor’s research revealed that younger waitresses worked harder than veterans with regular customers. While a younger waitress goes through a 20-step process to serve a new customer, including taking an order, making drinks, refilling empty cups and checking in to make sure everything is satisfactory, veteran waitresses know what their regulars want and condense the process by bringing everything out right the first time, Taylor said.
Veteran waitresses also work diner counters, which experience higher turnaround for patrons, resulting in more tables and more tips, Taylor continued. Working the counter also eliminates walking from the kitchen to the table loaded down with plates and drinks. Instead, you simply turn around, grab the plate from the kitchen and place it in front of the customer.
The distance may be small, but it can result in younger waitresses walking a few extra miles each night compared to the older ones, Taylor said.
The waitresses she talked to — 59 in total — loved every aspect of their job, Taylor said. Many put off retirement, working well into their 80s in order to keep interacting with their regulars. The relationships they built also helped the amount of tips that came in. One waitress told Taylor that she made between $800 and $900 a week working in the 1970s and 1980s — more than many career women made in those days.
“If the American Dream can be summed up as happiness, prosperity, ownership and free will, who’s to say these women don’t have it and aren’t living it?” Taylor asked. “This project made me re-evaluate the myth of the American Dream that says you need to have an important job to be happy.”