It was the end of a busy Friday night dinner shift. Waitress Candacy Taylor sat in the back of a San Francisco restaurant with her exhausted coworkers, griping about their aching feet and the frustrations of the job. “And then suddenly I thought, if we’re in our 20s and this tired, how do women in their 70s do it?” Taylor, now 38, recalls.
Well, for one thing, they do it with a lot less moaning and groaning. In fact, says Taylor, the author of Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress, the dozens of career waitresses she interviewed across the country all tended to be happy and thriving, even after decades spent on their feet taking orders and serving food. Much to her surprise, “they physically weren’t worn out,” she says. “They’re models of healthy aging.”
Taylor, who worked her way through college as a waitress, wrote about the older generation of coffee shop and diner waitresses—what she calls “a vanishing subculture”—for her master’s thesis. She sought out women over age 50 who had been waiting tables more than 20 years. Fifty-seven waitresses in 38 towns and cities across the country—from the Pie ‘n Burger in Pasadena, Calif., to the Boulevard Diner in Worcester, Mass.—told her their stories. (Read an excerpt).
AARP Bulletin talked with Taylor about her book, including what it means to be a great waitress and why you should tip generously for good service.
Q. You were a waitress for eight years in your mid-20s to early 30s. What is the difference between the older and younger generations of waitresses?
A. For us, it was a means to an end, like getting through grad school. I was never thinking this would be my life. But the older women, they made a commitment to the job. This is their profession. They build a deep relationship with their customers, something a lot of younger waitresses don’t do.
Q. What was the hardest part about being a waitress?
A. It was trying to please so many different kinds of people. I’m social and I like people, but career waitresses have a different connection. They have this love for people and genuinely want to make them happy.
Q. What makes a great waitress?
A. Someone who is extremely organized. It’s a shame that people assume anyone can wait tables. Those who think they can do it without experience will soon realize how hard it is, and they won’t get good tips if they’re not organized. If a woman stands there waiting for the toast to pop up instead of doing four other things, she wasn’t meant to be a waitress. Waitresses were the first multitaskers.
Q. What was the most surprising thing you learned from these women?
A. Three things were absolutely shocking. One was that they loved their jobs and wouldn’t do anything else. I thought they’d feel overworked or underappreciated. Second, I thought they would be financially struggling, but they weren’t. They were financially stable with a solid middle-class life and college-educated kids. They also managed their money well and had retirement accounts. Third, they physically weren’t worn out. Exactly the opposite. Ina Kapitan [of the Florence Diner in Florence, Mass.] is 84 and has rheumatoid arthritis. She told me she’d be crippled if she just sat at home and did nothing. She works as a waitress eight to 10 hours a day. Her doctor told her, “Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it.”
Q. It’s always a coffee shop waitress, never a coffee shop waiter. Why is that?
A. It’s probably based in sexism. As women age, they don’t get the better jobs and a lot of the better jobs are in fine dining restaurants. You’ll see older waiters in upscale places, but not women. But it’s getting more gender neutral now; there are more men working in diners.
Q. Is being a lifelong waitress dying out?
A. There will always be lifers, but will they love their job like these women do? Probably not. These women were born in a different time and culture. Many were divorced at a young age and had kids to take care of, and waitressing was very liberating. It paid well and you worked “mother’s hours,” as one waitress called it. It was very powerful for them to be able to say they didn’t need a man to take care of them or their family.
The younger generation, we’re conditioned to be professionals. Being a waitress your entire life is considered to be a failure. When I interviewed 50-year-old waitresses, they wondered what their life would have been like if they had continued their schooling. They had that moment of hesitation. The 70-year-olds saw it differently. There was no hesitation. They said, this is who I am, no apologies.
Q. According to federal law, waitresses and waiters are not paid minimum wage because their tips are considered part of their wage. Did any of the women think waitresses should be paid minimum wage?
A. It was 50-50. About half believed that management was getting away with not paying them enough. Others loved the tipping system, especially if they made amazing tips. They worried that if the system changed, maybe they’d earn less in tips because customers would think they were being paid more.
Q. Why should customers tip well for good service?
A. Depending on where a waitress works, she also has to share her tips with the busers, hostess or cashier and sometimes the cook. When I was a waitress, 50 percent of my tips were shared with other workers in the restaurant.
Q. Who are the best tippers?
A. Most waitresses say blue collar workers tip better than white collar ones because they know how hard the waitresses work. Politicians, attorneys, judges–waitresses think they don’t tip as well. People who have money tend not to spend it, is their feeling. On the other hand, one waitress told me that at the end of the day, it all evens out. The generous tippers make up for the ones who aren’t. The secret, she says, is not to take it personally.
Candy Sagon is a contributing editor at the AARP Bulletin.