Unlike most service industry stories, this one is not filled with tales of horrible guests or serious service mishaps. Instead, it's a finger on the pulse of the action story at a busy Downtown restaurant, told by a person with possibly the third most stressful job of the weekend, after driver and pit crew, of course: a restaurant server.
It was a frenzy; a furious, non-stop, frenzy. There was everything to do and people all around and money being thrown in every direction. There were accents of all phonetic possibility and people of all descent. It was Saturday night of Formula 1 and I was smack in the middle of Fan Fest dealing with chaos; pure, tightly controlled, chaos.
In general, the lack of inconvenience the event had caused Austin was impressive. The traffic wasn't horrible and I always found Downtown parking. The city had grown exponentially with travelers, yet it didn't feel too crowded or intrusive. Not on the outside, anyway. On the inside…it was a different story.
Working in a busy restaurant is a beast of its own nature. It requires everything: stamina; concentration; speed; diplomacy; adrenaline and dedication. There are shifts so busy, you seem to temporarily lose yourself and rely on nothing but muscle memory and phrases. Saturday was one of those shifts.
"I'll have this cleared off for you in just a moment!”
Grab a plate.
"Would you care to start off with a cocktail or some wine?"
Punch a button.
"Thank you so much! And enjoy the race tomorrow!"
Drop a check.
Whatever happens, just keep moving. No one in my building paused that evening. We couldn't. On an average weekend night, we serve anywhere from 215-265 covers (a "cover" is one guest). This particular night, we seated and served over 600 covers - more than any restaurant in our group has ever done in a single night. It wasn't just us making records, though. Formula 1 had the most attendees ever this year, all of who were roaming Austin and all of whom, it felt like, wanted to dine where I work. (Friends who serve or tend bar in several other upscale Downtown chains near us reported much the same numbers - it turned out to be a bonanza night for select group of people.)
The streets poured volume as buses came back from the track and helicopters touched down. The crowd crammed into our doors, taking their reservation or attempting to bribe into one. Someone tried to slip money into my co-workers hand as somebody else tried to buy a table’s entire tab so he could have the space. I was responding to snaps in the air, nodding my head through orders given all at once, and trying not to spill martinis while I wove through a claustrophobic crowd. Background laughter and foreign languages thundered with clinking glassware in a din I almost had to shout through to be heard. My thought process was filet temperatures and side items and - shit - what was that wine they ordered again?
Everyone wanted a lot, everyone wanted it right then, and every one of us was working our ass off to make sure it happened. The clientele in town was there to spend money that counted and they weren't letting us forget it. A couple of our regulars slipped into a corner table and curiously watched the unfolding tumult.
"Did you know we heard some Arab sheikh rented out the entire W hotel?" one of them asked me. "He had his cars flown over here and was trying to get the Army Corps of Engineers to air-lift his yacht to Town Lake! Some people just have too much money." He was right, but at the moment I didn't mind obscene decadence. It was paying my rent.
The staff melded into one and the night became a pace. The F1 cars had gone 200 mph and we inherited the speed as drivers ourselves, our managers wielding flags to guide us, the kitchen keeping us tuned. We forgot our feet and found a place where you have just enough energy to power through but not enough to take the lead. My synapses are almost overloaded with questions being slapped onto my brain every time I turn around.
"Will you take a photo with us?"
"What is the market price of…?"
"May I have Tabasco sauce?"
"When will a table be available?"
"What do you mean we've sold out of Sambuca Black? I didn't even know we stocked it."
Ah! No! Never!
But never doesn't exist and "no" is not a vocabulary word in the service industry. When it was over, we all just looked at each other, exhausted, nodding our heads with the night's deafening roar still in our ears. When I finally stepped out into the eerily quiet, empty street, it was all I could do not to greet the lone man I encountered with a reflexive "Thanks for dining with us. Enjoy the race tomorrow."
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