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working in restaurants

Coffee and Tea: From a Server’s Point of View

By August 17, 2014 attention to detail, beverage junkie, coffee, customer service, having flexibility, practice, working in restaurants

Imagine running 100 miles a minute, having a list of 40 things to do next, and having to stop in the midst of it all to pull together an after dinner drink ensemble for five people. All of the 40 things I am about to orchestrate are going to be put on hold. It is time to make coffee!

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To some restaurant servers- as many as I know – serving coffee and tea can put a kink in our flow. We have to leave our sections (what we call where all of our guests are sitting) for more time than we really like to, and we often have to run around the restaurant to gather ingredients that are not within arms’ reach. It really takes a lot of time to put together an assortment of after dinner drinks for five people, unless they all decide to have the same thing – and that doesn’t happen often. People have individual preferences, don’t you know! And we want to be respected for those preferences!

Living in the wonderful world of customization, people have a lot of choices when it comes to what they will be drinking after dinner. It no longer comes down to “I’ll have regular or decaf.” People have at least 10 options when thinking about how they want their coffee. There are a variety of espresso drinks, with or without steamed milk, foam, whole milk, skim milk, etc. There’s drip coffee. At some places you can get French pressed beans or pour overs. Again, you have all of the dairy options, and don’t forget the non-dairy options: almond, rice, or soy milk.

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Then there is the sweetener option, a whole different debate for some people. Which is better to offer for guests? There’s straight white sugar, sugar cubes (a bit more elegant in appearance and less messy), less-processed sugar in the raw, honey, and stevia. Then there are the artificial sweetener choices. I could write an entire post about the “yellow, pink, and blue stuff” that people still ask for.

There are also many options for tea drinkers. Do you want honey, sugar, perhaps lemon? If you really want to get technical – which I do when I am at home – there are varying degrees of water temperature that one should be thinking about when serving tea, especially if you are having green tea.

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Thankfully for me, and for my guests, who I do not want to burden with too many choices, the place where I work only offers coffee and tea. We serve simple and well-crafted food, and our coffee and tea list matches the rest of the menu in simplicity. That means I do not have to run all over God’s green earth to gather ingredients for after dinner drinks (although it seems that way sometimes). I just have to go away from the place where I can visually monitor what the guests in my section are doing. I have to put everything I am doing on pause for 5 or 10 minutes to prepare some delicious espresso drinks and tea for my guests. Just as I do, they appreciate the way good coffee complements their dessert and wraps up their dining experience in a ritualistic way.

Lesson: Working as a server, and in life, it’s easy to get caught up in the details. Sometimes focusing on the bigger picture can make all the difference in a dining experience. When is looking at the bigger picture helpful to you in your life? 

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Six Degrees of Separation: A Memorable Meal at La Morra

By August 4, 2014 asking questions, Boston, building relationships, getting out of our comfort zone, inspired by others, working in restaurants

You know when things line up so well, you can’t stop smiling or for a moment bathe in the feeling of wonder at how magical life can be? This is how I was feeling when I was preparing to leave for Boston a few weeks ago.

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As I mentioned in my post about o ya a couple weeks ago, this was my second time to visit the city of Boston. I had been dreaming of returning since the beginning of this year. Then I was offered an invitation to come out to visit a friend for a few days off of the coast of Boston, on one of the Elizabeth Islands. How could I have resisted? The timing could not have been better, as I had a chunk of free time in July. Indeed -things lined up nicely!

As you might imagine, I work my travel plans around food experiences. I had a mental list of places that I wanted to dine while I was in Boston. Josh DeCarolis, a chef who runs the kitchen at Mateo in Durham, is from Boston. I ran my list by him, telling him that I would be willing to have some flexibility with my plans if he had any suggestions. He told me about an Italian restaurant, La Morra, where he worked for a number of years. I have enjoyed Josh’s cooking style, which is as he is – very Italian. I trusted his judgment when he told me to make some time for his old stomping grounds, La Morra.

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The next phase of this story has to do with my friend Peter, who is from Boston. He and I worked together at Magnolia Grill. I knew as soon as I met him in 2011 that I wanted us to be friends.

I asked Peter to listen to my list of plans. I wanted him to give me the scoop on public transportation in Boston. When I said that I had decided to go to La Morra, he expressed his approval. He said the La Morra has been one of his favorite spots for years.  His pottery studio was near there, and he has had many meals at their bar with their longtime bartender, Bernie. La Morra even served espresso in Peter’s handmade cups.

Fast forward a couple of days – Peter and I were sitting at my table enjoying dinner together. I was texting with another friend, Jesse, who lives in Boston. Jesse and I worked together in a couple of restaurants in Nashville, TN. His uncle owns a bistro, the Tin Angel, which was the first restaurant where I worked in Nashville.

Jesse and I were discussing dates, attempting to figure out when to meet up while I was in town. I asked where he was working these days, assuming that I should check out where he works for a meal. Then I ignored my phone for a bit – re-directing my attention to my dinner companion, Peter.

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Peter and I continued our conversation, which was mostly about specifics of the Boston subway.  I checked my phone and saw the Jesse had responded to my question. He said that he works at a place in Brookline called La Morra. I responded internally, with a “get out of here!” Then I handed my phone to Peter and said, “will you check this out!”  Needless to say, I was definitely going to La Morra for dinner.

There are restaurants where I want to eat when I want my palate to have a new adventure. There are restaurants that I go to for comfort. There are certain restaurants that I will choose simply for the sentiment. I am not a total food snob.

La Morra was one of the coziest places that I have ever been for dinner. Peter nailed it when he said that the bartender, Bernie, was worth her weight in gold. She was warm, welcoming, funny, and incredibly knowledgeable about the food and wine. I enjoyed sharing my first evening in Boston with her.

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La Morra is known for their pasta, which is made in-house with an imported Italian pasta-making machine. Their food was un-fussy, as any fine Italian meal should be. Here’s what I ate at La Morra: smoked wild bass salad with fennel, pate di baccala, fried squash blossoms with a drizzle of honey, a seasonal green salad, and house-made pasta with zucchini ribbons and lobster.  If you’re in Boston and in the mood for fresh pasta, join Bernie at the bar for a lovely experience. Please tell her I said hello!

This story is one of many that I have about synchronicity of crossing paths with people and places. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to create connections with so many wonderfully talented and fine people in the culinary world. I have said it many times and will continue- food brings people together. It transcends boundaries in a way that many avenues cannot.

Lesson: Before I thought of consulting with Josh about my dining plans in Boston, I had my list well-defined. I was thrilled that I shifted my plans to make room for dinner at La Morra. It’s a beneficial exercise to take the blinders off and be open-minded about new possibilities. We never know what we would miss otherwise. A good question to ask in any situation would be: “What other options are possible that I am not thinking about?” 

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Serving Coffee, Creativity, and Community

By May 2, 2014 building relationships, coffee, creativity, customer service, Durham, excellence, inspired by others, local flavor, people skills, working in restaurants

One of my first outings after I moved to Durham was venturing to a place called Motorco. On Sunday’s they had a community market where artists and artisans were selling their wares. That is where I first met Areli. She had a table where she sold spices, chocolates, and coffee. While her wares were intriguing and attractive, the vibrancy of Areli’s smile and the light in her eyes were what made me interested in what she was selling.

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I continued to follow what Areli and her husband, Leon, were up to. They began selling hand ground coffee around town from a bike that they had built for their mobile coffee business called Bike Coffee. Their momentum was building with a mobile food scene happening at the time, with a number of food trucks showing up to feed people around town. Areli and Leon were in the middle of that movement.

A while later, I saw them launch a Kickstarter project for their coffee business. They were planning to build a brick and mortar space to sell their unique wares. From the perspective of an outsider looking in, they spent a lot of time building relationships with the community here in Durham. When it came time for them to launch the fund-raising campaign for their business, people were ready for them to have a larger presence in the community. They raised $32,325 dollars for their coffee shop, Cocoa Cinnamon. That is $12, 325 more than their goal. To see a video about those guys and their Kickstarter video, click HERE.

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Finally, long after my initial intention to have more than a causal conversation with Areli, we sat down in front of her coffee shop for a chat. I wanted to know what it has been like for her and Leon to get this business going. I wondered what it was like for them to work together. I wondered how they had created the magic that I experience when I go to Cocoa Cinnamon.

I feel like I could write a book about what makes Cocoa Cinnamon such an enjoyable place to hang out. I go there a couple times a week for coffee. You might remember just a moment ago when I mentioned what interested me about Areli in the first place. Extrapolate vibrancy, soulful energy, and passion from a human being, and they will create a space where people want to be. From the warm and welcoming staff behind the bar, to the creativity that spills off of the walls in their coffee shop, like attracts like.

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Areli and Leon have been incredibly thoughtful about the creation of their space, carefully choosing who they have hired to be a part of their team, and deliberately selecting what they sell in their shop. I applied to work there when they began looking for staff. While I decided to continue my journey working in the restaurant world, it is still tempting to me to go to work for Areli and Leon. Their application process is different than most. They are digging into people’s interests. Areli says that their hiring process is like casting for a Broadway musical.

The process seems to be working for them from my side of the coffee bar. I enjoy good service. Having worked in the service industry for 20 years, I appreciate businesses that put a lot of effort into how they interact with their customers and the community.

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Areli said that in their first year open that they were able to donate $5,000 to the community of Durham. That is remarkable for a first year of business. They also pay their staff a living wage. Thankfully, more thoughtful employers are into creating a long term staff. Areli said that their goal is to hire people who want to have careers with them. Having a staff that is passionate and invested in what they do for work makes a world of difference in how they perform. Most of the baristas at Cocoa Cinnamon never worked as baristas before. I made sure to tell Areli that I would have never known that before she told me.

A lot of training goes into the staff. Areli seems to be good at giving people responsibilities that fit their personal desires. One of her team members, Susie, has a culinary background. Susie creates the specials. These kinds of moves are important ones for a business owner to make. They keep the staff engaged and provide opportunity for personal and professional growth.

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As a culinary and service professional, I know that it speaks volumes when business owners can relinquish control and allow their staff to take a lead in creating menu items or implementing ideas. That is what facilitates a culture amongst a staff.

This kind of leadership that Areli and Leon are exercising is integral for a young business to thrive. Businesses like theirs are breaking the mold of the old business models. We are living in a new world. Times are changing rapidly. While Areli did not mention how successful she feels after recently celebrating a year as a brick and mortar business, she did mention how they have only just begun. I got the notion that she and Leon have a lot of ideas up their sleeves and much more creativity to unleash.

With their attitudes and passion for what they are doing, these people are not only running a coffee shop. They are creating a model for a new way of doing business, and they are creating a model for building community.

I left my chat with Areli today wanting to know more and more about her plans and ideas. I wanted to say, “Hey, when can I start?” I left wanting to be a part of what they have going on.

Lesson: Doing business in this world today calls for a different quality of service and wares. Cocoa Cinnamon is embodying a way of doing business that is a model for the entrepreneurial folks here in Durham. The way Areli and Leon are doing things inspires me to continue to pay attention to all of the ingredients in my business and in my life! Little details make large impact. What little touches do you notice about a business that make a difference in the community? What makes it so important to you and your community? 

 

 

 

 

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Slingin’ hash

By April 11, 2014 building relationships, customer service, Durham, getting out of our comfort zone, people skills, working in restaurants
Menus that I translate 2 shifts a week at Mateo Tapas in Durham, NC. Come see me!

Menus that I translate 2 shifts a week
at Mateo Tapas in Durham, NC. Come see me!

 

I am currently faced with the decision to leave the world of working as a professional waiter. The energy and action that I have been putting into new goals for myself are transforming seeds that I have planted into blossoms of new opportunities. Exciting!!!

Making this decision to leave waiting tables is more of a challenge than I would have ever anticipated. I savor the work that I do in the restaurant world. As with any transition in life, I am working this process one step at a time. I do intend to stay connected to food, wine, and restaurants. I will keep you posted on my new adventures!

I truly delight in being a professional waiter. There are two key titles for this position; some people prefer waiter, others prefer server. Some people find either title offensive or demeaning. In my own mind, I have livened up my title to “hash slinger.” It makes life more fun!

What is so fulfilling about slingin’ hash? I relish being in an environment where people care about food. I crave expanding my food knowledge. I appreciate the creative nature of the people with whom I work, and service rocks my world. Yes, I said it – and I will say it again! Service rocks my world! I am one of those crazy, weird people who love all people – with no exceptions.

There are two ways that I look at service. First, it’s the time in which the restaurant is “on the move” with a lively energy of diners, tickets rolling in one after another to the kitchen, wine glasses being filled by attentive waiters, and carefully crafted food being placed in front of excitedly awaiting mouths and taste buds. Secondly, service is facilitating an experience for restaurant guests.

I enjoy facilitating dining experiences for people. I really get engaged in the “how” of providing these experiences. I admit, working with people can be a challenge. Yet I find great pleasure in turning those challenges into personal victories.

My approach to creating victories is one of the ways that I am able to leave work at work. I don’t rant about people and their so-called idiosyncrasies. I focus my energy on how I can provide memorable service to people and sharpen my skills along the way. This is an attitude that would serve a lot of waiters well. It would certainly make their lives smoother. It’s a way to take the “hate” out of the love-hate relationship that many waiters have with the profession.

How do I approach my job? It is all about making people happy. For me, it is a simple equation: making people happy brings satisfaction to my soul and puts cash in my pockets. Please come see me at Mateo Tapas in Durham, North Carolina!

One of my fave bites at Mateo - pan con tomate with boquerones

One of my fave bites at Mateo Tapas
pan con tomate con boquerones

What are some important skills that have I learned slingin’ hash?

– how to build rapport with people from all walks of life

– to encourage people to try new dishes that they probably would not have considered otherwise

– how to assist someone who seems uncomfortable with the environment or the menu so that they can become comfortably engaged in their experience

– how to lead someone from being angry into a smoother state of being

– how to get out of my own comfort zone in order to accommodate someone else’s needs

– to build rapport with (sometimes) cranky chefs to provide my guests with special requests

– how to ask questions to gather information so I can provide my diners with the experience that they want – not what I think they should have

When I am working, what I do is all about my guests. My job is about combining all of my skills and knowledge to facilitate an experience for them.

Lesson: In any field working with people, there is opportunity for learning and growing. There is magic in this human experience.  I often find this magic in unexpected interchanges with others. Where do you uncover this kind of magic? 

 

Note: For those of you who know me from Pizzeria Toro in Durham, NC – I am still gratefully employed by Pizzeria Toro. We are patiently awaiting getting back to business since the fire that stopped us in our tracks in November of 2013. I don’t have any word on what is happening. Like you, I can’t wait for them to open again! I will keep you posted.

 

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