Since the release of my book, I have had a chance to do a fair number of interviews. After the end of the formal interview, I have twice now been told how rare it is to find someone who looks at serving as a profession. This usually leads me to a correction. I think there are just as many professional servers as there has always been, just far fewer that view it as a career. An outstanding fellow server blogger has recently written a pair of pieces on this topic. I have taken some time to consider this topic and have developed some opinions on what lead to the demise of the career server.
If we look at the career server as we would an endangered species, the first thing to examine is the habitat they tend to reside in. The career server of a generation ago was almost synonymous with the restaurants where they worked. These were restaurants that had been local institutions for decades. They began as young servers and stayed to gain seniority. With seniority came the opportunity to advance into better shifts, better stations, and larger parties. They earned a core group of regulars and often as those regulars advanced in their fields, the server would advance through the ranks of the restaurant. Gaining this seniority gave the server stability of income, benefits, and an overall increase in quality of life. These servers knew their menu, wine list, and customers down to finite details. This was the mark of a career server.
As with most cases of a declining population of a species, the habitat of a career server has been greatly reduced. The change is a result of the evolving tastes of consumers. Today’s guests are drawn to restaurants that are new and innovative. These restaurants would have had a difficult time surviving even twenty years ago in a pre-Food Network era. Most are serving smaller portions of food that are cutting edge and modern. This is a radical change from the classic steakhouses and French restaurants that fostered generations of career servers. In my estimation, only one of the top five restaurants in my town has been around for over ten years. After consulting with a friend, I found that at the one exception only one server had over 10 years of service at that restaurant. The rapid rise of these restaurants, and the overall increase in the number of restaurants, is driven by this generation’s desire for variety. This is devastating to the career server’s stable base of weekly regular customers.
It is not only the loss of environment that has lead to the scarcity of career servers. There has also been a significant decrease in the income that allowed their numbers to thrive. Over the years, restaurant menu prices have not kept pace with inflation. While the price of housing, transportation, and gasoline has increased significantly, the price of food has remained relatively stable. Industrial farming has enabled farmers and ranchers to produce more food than ever before. This has caused food prices to increase at a rate much lower than the other factors in cost of living. The cultural standard for tipping has remained stable. While everything else a server must buy to live has become more expensive, their income has not kept pace. This is most devastating in the area of health insurance where rates have skyrocketed and fewer restaurants are offering benefits. As servers age, this gap adds additional pressure to leave the industry.
So what became of the career server? They have simply changed fields. Many have seen a transition to management as the only route to stability and advancement. As their income becomes more unpredictable and their need for health insurance increases, they take the salary and benefits package. Others will look for an opportunity to become vendors to restaurants. Many wine, food, and other types of vendors would a generation ago have been career servers. Most of these servers have left the industry. Other careers in the service industry, or the corporate world, become attractive to a server who has worn out their knees after working on their feet for a decade. The result is the career server of the past has adapting to several other environments more suitable to their needs.
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