Long ago, before Chick-fil-A became synonymous with cows painting “Eat Mor Chikin” on any available billboard, the chain’s mascot was, ironically, a chicken. The chicken’s name was Doodles. The costume was pretty unique – complete with
tights, a head comb, a beak and tail feathers. It smelled a bit on the inside of the “head” – something like what a real chicken probably smells like on the inside of its head. I know this because I spent a bit too much time inside that costume.

After college, where I was lucky enough to have earned a Winshape scholarship provided by Chick-fil-A, I became a waitress at the local Dwarf House. I had earned the scholarship as a NON-CFA (which was stamped on most of my scholarship paperwork). So, as a recent graduate desperate to earn extra money, my sense of duty called me to Truett’s house of chicken.

Before you think this is a column about Chick-fil-A, let me tell you – it’s not. The franchise would probably be mortified that I’ve used their name at all in this article. The point of this month’s column is to share a few moments about my sad, and short, waitressing career. I also hope to shed some insight into the world’s most
underappreciated job (second to teaching).

I was hired fairly easily – I could walk, talk, carry a tray and had an aptitude for learning the abbreviations for various combos. During the first week of training, I even had the privilege of helping the team who waited on Mr. Cathy himself when he dined with a foster family (a table of 22 guests, the owner of the chain and mostly children – how I had ended up with that table is beyond me).  

Despite my auspicious start in those first couple of weeks, I never quite got the hang of waitressing. In fact, I was terrible. I dropped things, I burned my arm, and I fell twice, both times with food trays. I mixed up tables and got orders wrong. There were a few fleeting moments of success, but they were rare and infrequent. I’d go home with spare change as tips and clothes smelling of sweat and chicken. As a person who thinks of herself as fairly bright and adept, I have never felt like such a failure.

"Leave a tip better than a quarter. (That literally happened to me once. The guest left a quarter. Twenty-five cents. That’s it.) "

I thought I couldn’t feel any worse until about the third week of employment when I realized that bad waitresses were relegated to a new, terrible fate: become the mascot. When I clocked in, next to my name on the timecard, scribbled in the manager’s handwriting, were the words no one wanted to see – “Doodles”. My job was to dress in the costume and give samples of chicken nuggets in the drive-thru. 

I realized I was a bad waitress. I knew that my time at the Dwarf House was likely coming to a fast end. But I stuck it out for a while, clocking in, dressing like a chicken and then going to the drive-thru. It was hellishly hot out there. The costume smelled awful. So, needless to say, it wasn’t long before I turned in my two-week’s notice to my gracious manager.

As time went on, I would hear from people I used to work with at Chick-fil-A. I’ve heard people tell me that my tale of waitressing became part of the new training procedure. “Don’t be as bad a Holly Dean and you’ll be fine” were comments shared with new hires. I joke now with the store manager (the same guy as the one who first assigned my shift as Doodles) about how terrible I was. The worst tale I’ve heard, however, is the one that I hear most often. 

“Were you the girl who got hit in the drive-thru giving out samples dressed as Doodles? I heard about you!”

Nope. That wasn’t me. It’s a great story, but it’s just not true.  

There were times I wished I had gotten hit by a car – I would’ve gotten out of the suit sooner.

I share that story with you, dear reader, to dispel the myth publicly that I was the girl hit by the car. But I also share my experience with you to prove a point – deep down inside every poor waiter or waitress is a person just trying to earn a living. Perhaps, being a server in a restaurant just isn’t the right calling. Perhaps, the bad waiter you just experienced is just trying to avoid becoming the restaurant’s mascot. I assure you, he or she will figure out their true calling and perhaps management will help them see their shortcomings. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts about treating servers properly.

Leave a tip better than a quarter. (That literally happened to me once. The guest left a quarter. Twenty-five cents. That’s it.) Tipping isn’t as hard as you think. Although 15-20% is the norm, a great server deserves a greater tip. Most servers make less than minimum wage – you read that correctly. Servers do not have to make minimum wage, as tips are designed to augment their pay. 

So, leave a tip. And if you have a coupon or a gift card, make sure to tip on the value of the food, not what you actually had to fork over in real dough (puns intended). For example, if you have a buy one, get one free coupon for an entrée, calculate your tip based on what both entrees would have cost. It’s the courteous and right thing to do.  

Remember that the server doesn’t always have control over what happens in the kitchen, so if your order isn’t to your liking, ask for what you want in a polite way. Make sure you’re clear about what you order (think Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally”). I recall ordering a new menu item at a casual dining restaurant in town and not realizing the word “hot” was part of the description. I had no idea how hot! I was so disappointed in my entrée, I wanted to cry – both from the spiciness and from the embarrassment that I didn’t read the description correctly. When the server asked if I was happy with my meal, I was able to honestly tell her that I really couldn’t eat it. She graciously offered me another option, and we offered to pay (since it was my fault) for the sinus-clearing plate. Thankfully, the restaurant absorbed the cost for me. All was handled without too much fuss. That waitress earned an extra tip because she was so kind about helping me.  

Make sure to tell your server, and his or her manager, when you’ve received outstanding service. Too many times, the boss only hears about things that went badly. Make sure to share the good news, too. My best server story involves a local steakhouse chain where we dined with my elderly grandmother several years ago. My grandmother asked so many questions of the server regarding the meat tenderness and how easy it was to cut, I’m sure the waitress was losing her patience. But then she did something remarkable – she brought my grandmother’s steak to her, already cut into bite-sized pieces. That’s a waitress who knew what she was doing. That was a woman who cared about her guests and cared about the service she delivered. Most importantly, that’s a server who was really, really good at her job and her boss was told about it. She earned a great tip, too. I’m sure she never had to dress as a chicken.

All told, I truly value my short term as a waitress. I was terrible, but not because I didn’t care. The experience has helped me tremendously, both as a guest in a restaurant and in the event business. Ask any server and they will tell you – everyone who eats in a restaurant should work at a restaurant at least once in their life. It’s an eye-opening experience, and will make you all the more appreciative of alternative careers that don’t involve serving food. Or wearing a chicken costume.