Written by Emily Glaser
‘Tis the season to be hungry. And thirsty. And filled with the Christmas spirit—or, sometimes, the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge. Herein find a compendium of behind-the-scenes tales from area restaurants, as seen through the eyes of the folks who mix your drinks, prepare your food, and cater to your dining needs. Guarantee: All dialogue reported verbatim. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
The Christmas tree, menorah, and ticking clock may be popular rendezvous this time of year, but it’s the dinner table that’s our holiday mecca. From candy canes to collard greens, fruitcake to latkes, the holidays are a season of plenty—plenty of eating, that is—and the feasts at which we do it are the most memorable events of the year. It’s a seasonal and cultural communion, when families and friends relate their annual anecdotes, pose their political queries, and reflect on years past, all set to the delicate clink and scrape of silverware.
It’s a narrative told and retold in our seasonal tales. Performed on stage, imprinted on film rolls, or stamped in ink on worn book pages, the climactic, feelgood apex, or finale of most of our holiday stories occurs around the weighted table of some seasonal potluck.
Scrooge’s apology accompanies Tiny Tim’s blessing over the Cratchit’s humble holiday spread. Buddy the Elf first bonds with his family over piled-high plates of syrupy noodles. Sally and Harry’s infamous deli scene and its delights come on the coattails of sleigh bells and snow scenes. After incidents with a stray BB and ravenous bloodhounds, young Ralphie and the Parkers gather in a Chinese restaurant around a plattered duck and shriek with laughter when the butcher’s knife sweeps off its head.
It’s an archetype that exists in our fictions because it exists in our realities. But although these are scenes with which we’re all familiar, filtered through lit candles and glutted wine glasses, while those stories are interesting, they’re not part of this holiday piece. Today, we ask you to remove yourself from the narrative and look behind it; take a glance through the porthole window and push open the door to the kitchen—that’s where the real story happens.
This is a story not about the feasts, but the folks who make them possible.
Imagine Mrs. Cratchit bemoaning her lack of ingredients; or the migrant chef who plucked and gutted the duck, braised it in the flavors of home, and presented it like a—well, like a prized duck—to his horrified patrons. What about the waiter who answered the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” query after Sally’s spectacle, or the dubious cook who delivered Buddy’s dish?
These may be fictions, but the perspectives are not. Every holiday season, millions of patrons file into hundreds of thousands of restaurants around the country to celebrate and imbibe, and it’s done with the aid of countless service industry employees. Just as retailers brace their businesses in anticipation of the busiest season, so do restaurants and eateries, fortifying their staff in anticipation of the droves to come. In recent years, whereas retail sales grow by 3.7 percent during the holiday months, restaurant sales feel a bump of 4.2 to 6.4 percent.
More customers mean more mishaps, more misadventures, and more miracles, all with intriguing stories behind them. We chatted with bussers, bartenders, servers, and chefs to get a behind-the-scenes perspective on what really goes on in the “back of the house.” The stories are shocking and comical and, our favorite kind of holiday narrative, heartwarming.
Grab a glass of eggnog, put another log on the fire, and settle in for the tales of the season.
The holidays are a bustling time for us all, but for none so acutely as those in the service industry. It’s a time when the steam seems to rise a little higher, the drinks empty a little faster, and the candles burn a little longer, as streams of family and friends flock to their favorite eateries to celebrate the season.
“At holidays it’s all family all the time. From the middle of November on, it’ll be like that: big parties, lots of folks coming in, reservations for three that turn into thirteen,” explains a local restaurant owner, whose already busy bistro garners a long wait list throughout these blustery months. As students return to the nest and vacationers flock to our mountainside cabins, eateries around Asheville feel the population bulge most keenly.
Though the season is long, the holidays are short, and historically have offered a welcome reprieve from the madness for local restaurants. But now, more and more restaurants and bars are staying open on those holidays, often with escalating profits. Holiday eves have been perpetually popular (according to OpenTable, New Year’s Eve restaurant sales increased by 272 percent when compared to an average day, Christmas Eve by 94 percent, and the eve of Thanksgiving is known as the biggest bar night of the year), and holidays themselves are proving nearly as profitable. According to a 2015 study, restaurants that stayed open on Christmas and New Year’s Day boosted their bottom line by 40-50 percent. Add to those numbers catering sales, and the harvest of the holiday season is tremendous.
Behind it all is a cadre of seasoned workers: smiling servers, savvy chefs, and dexterous dishwashers. On the floor, they spread holiday cheer; in the kitchen, they let their hair down (not literally, of course) and set free the stress of this hectic season.
It’s a perspective to which a surprisingly large portion of the population can relate: Half of America’s adults have worked at a restaurant at some point in their lives. For many Americans (one in three, in fact), a restaurant gig is just their first job, a way to save for a college, or even for a clunker to drive there in. But for others, especially in tourist-rich markets like ours, where the service industry is an integral piece of our commerce, it’s a career. As of 2015, the Asheville metro area (including Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison, and Transylvania counties) boasted some 27,000 jobs in leisure and hospitality, nearly 15 percent of the total job market. With new restaurants opening seemingly every weekend, those are numbers that will only continue to grow.
And as the local trade grows, so do the obstacles that accompany it. Those obstacles may be challenging, but at least they make for a good story. Or, in our case, lots of good stories.
Tip for Tat
On the frontline of every restaurant and bar around town are servers, bartenders, and hostesses. They interact with customers both jovial and scurrilous, muffling scoffs and conveying odd requests to the kitchen, all in the pursuit of that 20 percent tip.
Tipping isn’t just a luxury, it’s a lifeline. The minimum wage for tipped employees in North Carolina is a modest $2.13 an hour; take out tax and the percentage of sales most servers and bartenders pass to the back of the house at the end of the night, and waitstaff could potentially be paying for their own jobs. It’s in tips that most front of house folks find their profit. The scrawled sum at the base of a receipt is vested with the substantial power to buoy or break a shift (or a bank account). Those numbers seem to inevitably rise by decimal points and dollar signs in the holiday season, when hearts and spirits are high and the joy of giving trickles down to the fella who makes your drink.
In theory, tipping is a tiered structure often delineated on the bottom of bills: 15 percent for good service; 20 percent for great. But those constraints are merely a suggestion; in reality, tipping is a spectrum, from 0 to 100 percent or more—tips can be large, small, and downright staggering.
Though inadequate gratuity is probably more common than its exceptional counterpart, it’s the latter that tends to hold to the heartstrings and memories of those in the industry. “A random guy came up to the bar and ordered four drinks for the group he was with. His total came to $28 dollars. He left me a $250 tip,” one local barkeep remembers. “He asked if I had ever heard of eBay, and I said yes, of course. He said he was one of the owners.”
Most servers recognize and savor the euphoric reveal of an above-average tip. Indeed, sometimes a big tip will make your night. “I had a customer accidentally leave a $100 tip instead of $10,” says Sarah, recalling her experiences as a server at a well-known downtown Asheville dining destination. “He called the next day and tried to recall the tip, but my manager looked at the receipt and said, ‘Sorry, bud, this math don’t lie. It’s staying at $100.’” But sometimes a tip—or the lack thereof—will ruin it. “I had a 12 top once, a wedding party, and the father-in-law decided to foot the bill,” she continues. “Their bill was over $600, and he wrote ‘zero’ in the tip line. I chased him down and asked if he’d made a mistake, knowing that he hadn’t. He said, ‘Sorry, I’m just really tight on money right now.’ To which I replied, ‘Well then, you shouldn’t have paid the bill.’”
Sarah adds, though, that things have a way of evening out. “There was a customer who dined at the bar, and her tab came to roughly $50. She left a $600-dollar tip and asked the bartender to split it with the kitchen, because she was Celiac, and everyone made sure that there was no cross contamination whatsoever. Even when her fork fell off the plate and touched the bar, the bartender immediately replaced it.”
Tipping isn’t simply monetary. From pocket lint to receipt paper artwork, gifts aren’t uncommon in the industry, sometimes even big ones. We’ve all heard the narrative of wealthy voyeurs paying the college tuition of their favorite showgirls, but Samantha, a longtime server at a gaggle of eateries around Asheville, received a very different kind of tip when she was working her way through grad school.
“I had worked at a casual, very popular spot throughout most of my college career—the kind of restaurant that had so many regular customers that it was reminiscent of Cheers,” she says. “It was a place where the staff and many of the regulars were family.
“I was 26 years old, finishing my graduate degree, and desperately needed a car. I had never owned one—in fact, I didn’t even have a license. But I was starting my internship for graduate school that required much more traveling. I would also soon be ‘graduating and starting a career.’ Needless to say, I needed a car more than ever before. I come from very loving but very humble beginnings, and I had absolutely no idea where I’d find the resources to obtain a vehicle. To say I was stressed is an understatement.
“One of the restaurant’s most frequent customers heard about my situation and decided to take action. He had a 1988 champagne colored Mercedes that was wasting away in his garage—he hadn’t driven it in years! This man had been very blessed in life and always had more than he needed. He decided to gift this vehicle to me. While I was working, he had the car delivered to the restaurant with new tires and a fresh oil change. I have been emotionally overwhelmed previously in life, but never because, of positive emotions. My hands shook, tears streamed down my face, and my legs were wobbly. I felt like I could physically burst with excitement and gratitude. This 20-year-old car meant nothing to him, but it meant everything to me. He never expected anything in return. It was one of the most selfless acts of kindness I’ve ever experienced, and it is my continual reminder to try to give back selflessly today.”
Most servers never receive a classic car as spontaneous gratuity, but they do receive generous tips that make the contrived smiles and aching feet worthwhile.
All restaurants have them: regulars. They’re fixtures at restaurants where their names and orders are remembered. For some waitstaff, regulars are a bane, a predictable storm in an otherwise cloudless sky. For others, they’re the correlative sun, the calculable perk in a slogging shift.
By definition, a regular is a habitual customer, outlasting many of the folks who serve them. Sometimes they even get the opportunity to train the new guys—much to the chagrin of the managers. “We had this guy who was a big wine connoisseur, he owned a wine store in Colorado, and he came in four or five times a week. He was a little snooty about it, he had us order wine specifically for him, he was that kind of guest,” explains the manager of a local bistro. Disaster nearly struck when the regular crossed paths with a credulous young server. “They ordered a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne—but the server had never opened a bottle of champagne. He didn’t ask anybody for help, he just went to the table, twisted off the foil, pulled the metal cover off, and put a corkscrew right in the cork.” The regular abandoned his airs and amended the youthful waiter’s mistake.
A veteran chef recalls when he was working at an area country club, a regular guest had a habit of coming in just before closing: “He would ask for a well done au poivre steak filet. We had no problem accommodating this, but one night he came in and asked for a 16-ounce filet, and ours were cut into 8-ounce portions. The server informed him of this and asked if he would like two. He replied, “No, I want it to be a 16-ounce cut—and it can not be cut in half.” So, as half of the kitchen was broken down, I had to open up a new tenderloin and cut a 16-ounce portion and then cook it until it was well done. Needless to say, I was the last person out of the kitchen that night!”
The holidays are a time for gathering with family, but for some regulars the folks who frequently serve them martinis just the way they like them are their family. It’s to the restaurant they head to celebrate the season—for better or for worse.
Becca, a career server, has slung wings at sports bars and lobster at upscale eateries during her extensive tenure, and she’s had her fair share of frequent customers, too. It was during a recent Christmas season at a downtown white tablecloth diner that she had an interesting experience with a regular.
“Mr. Baker came at least three or four days a week to the Odd Duck, which is not a cheap restaurant,” she recounts. “He was very old; his wife had passed away, and he was living by himself at this point; he hadn’t been put in a facility or the retirement home. We were closed for a staff holiday party, and we look over and Mr. Baker’s sitting at the bar. And we’re like, ‘Mr. Baker, we’re closed!’
“He would always drink a martini, and he always accused us of not putting enough liquor in it. He would take a sip and swish it in his mouth for a while before he swallowed it, so if you went up to him, he’d point to his full cheeks and shake his head.
“So the day of the party, he was like, ‘I want my martini!’ and we’re like, ‘We’re closed, Mr. Baker, we can’t!’ And he goes, ‘I want my damn martini!’ And the bartender said, ‘Let’s just give it to him, it’s Mr. Baker, he spends enough money in here, let’s give him his martini.’ So we gave him his martini—which was not the right thing to do in retrospect, because apparently his doctor had recently told him he wasn’t supposed to be drinking; he had gout for one thing, but he was on this medication and the alcohol would mess with it. So he has his martini and we’re like, ‘Okay, Mr. Baker, you gotta go!’
“Of course I’m the boss, so I’m like, ‘I’ll guide him, I’ll walk him out, he usually parks across the street.’ So we go out, and we can’t find his car. He has no idea where his car is: ‘Oh my God, what am I gonna do with Mr. Baker?’ So we looked around, the guys went around the block, he drives a blue convertible Mercedes—if you ever see him, he’s still driving—and I didn’t know what else to do, so I had to call an Uber. ‘Cause he probably shouldn’t have been driving anyway. So we get an Uber to come get him, and we get him in the car, and he can’t tell them where he lives. So we’re like, ‘What are we gonna do with this guy?’ Eventually he’s like, ‘If you just go, I’ll know it.’ At that point he was embarrassed and kinda pissed. We saw him a couple days later. He came back in, so we were like, ‘Well, I guess he made it home.’ And I guess he found his car.”
It’s often older customers who frequent the same taverns and eateries, perhaps out of habit or a hearty grasp on what tickles the tastebuds. Or perhaps it’s the dream of a last meal that drives them to pick up knife and fork and dig with unwavering gusto into the same dish they’ve been eating for decades. Take, for example, Jake’s tale. He was bartending at an upscale resort high on a mountainside, eyes sweeping the bustling dining room before him, when what at first appeared to be a grisly scene unfolded before him. An elderly diner, fork poised over his cooling plate of meatloaf, paused mid-chew and fell from his chair, dead. “We thought it was a really sad story,” he remembers. “But then his family sent us a thank-you note. It turns out the customer’s last wish was to eat his favorite meatloaf at the lodge.”
Close Encounters & Celebrity Sightings
Of course, far more frequent than regulars are strangers, the unpredictable people who slide onto barstools and bench cushions every day. Perhaps the most indelible of such newcomers aren’t the spectacularly generous or the staggeringly rude, but the recognizable: celebrities. And recent years have brought them to Asheville—if not in droves, in noticeable packs. They leave in their paths a fortuitous trail of service industry workers lucky enough to engage in conversation with an icon.
Most of the time, the stories are memorable only for their actors and not for their mundane reactions: Woody Harrelson’s smile dropping a bill into the tip jar at a brewery, or Will Patton’s preference for low sodium soy sauce when eating Asian fusion. Sometimes, though, it is a story that’s worth telling, like when the waitstaff of a downtown restaurant escorted Channing Tatum to a local dive bar at the end of their shift and spent the rest of the night sipping whiskey with the light-footed star.
Occasionally, the stars will align and a celebrity will sit at a table in the section of a super-fan. Such was the case for Marie during two busy mornings at a favored breakfast destination. “It was a very busy brunch shift and I got this two top. The minute I walked up to the table I knew I recognized the guy, but I couldn’t place him. He was a big guy, he had a very ‘80s look to him. I asked a few of the other servers if they recognized him and everybody said, ‘No.’
“So I went to look and see what name they had placed on the waitlist. I pull it up: Viola. Instantly I was like, ‘Holy shit, it’s Frank Viola!’ I’m a huge baseball fan, so I got really excited. At the end of the meal I ran his credit card, and as I was handing it back to him I said, ‘I just want to let you know I’m a huge fan.’ He looked up at me and said, while half laughing, ‘How the hell do you know who I am?’ I told him I watched him pitch in the ’87 World Series with my dad. (Viola was the MVP for his performance in that series.) We talked for a while and then they left. About a year later, again I’m working a busy brunch and I hear, ‘Hey, Marie!’ from this voice across the restaurant. It was Frank Viola and his wife again—he even remembered my name and asked how my dad was doing.”
Celebrities may be special, but they’re also—for the most part—well-behaved, the threat of some sordid tabloid article looming over their interactions with laymen. We normal folk, on the other hand, are held to our mannerly and ethical standards by social decency alone. And those loose ties to integrity are often melted with the smooth bite of liquor.
“Any time you’re dealing with alcohol and people getting together who haven’t seen each other for a while, it’s gonna be trouble,” notes Richard, who owns a bustling downtown eatery. During one holiday season, when wine flows like water and toasts are both moving and frequent, he encountered such trouble in his dining room. “We had a crowd of ladies having dinner and having a good time. They had a couple drinks, they were relaxed, enjoying themselves, and then a gentleman came in that knew them, and he sat down and proceeded to just be as profane as he possibly could. F-bombs, SOB, MF.”
At the behest of the families sitting around the table, the manager asked the customer to quell the profanity. When he didn’t acquiesce, he was asked to leave. “The guy said, ‘You don’t have to ask me to leave, I’ll leave!’ And he gets up and he goes out the door—but then he comes back in the door and he yells, ‘F**k all of y’all!’”
Becca, whose attempts to assist the feeble Mr. Baker earlier were thwarted (coincidentally, also by a stiff drink), has also had her fair share of unfortunate encounters with inebriated guests. One, however, sticks out.
“I was the assistant food and beverage director for a resort in Blowing Rock, it was a fairly high-end restaurant. We were having a dinner service, and I had this gentleman come in with a young woman to sit and eat dinner. They had most likely had drinks before they got there. So they order an expensive bottle of wine and all these appetizers and they’re just another guest in the restaurant—until he starts getting a little louder and louder with the server.
“She brings the entree out and he cuts into it—it was a steak—and it was cooked to the wrong temperature. So of course, as always, we refired it, recooked the steak, and brought it back out. At this point, you could tell, they were just not hungry. They had eaten so much food, and he didn’t want it, so he said it was once again the wrong temperature.”
This went back and forth until, finally, it was time to drop the check. “The server goes, ‘What do I do?’ I said, ‘You box up their food, put it on the table, and I’ll bring the check.’”
Sensing disaster, Becca walked to the bar to alert them of the situation; when she turned around, the enraged customer was waiting. “He’s standing there, with the check, and he says, ‘I’m not paying for this steak that I did not eat.’ So I said, ‘Well sir, we’ve prepared three steaks for you, we’ve boxed it up for you to eat any time after you leave here, but you’re gonna have to pay for the steak.’ And he says, ‘I’m not paying for this bill.’ And I said, ‘I’ve charged you for what you ordered, I’ve boxed everything up for you, this is it.’ And he starts screaming: ‘This is ridiculous!’ and then all of a sudden he stops talking, and he just spits. I’m standing right under him, and he’s a big guy, so it landed right on me.”
Becca calmly wiped the spit from her brow and called the resort’s security, who escorted the man from the property. “At that point he was irate, and he knew that he was not right, and instead of apologizing, it just took him to a whole ‘nother level.”
Spills and Thrills
In The food and beverage industry, the floors are so slick an entire auxiliary industry of slip-proof shoes was developed in response. Spills aren’t just likely, they’re inevitable. The front of house folks we talked to recounted, time after time, disastrous tumbles and deafening shatters. Becca spilled a massive tray of wings on her patrons at a sports bar; Richard’s intentions to surprise a newly-engaged couple with a bottle of champagne went awry when the bottle landed not on their table, but the floor beside it, erupting in an unintentional spray of celebration.
Though sometimes understanding, the reaction of customers privy to such accidents are, usually and understandably, aghast. “Before my bartending career started I had to work as a cocktail server,” remembers Jenn, a bartender at a hip cocktail lounge. “Have I mentioned how horrible I am at carrying drinks on a tray? I was delivering a large round of drinks to a table and I spilled the entire tray of drinks, mainly red wine, all over several people. One woman in particular got drenched in red wine. She stood up and yelled as loud as she could, ‘MY NEW OUTFIT!’ and then proceeded to publicly accuse me of being racist… I felt horrible and was completely mortified for so many reasons. I tried explaining how I’m not racist, I’m just ridiculously clumsy and notoriously bad with trays, but the damage was already done. I could not do enough to say I was sorry.”
Such an experience can certainly get the heart pumping, but other experiences in the industry can prove even more adrenaline-inducing. The service industry is one particularly prone to crime from patrons and employees alike. “I’ve chased respectable, middle-aged women down the street after watching them squirrel a copper mug in their bags,” says a longtime barmaid. “I’ve also seen servers scrawl over their tips, changing sixes to eights or adding zeros.”
Sometimes, these illicit operations and unfortunate interactions take more serious turns, like when a restaurant manager embezzled a host of profits. Or the time a server was in a kitchen taking towels, and the chef didn’t like the way she was taking them and instructed her to do it another way, so she said, “Shut the f**k up, I will take them however I want to!”—and she turned around to him holding a knife six inches from her throat. (The chef was subsequently suspended “for a period of time.”) Or when a fight broke out at a local tavern after two apathetic parents left their young kids in the back seat of the car while they threw back a couple of cold ones; concerned patrons questioned them until rising tensions caused fists to fly.
Or, say, a stick-up.
Pat was a busboy at a franchised buffet restaurant, recently hired and proudly touting the new name tag. “I’d probably been there a few weeks. We were closing, and I was in the back rolling silverware when I heard the hostess scream,” he remembers. “I paused and shook my head and laughed, ‘cause I assumed they were joking around. But then I saw her run past the kitchen crying—and she was being followed by a guy with no face. That made me stop. And then the guy slid back into my view, pointed at me, and beckoned me toward him with his finger.
“The reason he didn’t have a face, of course, was because he had on a ski mask—he was robbing the place. So he pushed me, the servers, and a kitchen guy, into the office, and made us get down on the floor, and he kept his gun pointed at us the whole time. Once he got the money, he pointed at me again and asked me to take my shirt off.
“I handed it to him, and he carefully unpinned my name tag and handed it back to me. I said, ‘Thank you?’ And he was like, ‘See, I’m not so bad, am I?’ He put on that shirt and slid right out the front door like he was an employee. And nope, nobody ever caught him.”
Sex, Drugs, and Waitin’ Tables
Sure, rock ‘n’ roll is a wild and crazy world—but so is food and bev. It’s an industry notoriously populated by party girls and boys, and sometimes that thrill is contagious, passed to customers like the very plates they order.
The bathrooms of fine dining restaurants are a prevalent scene for such debauchery. One server encountered a well-suited businessman emerging from the bathroom with a newly acquired snowy-white mustache. Another interrupted a couple, frequent customers at that, with their pants down—literally.
When the drinks are flowing and the music’s pumping, all sorts of things can happen, from the unscrupulous to the simply odd. “I was bartending at a huge Bele Chere after-party spot,” remembers a mixologist, of the expired downtown Asheville festival. “We were slammed. The night flew by, and we made incredible money. And as the evening was finally coming to an end, we started cleaning up and discovered a wheelchair. Someone had entered the bar with a wheelchair and left without one.”
Of course, some establishments ask for such audacious behavior. Jenn also worked at a late-night spot that featured two stripper poles. “Oh, if those poles could talk,” she says, with a laugh. “The most ridiculous thing I’ve seen happen on those poles was a girl who was wearing next to nothing, dancing on the poles drunkenly. She had on very short shorts—her butt cheeks were hanging out. While she was dancing another girl came up and started licking her butt! I wish I was making this up.”
Jenn admits it’s not just the customers who have fun. “This place does not exist anymore, probably because of reasons like the one I’m about to mention,” she prefaces, with a sheepish smile. “I had only bartended at this place for about a month. I was still the ‘new girl.’ After work one evening, the employees started to drink—owners too. This place was right downtown with windows facing the main street. We pulled down whatever shades we could and partied all night long. I’m talking a dancing-on-bars-and-table-tops kind of party. The night flew by, and the next thing we knew the sun was coming up and people were [walking past] dressed professionally on their way to work.”
It’s a Man’s World
We’d be remiss to recount the trials and tribulations of the service industry without mentioning the sexism that still prevails in the unique environment. A 2015 “Women In The Workforce” article published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Women’s Center called the food service industry “a petri dish for sexual harassment,” and in many ways it’s true. The scales are tipped toward inequity both in the kitchen and on the dining room floor. Seventy percent of American servers are women, but less than 20 percent of chefs are of a similar sex. It’s an unbalanced equation that results too often in injustice.
Think our idyllic, famously liberal town is immune to such prejudice? Think again. After all, it wasn’t very long ago that West Asheville was in the headlines for the Waking Life Espresso debacle, in which the two male owners of the coffee shop were ousted for running a (shamefully, popular) misogynistic blog, detailing their sleazy encounters with female customers. And it’s still happening. “It’s pretty widely known that our owner hires only really beautiful white women to work up at the front of the restaurant,” notes one server, “and does some groping and tells inappropriate jokes, and it’s always been that way.”
Sometimes the reaction to such sexist behavior is almost laughable. “When an older guy pinched my ass, I said ‘Don’t do that again,’” recalls another server. “Then he patted my ass, and I ‘accidentally’ dropped a cup of hot coffee in his lap.” An empowered bartender also put a customer in his place, in her own way: “There was this older guy in here, and he was drinking a cocktail that was already on the sweeter side, and then he asked me something along the lines of, ‘Do you have anything else that you think I would like?’ And this was after he called me ‘Darling’ and ‘Honey’ all night. So I said, ‘Oh, we have a raspberry cocktail that’s really good.’ And he was like, ‘Raspberry? That’s too girly!’ And I was not going to be insulted by that statement, so I said, ‘Bears eat berries.’ And he ordered it, and he loved it.”
Unfortunately, it’s not a laughing matter—and it’s also a situation that’s often handled with ineptitude or callousness. In a field where sexual misconduct sometimes seems on the verge of normalcy, managers may approach chauvinism with indifference. Another server worked with a line cook who would make the occasional inappropriate remark, but when she gave him a ride home and he got handsy, she vowed to never work with him again. “I told my manager never to schedule me with that cook—and he didn’t, for a while. But one morning I walked in and saw both our names on the schedule, and I walked right back out the door. I never went back.”
It’s not just negligence, but abuse, that can come from those in managerial positions. One bartender cited a story of a friend—a manager at a prestigious, award-winning restaurant—who had her bra snapped open through her shirt by a fellow manager. At one local Asian restaurant, the chef is notoriously hot-headed, and a former server recalls seeing a female line cook receive the hard brunt of his criticism again and again. “She was garde manger [French for “keeper of the food”], which means she didn’t do any of the hot stuff, just like the salads and stuff,” she explains.
“Ranking chefs go up to sauté and fry and grill, and this girl had been working there for years, but never got promoted. And the owner would come on the line and he would be like, ‘Natalie, why is your station a f**king wreck?’ and call her out really loudly so the whole restaurant could hear. And when she worked, there was noticeably disproportionate negative feedback for her and not the other guys working on the line. The owner would tell her to shut her mouth, he’d be like, ‘Natalie, shut your mouth—for the next 20 minutes, I don’t want to hear your voice.’”
Even when women make it to positions of power themselves, they’re not necessarily exempt from such sexist criticism or doubt. “The manager that’s leaving now, I can pretty confidently say she’s making significantly less than $40K, and the man that’s taking her place is making much more than that,” points out one fry cook. A female manager of a local brewpub says she has encountered a strange shade of prejudice. When she fired one employee—a male—he accused her of being sexist. “He said there were only girls that worked here, which actually wasn’t true. We had a transgender person and someone who was gender fluid. One thing I have noticed being a woman in power, is I’ve only had to fire two people, and they were both guys, and both times they got the owner’s number, the only owner who’s a guy, and they both contacted him directly to try to refute that. They wouldn’t do that if I was a guy. They just think I don’t know what I’m talking about, or that I don’t have the authority, but I do know what I’m talking about, and I do have the authority.
“I feel so lucky here, because we are family-owned and -operated, and everyone’s very in-tune with what’s going on. The family’s super progressive, and they would never put up with it, but we are kind of a rare breed in the service industry.”
Asheville may be a liberal enclave where bigotry is infrequent—to the public’s eye. But food and beverage continues to be an industry in need of change in some areas.
The holidays, local service folks agree, are a season not just of frantic hustling and long wait times, but of odd requests and events, too. Local restaurants have orders pour in to cater their famed dishes; dining rooms frequently turn into communal celebrations when a diner bends a
knee and proposes under mistletoe or over candlelight; private holiday parties turn into cacophonous all-nighters with the shattering glasses a frequent percussion. And sometimes, those unpredictable moments turn not into mayhem, but magic.
“You get weird requests sometimes, and we try to say ‘yes,’” begins the manager of a romantic Biltmore Village spot. “This lady and gentleman came in, and they said, ‘Can we get married in your restaurant during dinner one night?’ And we said, ‘Well, yeah, but we never close, so as long as you’re okay with us being open, that’s fine.’
“That still is a little bit of an unusual request, but if they’re okay with it being in the restaurant, we’re okay with them being in the restaurant. So they had it all set up, we had the room set aside. It was during the holidays, and they loved the fireplace in that room, so they felt like it was perfect.
“So come the day of the wedding, we had this huge snowstorm, and we closed. I could get here because I could walk, but nobody else could. We called the couple and said, ‘Look, we’re gonna have to close the restaurant.’ And they said, ‘Well, we’re still in town, we’re just two blocks away, we can walk over there, can we still get married in the building?’ My business partner’s relatively close, and I’m close, we didn’t mind driving; if we put our lives on the line it’s okay, but we don’t ask our staff to do that. But we did get a couple of the chefs to come in.
“We ended up letting them in. It was just beautiful outside, the snow and everything, and the holiday lights were still on. They got married in that room, we served them dinner, and it was perfect. It turned out probably better because they were alone in the restaurant, and they had a couple of the staff in the restaurant who could take care of them.”
It’s a tale fit for holiday Hollywood cinema, as they all are. One can as easily imagine screenwriters delightedly scribbling down these stories, as the reality, a group of waitstaff regaling each other with narrations of their fortunes.
The food and beverage industry can be one of sordid tales and preposterous anecdotes, but it’s also one of heartwarming endeavors and generosity and genuine kindness. Just as those tips and wait lists seem to rise this season, so do such stories of altruism.
It is, after all, the most wonderful time of the year.
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