For about eight months after college, I was a hostess on weekends at a popular brunch restaurant in Chicago’s South Loop, a neighborhoods that was once described as: “The Loop’s older brother that was fat in high school but is now skinny and handsome and constantly reminding everyone he’s cool and not the South Side!” This is not wrong.
Let’s call the restaurant Grapefruit. Grapefruit was a small chain confined to moneyed neighborhoods. In the years since I worked there it grew then shrank again, expanding and contracting like the bright fruits they squeezed in the big, industrial-green juicer. People really liked it: the pancake flights, the frushi, the flavored coffee.
My time at Grapefruit was like most of my relationships in my early 20s: confusing, stressful, over in under a year. But I learned a lot, and want you to reap the benefit of my bumbling. Get out your clipboard, queue up the morning playlist, and read on to find out how to be the best hostess you can be with minimal restaurant experience.
Have some restaurant experience, preferably
I said minimal, not non-existent. It’s definitely easier when you know about things like table numbers and a morning rush.
I had no experience with either. The only other restaurant I’d worked at had counter service and a small trickle of customers. During my 10-minute interview, I glossed over that and focused on my people skills.
Be patient with customers
Brunch crowds operate under a socially acceptable form of mass insanity. Dates, out-of-town parents, and young children jostle packed entryway to wait over an hour for food that takes upwards of 20 minutes. Tensions are high. They have collectively forgotten that they are in a major metropolitan area at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning, in a neighborhood with many colleges, some residences, and very few places serving waffles and applewood bacon. Do not up the tension by forgetting their name, or worse, their place in line.
Accept your mistakes
You will, at some point, forget their name and their place in line. Stare at them for a minute. Does she look like a Jasmine? Did he come in before or after the big group hovering by the door? Shit. Walk around like you have a purpose. Stare at your clipboard. If all else fails, suck it up and ask.
Small acts of revenge help get you through the shift
Three sorority girls are staring at you impatiently. They are indistinguishable from the other three sorority girls you just sat: messy blonde buns, attitude, and the inexplicable brunch uniform of full makeup and their alma mater’s sweatshirt. You cannot remember their name. Emily? Bridget? Caitlin. Probably Caitlin. They look bored and pissed. You ask, soft and apologetic: “Can you remind me of your name?”
“Why don’t you look at the list? It’s right there.” Emily-Bridget-Caitlin snickers and turns their back, reeking of Juicy Couture and entitlement.
Clear your throat: “Jackson, party of two!” The older, interracial couple that looks like professors was definitely behind them. The older, interracial couple is definitely getting seated before them. Caitlin shoots you a look of white-hot hate.
Make friends with the servers
Talk to the secret graffiti artist who just went on a camping trip with her new girlfriend. “It was great,” she says. “No drama.”
Talk to the Hispanic head server, who’s a few years and many worlds older than the college ducklings that crowd behind the server station. Years later you will see him at a wedding reception held at an upscale restaurant and blurt, “We used to work together.” He will reply, “And I’m still here.” And any lingering doubts you had about class in America being real dissolve in your glass of champagne.
Talk to the wan, pale boy who looks more 12 than 21. You will run into him late at night on the train. He’s wearing a red cap. He moonlights as a Guardian Angel. He nods briefly, without meeting your eyes. Stifle the urge to giggle.
Master the art of delivering bad news
“I’m sorry, it looks like there’s going to be a longer wait. There’s another brunch place about a mile south, it’s called Egg.” Start to draw directions on a napkin. “Yes, there may be a wait there as well.”’
Always have a backup plan to offer
“There’s a Dunkin Donuts three blocks away.”
Being punctual is worth more than you know
Show up on time and you are a precious commodity, more valuable than rubies for your consistency. People call off at midnight, 3am, 5am, then you get a text at 6am, 7am, can u come in this morning? You will be rewarded with manager approval, extra shifts, invitations to cater brunch-themed weddings. It’s a gift that keeps on giving: for years after, long after you’ve traded hostess stand for cube, you will get texts asking can u sub this weekend? Timeliness leaves a lasting impression, even after you text back sorry, I don’t work there anymore.