To serve... with love
Whistler’s service industry is fuelled by a delicate and dynamic group of personalities. And they are normal... really
By Don Anderson
They look like normal people, they even talk like normal people, but are they normal people?
A recent tour through the front lines of Whistler’s service industry introduced me to some of the resort’s most energetic and creative souls, many of whom are responsible for Whistler’s lofty designation as one of the world’s pre-eminent resort destinations.
While our politicians are out courting developers and World Cup deals, these hardy souls, numbering in the thousands, are making sure the cogs in Whistler’s resort experience are fully oiled, tuned and turning.
They are normal people, sort of. Their hours may not consist of the traditional 9 to 5 grind, but the folks that are waiting tables, slinging beers and peeling potatoes are normal in the sense that most of them are doing what they like best.
"I have a good life," says Stephanie Barbara, a 26-year-old waitress at Caramba! Restaurante.
Barbara’s life is good, no question. Some nights the bubbly server pulls in more than $125 in tips. Add on her $7 an hour wage and you’re talking a pretty good salary for an average four hours of work a night.
But she works hard for the money. Barbara is sporting the necessary "Welcome Home Smile" as described in the 17-page Caramba! Employee Handbook, is quick on her feet and knows exactly when to approach a customer for their drink or entrée order.
She sounds like a psychologist, as she carefully assesses a customer’s readiness to order. "See," she says, motioning toward to a couple sitting in the smoking section, "they’ve pushed their menus aside. We’ll let them smoke a little more, and enjoy their drinks before moving in."
Why do I feel as if I’ve been thrust into Waitering 101?
Serving is indeed part psychology and part performance, as I learned during a brief "shift" — and I use the word "shift" very loosely — at Caramba! last Thursday.
Caramba! is a recent success story. Its light Mediterranean cuisine has attracted an immediate following, and on most weekends during the high season staff log serious mileage in their company requisite black shoes.
It can get real busy, real fast.
Barbara knows her craft. She started in the business when she was 18 and was able to earn her science degree because of it.
"I don’t want to be doing this when I’m 30," she says, and one is led to believe she probably won’t be, although making the break will likely be tough.
"(Serving) is no one’s life ambition, but when you earn this kind of money it’s hard to get out of it."
Still, it allows you the time and freedom to figure out exactly what you want to do in the meantime. And it’s a good party, for a while.
"It’s hard to pass up this comfortable life for what we’re doing," says Barbara.
It’s that social aspect of the work environment that keeps many servers on the floor and bartenders behind the bar. They are constantly meeting people from all corners of the earth and dealing with a totally different set of parameters each shift.
And the people who make up "the business" are just as varied.
"I know people with MBAs who are waiters and doormen, and I know teachers who are still bussing tables," says Jack Hurtubise, a transplanted Montrealer who has served as a dishwasher, prep cook, manager, server, and bartender in his nine years in the business.
Hurtubise wants out. And don’t let anybody else tell you that they don’t want the same, he tells me, ’cause if they are, they are probably lying.
"Most people want to get out more than they care to publicly acknowledge it," he says. "I’m one of those people who is looking forward to getting out of it. I’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel."
What Hurtubise wants is to channel his energies into mountain guiding and then try his hand at heli-ski guiding.
"It’s as much a time commitment and as expensive as a post-secondary degree," he admits, but it will also take him to where he wants to be, high above the nightclub and restaurant scene.
High above a world of fast cash, instant cash. Exposure to that world, he admits, initially tarnished his sense of value for money.
It has had a similar effect on many people in the business. If you’re serving up the finest scotch or a prime rib that is out of this world, what’s to stop you from treating yourself to such desserts as well?
When you’re left with $150 cash in hand at the end of a long shift there is little resistance to spending what you’ve earned. Spend, spend, spend. That is just what many people who blaze a trail through the service industry do.
But they don’t last. The smart ones, as I’m reminded by Buffalo Bill’s bar manager/bartender Jeff Glendinning, are the ones who are careful with their money.
"It can be lucrative, the thing to do is hold onto the money and be wise with it," he says.
There are two types of servers, says Glendinning, a seven-year veteran of Whistler’s service industry. On one hand you have the server who is primarily in the business to support his or her skiing/snowboarding habits. On the other hand you have the server who has decided to live here, put down roots and looks at Whistler’s recreational playground as a bonus.
There are people in the business who have built their own homes in Whistler and there are people in the business who have partied hard for a year or two and then blasted out of town. The latter typically fall under the category of burnout.
"If you are going out and partying every night and coming to work hung over everyday, there is certainly a burnout factor," says Glendinning.
One way of preventing burnout, he adds, is to "make sure front end people are rewarded properly so they are able to keep a smile on their faces."
Give them decent wages, give them decent accommodation, give them some respect. If you do that, then maybe we’ll be able to ensure that this one-industry town holds onto its resort crown. That’s the key to sustainability, says Glendinning.
Once people realize that this is a growth industry — and they are — then more attention will be paid and respect provided to the individuals who make it all happen, he adds.
Simone Beilitcz, a 27-year-old Australian on a year work term in Whistler, has similar beliefs.
"You’ll get so much more performance from happy staff," she says.
But even before you land a job in the biz, especially if you’re a foreigner, you’re faced with a catch-22 situation in Whistlerland.
"You can’t get a job without housing and you can’t get housing without a job," she says.
Most of us are familiar enough with the resort’s housing crunch to understand what she means.
But back to what makes a server serve.
It’s the beaten child syndrome, says Craig Vidal, general manager of Caramba! They serve to satisfy that internal, psychological need for approval. At least some do.
"The best server is the one who is always trying to be your best friend," says Vidal, a server himself for many years in his hometown of Winnipeg.
The server is like an actor, and the table is their stage. They take everything to heart, says Vidal, and sometimes they take it very hard.
The good ones, the ones who are able to last for a while, are extremely outgoing and personable, and their work — not to mention their tips — reflect that.
"The people who really care about each guest they serve are the people who survive," says Vidal. "The ones who are only concerned about tips won’t survive."
Craig Jenkins, manager/bartender at the Savage Beagle, views the business through logical eyes. Rather than seeing it as a flash in the pan, serve ’til you drop kaleidoscope, Jenkins looks at his job as a stepping stone to greater things, albeit outside of the resort.
He’s worked in Whistler’s service industry for five years, served countless partiers and bigwigs, and is sounding a bit cynical about it all. It’s a dead end job, he says after a long shift.
Either you continue what you’re doing, be it behind the bar or on the serving front lines, burn out or get fired and ultimately move out of town, or you’re able to secure a position in the management ranks.
Even then the future is not always so bright.
"I think you have to look at the big picture," says Jenkins. "For the skill level involved it’s good money."
But first and foremost you must be nice to the customers. You know the motto: the customer is always right. Right?
It’s the job. And it just might happen that they’re a big tipper.
Or maybe they’re not.
Everybody has been stiffed at least once in this business. No tip on a $400 bill? It happens.
Hurtubise was a victim of the notorious DND — Dine and Dash — early in his career. Four months after he began waitering in Montreal one of his customers up and bolted, never to be seen again.
"It scarred me early," he says.
That DND cost him $90. Running out on the bill is a constant hazard in Whistler, and the one it hurts most is not the bar, it’s the server. In some cases it may cost the server that evening’s tips. It may even have cost the server to show up for the shift.
The belief that Whistler’s servers are cashing in on a lucrative business is an overhyped myth, says Hurtubise. While tips vary from restaurant to restaurant, people just aren’t the greatest tippers in Whistler, simply because most of them don’t understand the system. If you manage to take home 10 per cent of your sales after cash out, then you’re ahead of the game.
"Everyone seems to think we are damn rich and it’s a myth," he says. "It’s better than retail but I’m certainly not a millionaire. You have to learn to live and die by the tip."
For some individuals employment in the service industry is essential to survival. For 36-year-old single mom Michelene Skakoon the service industry ensures that her two 14-year-old twin boys are fed and the rent is paid. It also gets her out of the house.
"My job raising kids is high stress, so it’s nice to have a joe-job," the ex-Torontonian says, adding with a laugh that "there’s nothing that a table in my section could do to me that compares to the harassment of my kids."
For most individuals who work in the biz, serving provides an unparalleled adrenaline rush. Greg Garland, former manager of Gaitors, calls it "a natural high."
"And I don’t think there are too many jobs in the world where you can get a rush like that... legally," he says.
"Every table is like an adventure, you totally have to be quick on your feet... you just don’t know what to expect," she says. "I could never work in an office, I could never sit still. That’s why it’s good for a person who’s really energetic. You’re not fighting your natural tendencies."
NEXT WEEK: Unions, employment standards, and why one server couldn’t wait to hand in her tray.