Dishin' That: Summertime serving, and the livin' ain't easy

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Hospitality workers have a mixed-emotions love affair with the seasonal weather elements.

When the weather is heavenly, and Maine rightfully earns the sunny “Vacationland” moniker, we see the flowing tide of increased dining headcounts and higher sales overall. Individual tip percentages aren’t necessarily above the norm, but at the end of the shift, that wad of cash is a surely thicker.

Many places keep the kitchen open later, capitalizing on late-night menus that will be discontinued around Columbus Day. Others design an operationally easier, tourist-friendly summer menu with subtle price hikes, noticeable only to the trained eye. And still others are simply in the right place at the right time, reinforcing the cliche that location is everything. (Just ask the good folks at Three Dollar Deweys. They need to hire someone with the sole responsibility of making free popcorn).

In real time, the full length of Commercial Street is clogged from Benkay to Becky’s, and it’s hard to remember the peak-season window of higher cash-flow is short. Those of us who have made the choice to stay in the business through the leaner, yet less-maddening months, have to become budgeting experts. And it isn’t easy.

Kristy Jackson, a 40ish pastry chef and multi-station line expert, has worked at Pier 77, and the popular Ramp sports bar (tucked below the larger, more formal restaurant), in Kennebunkport for eight years. The single mother of a daughter going into middle school, Jackson has mastered the art of squirreling money away.

“You have to save every extra dollar,” Jackson said. “I just put my head down and work, work, work while the hours are there. But we’re open year round and I work for good people, so I’m pretty lucky. I have a set schedule in the winter and sometimes can pick up food-running shifts. But planning ahead is definitely something everyone in the business needs to think about.”

A diplomatic team player, what Jackson failed to mention is how exhausted she is at the end of each overtime-filled work week. Not unlike my own two kids when they were younger, Jackson’s daughter goes with the flow of mom being gone on prime weekend beach days, and summer evenings when grilling out at home would be the preferred method of cooking. Jackson’s rare days off are devoted to such activities, but laundry, grocery shopping, and day-to-day errands are nearly non-existent.

Professional hospitality workers, at least the tipped ones, aren’t the only people who work harder and longer in the summer months. They are, however, in a group that seldom applies or qualifies for unemployment.

So, here are a few recommendations for those of you new to the seasonal hospitality (or perhaps any) work life:

1 — Buy home heating oil now. It’s under $1.75 per gallon this week, which is a great price. Or, stash away rent money.

2 — Do your holiday shopping online before school starts. can’t give the stuff away fast enough.

3 — Go in with a coworker on a BJ’s or Sam’s Club membership.

4 — If your job is truly seasonal, start looking for other work immediately. College kids are shipping off and many places will be staffing for holiday parties and functions. Do not discount the fast cash that can be made from these gigs.

5 — Did you like the job? Have a conversation with management about next year. Will you have seniority? Can you lock in a 2016 summer schedule now?

While Jackson and the rest of us squirrel away the best we can, we’re also looking forward to that wonderful summer-fall shoulder season. The money dwindles a bit, but the free time compensates. With a little luck, we, too, can hit the beach, making our own personal relationship with Vacationland even better.

Peas & Qs

A tip of the serving tray to David’s 388 front-of-the-house manager Kelly, and her small staff of ace servers at the South Portland eatery. “We were reviewed a while back,” she called to tell me. “The reviewer made mention of the ‘middle-aged servers.’ It was in a good way in terms of our efficiency, but we still joke about it.”

At the risk of nitpicking and sounding painfully politically correct (#olderfemaleserversmatter), I have a question for our readers, rather than the other way around this week:

Why is it relevant and/or acceptable for the reviewer to use the term “middle-aged servers?” Do we ever read about the “gracefully aging sous chef” or the “AARP-eligible male chef du cuisine?” Unless it’s a review of  Hooters, do we need adjective-laden descriptions of dewy-faced, youthful, female servers?

My answer, and the point I’ve been making for weeks? No, we don’t need those things because a) pretty, young female servers in greater Portland are just a given, and b) it simply shouldn’t matter.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.