“Can I get you started with something to drink? This is Wine Down Tuesday at Volare, all our wines are half-price — and if you can’t finish it, you can take it home.”
“Not finishing is never a problem for us,” the woman says with a laugh. But they think wine is a fine idea and order a good Oregon Pinot Noir.
While bussers quietly deliver napkin-lined trays of fresh foccacia and Italian bread, Deborah Deletti-Renier recites the day’s specials. She rolls out “agrodolce sauce” in what sounds like perfect Italian, then describes the week’s five-course Italian regional dinner in appetizing detail.
These guests are regulars. They know what they like, and they feel free to ask for substitutions. Can the green beans of the day be replaced with broccoli? How about whole-wheat pasta in the marinara?
Deborah jots down their orders in her notebook in neat block print.
I’m standing a step behind her, wearing all black to blend in. I’ll shadow every step she takes, trying to hear her every word, taking note of everything she does, recording a day in the life of a top server at a fine restaurant, with all its fun and frustrations, slips and slides and laughter and generous tips.
At 24. Deborah Deletti-Renier has worked in food service for a decade, starting out helping her mother cater wedding banquets, then taking a job as server at an Italian restaurant in Franklin, Mass., at 17. In Louisville, she has served at Oscar Brown’s, Bravo and Rocky’s and now Volare Italian Restaurant. She loves the work and does it well, but has no intention of making table service her lifelong career. She’s taking business and management courses at Sullivan University, dreaming of owning her own business some day.
Deb arrived a little early for her 5-to-11 shift on Tuesday so she could eat before work. Although servers may order from the menu for half-price, she has thriftily brought food from home, including a tub of Yoplait peach yogurt that she’ll stash in a bar fridge for quick energy pickups during the evening.
She picks up a printout of the evening’s specials. Sous Chef Joshua Moore is running the kitchen tonight; Chef Dallas McGarrity is out in the East End giving a pasta-cooking demonstration. She seems to commit the specials to memory in a flash. By the time she approaches the evening’s first couple, she’s good to go.
Taking their order, she moves briskly to a computer station in a secluded nook near the restrooms and keys in the details on a touch screen, setting up a running ticket that can be accessed from any server computer and in the kitchen. Another server steps in to take over the station when she’s finished, asking, “Doing all right?” “Always,” she says with a confident smile.
Special requests require direct communication with the kitchen, so Deb hustles in and catches Chef Moore’s eye. Broccoli? Can’t do it … there’s none in the house, so she’ll suggest asparagus as an alternative substitute. Whole-wheat pasta is no problem. Back to the computer, she punches in the pasta substitution.
Next, it’s over to the bar, where alcoholic-beverage control regulations require a meticulous process. The bartender passes over a bottle and a receipt that she stabs onto a metal spike to keep an inventory paper trail. She hefts the bottle, cradles it on a white cloth napkin, and presents it to the couple for inspection. Deftly uncorking, she pours a small sample, waits for the diner’s approval, then pours. They sip and smile. Volare has long stocked the tables with olive oil dispensers so diners can pour their own to dip the breads. Recently they’ve been experimenting with garlic butter instead, but most “regulars” have learned to request the oil, and sure enough, these folks want it. Deb is happy to comply, a service that requires another quick trip to the kitchen.
It’s still early, but the pace is picking up in the kitchen. The servers have a little time on their hands, though; the evening rush won’t begin for another hour or so. Deb doesn’t much care for idleness, and keeps herself busy. She rounds up salt and pepper shakers, wipes and polishes and refills them.
The five-course menu features a “trio” made up of three desserts from the Abruzzo region of Central Italy, and she decides to order one for tasting so she can describe them to diners. Meanwhile, she’s keeping a close eye on her early table, refilling their glasses and replacing used utensils. That’s one of associate general manager Tarek Hamada’s serious rules, she said. Extra knives, forks and spoons are spotted around the room on napkin-lined trays called “marking trays” for quick and handy access. Was a fork used? Replace it. “We never want to have someone reaching for a fork and finding it dirty.”
The first table’s dinners are up, a simple meal of thin-sliced sauteed veal paillard flanked by a ration of spaghetti marinara — yes, on whole-wheat pasta — and a fresh arugula salad. Balancing both large plates on her left forearm, Deb glides across the room and up the two steps to her section with a tightrope walker’s grace.
Deborah would really like to do something special for this couple, who are regular and friendly visitors. “We have a dessert on the house for you,” she announces, planning to treat them to the Abruzzo trio. They really don’t want it, though. “We’re too old. We’re trying to be healthy,” the woman says. OK then, how about a glass of dessert wine? They don’t want a sticky-sweet Moscato either, but … how about another Pinot Noir? Problem solved! They accept with pleasure and happily sniff and swirl their glasses. With a quick and efficient series of moves, she clears away their dishes and, after a discreet interval, presents a check for $38.12. The couple leave, full and happy. “You are very good,” they tell Deb, who smiles. She takes a quick glance at the check and smiles again when she sees the generous tip.
A little more downtime. I wonder aloud if it’s going to be a quiet night. “Just wait,” she says. Tuesdays are usually dead in the restaurant business, but the half-price wine program has been filling the place on what might otherwise be a somnolescent evening. Kentucky’s recent “wine doggie bag” law is popular too. Now that it’s legal for consumers to recork and take home a partly consumed bottle of wine, many diners who previously wouldn’t have considered a full bottle feel free to go for it — especially on half-price night — knowing they can finish the leftovers another day.
Deb kills time by polishing and refilling the salt and pepper shakers on the patio.
The Volare crew operates smoothly as a team. Servers backstop each other if one gets “in the weeds,” server slang for “overwhelmed.” If guests come in the front door and the hostess has stepped away from her station, whoever’s nearby will step in with an immediate greeting. “We don’t want people to have to wait, no matter what,” says Hamada.
A few more parties have come in, but Deb’s station is still quiet. All her salt and peppers are full and shiny now, so she dampens a cloth napkin with hot water from the espresso machine and polishes the already sparkling glassware.
Suddenly traffic picks up perceptibly. A group of three comes in, and Hamada ushers them to Deb’s station. They seem wary, frowning, concerned whether they’ll get “a quiet table.” They reject one or two choices before settling in at a corner table. Another couple comes in and settles down at a table for two. Faced with two tables at once, Deb turns first to the quiet-table trio. “Hi! How are you? I see you’re looking at the Abruzzi menu. Are you interested?” “Well, tell us about it.”
She complies, running briefly through the five courses.
“So, where’s Abruzzo?”
“Central Italy … and we have a good Abruzzo wine, Montepulciano, to go with it.”
“Can you substitute dishes?”
If “have it your way” isn’t Volare’s motto, perhaps it should be. If a patron wishes something different, the kitchen will make it if possible, although more offbeat requests (in one famous instance, veal saltimbocca made with sea bass) may remain the stuff of kitchen gossip for months. She recites the other specials, no longer needing to peek at her cheat sheet, and backs off to give them time. “My name’s Deborah, if you need anything.” (This becomes a mantra … although servers at Volare do not introduce themselves a la T.G.I. Friday’s, she’ll mention her name several times during the meal to make guests feel comfortable about asking for her.)
She turns to the “two-top,” taking both tables’ orders before entering them into the system (not noticing that the older woman at the table for three scowled when she went to the other table without entering their order first).
The trio took advantage of Wine Down Tuesday to enjoy a fancy Chardonnay at half its $90 wine-list price. This wine needed a standing ice bucket, which Deb filled with several scoops of ice from the bar. Things were getting a little complicated now, or at least it looked that way to me. She hustled an iced tea and a glass of wine to the table for two, put down spoons, assured the patrons that their soup would be arriving shortly, and added, varying the mantra slightly, “My name’s Deborah if you need anything.”
Then it was back to the bar, where the Chardonnay was chilled and ready, and she went through the opening and tasting ritual, offering the glass to the younger woman, who frowned a little before accepting the wine. “Did you decide on something for dinner?” “In a minute,” said the man, not smiling.
“OK … my name’s Deborah, if you need anything,” she repeated, exiting stage right, but returning quickly with olive oil.
She keys in the first table’s appetizer order, then returns to perform the pepper-shaker ritual over their soups, brandishing a wooden peppermill the size of a Louisville Slugger.
The trio is ready to order now, and they’ve got a few special requests. One would like spinach in place of green beans. Umm … remember, there’s a spinach crisis going on? “Oh! I forgot,” she says. Deb suggests an asparagus option, but no, green beans it will be. A few more substitution requests prompt Deb to whisper, once she’s out of earshot, “Let’s just make up our own dishes,” but she doesn’t really mind, and the computer system makes it easy.
The pace of the whole restaurant seems to pick up and the happy noise level rises. A third table at Deb’s station fills with a party of four, and she is finding her rhythm. “I like it when it’s busy,” she confides. “When you’re busy, you’re in the groove, and there’s no time to slow down and make mistakes.”
She spots an empty glass on a ledge, grabs it and runs it back to the dish room adjacent to the kitchen. Is this near-obsessive attention to order a Volare rule or a Deborah rule? “Both, really,” she chuckles. “But mostly Deborah. I’m a neat-nik.”
Volare’s servers, like kabuki stagehands, move almost invisibly through the room in black long-sleeve shirts, black aprons, black slacks, black shoes.
Deb’s eyes are always open, always moving. Even when taking a complicated order, she’s checking her other tables out of the corner of her eye, making sure no one is in desperate need.
How can she possibly keep track of all these orders? There’s a system: Each table is numbered (her group of four is Table 54), and each seat is numbered, with the individual facing the hostess station in Seat No. 1, then going clockwise around the table. Each order goes into the computer linked to the patron’s table and seat number, so — assuming all goes well, and it usually does — the correct dish goes to the right place with no questions asked.
Deb slips through the narrow server corridor adjacent to the kitchen to see if anything’s ready for her tables. “86 the Vesuvio,” Chef Moore yells, warning that the evening’s chicken special has sold out early. “I just got the last one,” laughs Deb.
Suddenly every table in the house is full, including the patio and the tall tables near the bar. The noise level is high but happy, and the pace has accelerated from adagio to presto. Deb deals out fresh plates to two tables at once. The lights dim as a pianist starts coaxing mellow jazz from the keyboards.
With four tables working, Deb is literally running to keep up now, but still smiling, loving it. One table gets its apps; at the table for three, the gentleman ordered the five-course meal while his companions chose individual dishes, requiring a little planning and orchestration to keep their meal flowing smoothly, but Deb is up to the task. She is constantly on the move, keeping tables clear, replacing used silverware, friendly yet unobtrusive. I haven’t seen her sit down all evening; she rarely stands still except perhaps to retie her black apron, a move that seems to be necessary every 15 minutes or so. Every time she delivers a plate, she blurts out “Enjoy!” You sort of expect her to say “Mangia!”
“I like to be busy,” she said. “It makes things go easy and fast.” Suiting action to words, “I’ll go check on their food. It’s been a little while.”
“Right about now is when you start to get hungry,” she says. She grabs her yogurt when she needs a quick energy hit. A spoonful or two, and she’s good to go.
Back to her station, circling her tables, taking care not to hover or interrupt, she is always checking, watching, replace a fork here, take a plate there. A request for an extra veggie and she buzzes out of the kitchen holding aloft a small white plate loaded with perfect green beans, trailing a cloud of garlic aroma. The folks at the table for two are relaxing after their meal, enjoying their wine … there’s no need to hurry.
Let’s give Table 54 some more bread. She goes to the kitchen, grabs a whole flat loaf of foccacia and a long white Italian loaf out of a warming oven and carves off a generous ration of each in quick, neat slices, with a chef’s precision. She tucks them into neatly folded white napkins, pops them on silver trays and gets them out, hustle hustle hustle. A busser brings back a pair of untouched cannoli. Using a clean knife and fork — no touching! — she slides them into in a neat black-plastic take-home box with a clear lid.
Action between the kitchen and the dining rooms is at its peak, and it’s like watching a ballet to see everyone maneuver, amazing that they never seem to collide. “Don’t back up,” warns a busser, sliding through behind her, holding aloft a large tray heavily burdened with plates and glasses.
Another quick spoon of yogurt, on the fly, and a quick round of coffee refills, taking care that decaf drinkers get the pot with the orange lid.
It’s dark outside now, and the small white lights in the trees along Frankfort Avenue outside the bar windows twinkle. There are so many things to do: Replace stacks of coffee saucers. Restock tea bags in the shiny mahogany serving box. Table 54 needs clearing! A busser is on his way. Deb heads out with two hot teas and a decaf coffee.
The “quiet table” trio leaves, apparently quite satisfied in spite of the occasional frowns. They thank Deb and leave a decent tip … and sign the credit card slip with a smiley face.
It’s still busy, still full of happy noise and unobtrusive keyboard music, but suddenly there’s a sense that the evening has peaked and will now start to wind down. A few tables clear, and most of the diners are lingering over wine or coffee and desserts now. General Manager Majid Ghavami, who’s away in Los Angeles with his family, checks in by phone. “Deb, he’s writing down everything you say,” he warns. She laughs … and blurts out this information, and sure enough, I do write it down.
Deb’s main chore of the moment is keeping coffee cups warmed. She clears plates and glasses from one table, joking with the patrons. They laugh, loving it. More tables are ready to settle up, and the computer makes it easy to split the check. She pulls down the entire tab, then clicks and drags to move one couple’s dishes into a second column. The system does the rest, printing out each party’s itemized total on separate checks.
All her tables have received their checks now. It’s the shank of the evening, and I’m about worn out just from following her around. All this time on my feet is hard work for a guy who’s more used to bellying up to the dinner table than waiting on one. Was it a rough night? She chuckles: “No, a walk in the park.”
Table 54 is still hanging around and chatting, which is fine … there’s no hurry. You’ll never feel rushed at Volare. Even so, Deb quietly points out a server’s trick: Keep the tables cleared and neat at the end of the evening; it’s a discreet signal that dinner is over. Indeed, the group settles up, and Deb shows a toothy grin as she comes down the steps cradling an armload of credit-card folders, whispering, “OK, wrap it up!”
There’s still cleanup to do, and everyone pitches in to fold napkins, pack glasses into dishwasher trays, clean and polish the espresso station. It’s hard work at the end of a hard shift, but there’s a lot of laughter. These people seem to genuinely like each other, and that makes the work go fast.
It’s time for the servers to “cash out.” Deb must reconcile a stack of receipts and computer printouts to make sure the numbers add up. She pulls up a stool, and I realize that this is the first time I’ve seen her sit down all evening.
Most servers aren’t wild about the American tipping tradition, she and others say. Servers are exempt from minimum-wage laws and are expected to make much of their income from tips voluntarily provided by customers; tips are taxable, and a percentage must be paid regardless of how much the server actually earned.
Tips are further shared with fellow staff, a cash process called “tipping out.” Bussers get 15 percent of her tip income, “food runners” take 6 percent, and 10 percent goes back to the bartender. Deb says she’s OK with this. “With our clientele, if you do a good job, you’ll get your 20 percent.” And if an occasional table stiffs her, she says, “I don’t take it personally.”
Still, a competent server at an upscale restaurant can make a decent living. We’ll pull a discreet veil over the details, but it’s fair to say that, after “tipping out,” she tucked well over $100 into her purse at the end of a six-hour shift, on an evening that she described as “a little less than average.” She works six nights a week at Volare, tending bar on Sunday and Monday evenings while serving tables on Tuesdays, Thursdays and tip-rich Fridays and Saturdays.
What kind of personality traits make for a great restaurant server? Watching Deborah Deletti-Renier work, I suggest terms like “extroverted,” “likes people,” “lots of energy” and “very good memory.” She smiles agreement, but adds, “Effervescent!” Eh? It turns out that her friends still tease her about a complimentary customer comment card she once received: “They should bottle her effervescence and sell it as an aperitif.”
I’ll buy that. Especially on Wine Down Tuesday.
Contact the writer at [email protected]