I never thought it was possible to make less than minimum wage, that the word “minimum” truly meant what it said and I would be guaranteed at least that wage or higher. By the way, minimum wage in 1999 was $4.85 an hour, but in that same year I got a job that paid me $2.13 an hour, and I was happy to have it. For a number of reasons.
When I first arrived in Tennessee, I knew I would have to find a job, but I had absolutely no real experience, no real schooling, and no idea what the job market was like. I know, that sounds like a recipe for success, but after three months of living in Knoxville I still hadn’t found anything suitable for me. I had applied to office buildings, to mall stores, and even to a hotel in the area, but nothing panned out. The office buildings weren’t actually hiring, the mall stores weren’t in the middle of the holiday rush so they weren’t hiring either, and the hotel wanted me to have some business experience.
Finally, I just got up one day, walked down to “The Strip,” and was hired straightaway — without interview, mind you — at O’Charley’s Sports Grille and Bar as a server. I hadn’t even expected to get a job after so much failure, but I guess I should have recognized what it meant that they hired me right away and wanted me to start the very next day. After I accepted the job they told me that I would be making $2.13 an hour — and, oh yeah, plus tips. What they didn’t say was that tips were split equally between each server on the same shift, so even if I got a $100 dollar tip I wouldn’t pocket $100 dollars. Ouch.
Then they gave me a Squirrel card and an apron. The apron was a rather stylish navy color, with three pockets, but the Squirrel card just gave me harsh flashbacks when I looked at it (the rabid squirrel story is forthcoming later in the annals of this blog). I turned the card upside down so I didn’t have to look at the charlatan’s smiling little face. The manager told me that the Squirrel card was invaluable, and I soon found out why. You see, Squirrel cards were used by all the servers in order to put orders into the computer stations when customers ordered food. It was how we kept each order straight and how the kitchen staff received and cooked each order. Squirrel cards were also handy for bar orders as well. And it was my responsibility to keep track of that card. I thought it would be easy.
Meanwhile, I was also handed three t-shirts with “O’Charley’s” emblazoned across the front, I had to purchase several pairs of khakis, and I found some Timberland boots to complete the ensemble. One of the first things I had to do was go to a seminar and apply for an ABC card, the card I would need in order to distribute alcohol legally. Then I was trained to be a server, something I had never done before. I would be given a section of the restaurant (sections were numbered 1 through 10) during each shift, and if the host seated someone in my section I had to be ready to serve them. I also had to learn the daily specials, the daily drink specials, and the timing of returning to the table, etc. It all seemed so tedious at the time. I just wanted to make my $2.13 an hour already, but eventually the training was over and I started work.
The craziest thing about O’Charley’s was the shift hours. The restaurant opened at 11 every morning, but no one routinely came in until after 12, so whenever I was scheduled for an 11 o’clock shift I had to be there 10 minutes early and I would generally sit at the bar until 12:15 or so. Sometimes it would be nearly 1 o’clock until anyone was seated by the host in my assigned section. As the “newbie” I always got tables, and most people wanted booths. That’s why it would sometimes take ages for me to be seated.
I took to bringing a book to pass the time. If I worked an 11 o’clock shift, I would be expected to work until 6 or 7 at night. If, however, I was assigned the 5 o’clock, I would have to close the restaurant at 11 at night, and sometimes even work until the bar closed at 2 in the morning. One of the worst was a 5 o’clock shift followed by an 11 o’clock the next day. Luckily I was young, but it was hard to get back “on schedule” when I had a day off from work.
O’Charley’s was sports themed (hence the name), so it featured six huge screens in the main restaurant area, each one turned to a different sporting event. One of the highlights of my time there was in March when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament chose Knoxville as the spot for the South Regional Semi-Finals. While the entire city was overrun with fans from Auburn, St. John’s, Maryland, and Ohio State, we were particularly busy at O’Charley’s, being one of only three sports-themed food establishments available for those fans who descended en masse. For those four days it was absolute pandemonium going to work. From the moment I entered the place until the time I left I was constantly double, triple, and quadruple-seated. That was when I thanked god for my Squirrel card to keep everything straight.
It was rough, though, most of the time, relying on mostly tips to survive. Some problems with tips were that not everyone tipped at the same percentage, not everyone even tipped, not every server gave the best service, there was a built-in tip for groups (at 10%) so most of them felt they didn’t have to give more, and some shifts were just slow (like on Easter). From week to week there was no telling how much money I would be able to bring home, and I was the only one working in my household, so it was really hard having all the uncertainty. I didn’t mind being a server, but the lack of consistency shortened my time at O’Charley’s.
I am thankful, though, for my time there, because it was a job that was offered to me when I couldn’t seem to get another one. It sustained my household, even with the uncertainty for a few months, and it gave me experience in food service that helped me get my next job. At times I look back on it and I laugh at all the times I got upset at the host for not seating me, or when an underaged kid would try her best to get me to serve her alcohol. My favorite times, though, were when the whole restaurant was moving like a well-oiled machine and I would be at the bar just as much as I was in the kitchen. Those were the good days.