Getting Answers: Waiters — and More — Tell All

The stories they could tell

Part of the thrall of the open road? Munching through roadside diners, street carts, and five-star finds.

Yahoo! has been going On the Road not just at concerts, but also at many dining hotspots across the country. Naturally, those places have been impeccable

It is true, though, that culinary adventures in a strange place can come with its share of misadventures. You may know the best bartender at your corner dive or the dirty secret that has you avoiding the local hot hangout, but those secrets are a bit harder to scout out when you're traveling. Chowhound and Yelp can help (and the latter has even started running health inspector reviews in San Francisco and New York City).

The science behind the seconds "rule"

Are your hands faster than salmonella? The three- or five-seconds rule involve a few assumptions: all the worst germs collect on the floor and that we move faster than bacteria. Well, this was disputed in 2003 and then again in 2007 with salmonella-smeared flooring. But hope sprang eternal again, as Manchester Metropolitan University researchers found that foods with lower water content and protective elements like sugar and salt survived the contact, while pasta and dried fruit picked up the nasty stuff. The cleaner the floor, the less the contamination — and since most restaurants abide by federal law cleaning standards, maybe eating off their floors might be even better than eating off some of your dishes. But we wouldn't count on it ... or count much pass five.

So can Yahoo! Answers: We asked what really happens behind that swinging door, and house staff — bartenders, waiters, cooks — served up some secrets, both unappetizing and reassuring. The good news is, people who love the biz wouldn't trade it for anything else. And for those who are passing through, they get the kind of immersion into life that you can't match anyplace else.

Related: Comedian Craig Robinson's undercover yogurt shop stunt

Tough work if you can get it
Before we get into some confessions, here's a working-class reality: The federal minimum wage for service people who receive tips is only $2.13. While employers are legally supposed to make up any gaps if the tips don't add up to the hourly federal minimum ($7.25), not all do so.

Answerer 10 says in her one-year stint at a restaurant, the pay was the minimum $2.13, with the average tip being $2. They couldn't sit, there was no breakroom, and only people who worked a double shift got breaks. "'If you can lean, you can clean,' was our managers' favorite thing to say."

If you've watched enough "Kitchen Nightmares" or follow anything that Anthony Bourdain says, then you know drama is part of the mix — and with everyone squeezed in and cooking temperatures high, a lot can happen. "Gossip gossip gossip!" is the least harmless on the list that Answerer 3, a waitress and college student, gives — the others being dirty jokes, racism, drugs, hangovers, fights and "sex in the meat freezer."

Speaking of "Kitchen Nightmares," there are "Raymsay wannabees [sic] who experience little joy outside the torment of others," confides Answerer 26, a cook for 17 years. "From the dishdog to the owner, there will be SOMEBODY in [the kitchen] that can't handle their emotions." The release? Sometimes puffing on legal and illegal substances, a lot of colorful language, maybe poking a bit of fun at a customer.

"Once we had a girl that came depressed to work, drank wine before the shift started and served people drunk!" relates Answerer 20, a 19-year-old who's only worked in restaurants so far. "She of course got fired. But it was hilarious."

Luckily, Answerer 2 reassures readers, "the entire staff of a restaurant is really close with one another." But more on those rewards, later.

Related: John Legend talks cooking skills

The customer is always right — but he can still be a jerk
The conditions may or may not be bad behind the scenes, but out there customers can be brutal. Waitstaff, being the main line of communication, often bear the brunt of hostility to the food, the menu prices, even the music. "[W]e, as servers, just had to grin and pretend it was our own mistake, no matter how rude the customer was about it," says Answerer 10, who adds — like many others sharing their tales — everything that came out on a plate was treated with respect.

Unfortunately, that's not quite the food-court buffet experience of Answerer 5. "The worst thing I have ever done is cheat people on the amount of food they get if they were nasty," confesses Answerer 5, who has witnessed worse acts from fellow co-workers that include spitting and mixing food in the trash can.

"Your attitude makes all the difference in your food," Answerer 5 advises. Sure, it may be unfair if the servers are rude, but for pure self-preservation, "common sense should tell you to hold your attitude or complaint until after you have gotten and paid for your food."

To relieve the tension, yes, waitstaff makes fun of the customers "if they are pretty mean or ignorant," Answerer 7 reveals. "Like the kind of person that complains about everything, they are unhappy before they even sit down." For instance, one patron was angry that she waited 45 minutes without knowing that her friend had been sitting elsewhere in the restaurant. The catch: The patron never told anyone she was waiting, even when the waitstaff checked in. "I mean I know its [sic] my job to sit you together but I am not a mind reader. I can only do so much." And we'll leave you to reach Answerer 16's revelations about what customers can do to restrooms.

The good news, according to Answerer 7, is that "most people are great to serve." And to be fair, Answerer 8 points out, people who work in the industry are "the most demanding and annoying clients when going in (other) restaurants! :)"

Mistakes happen
Time for true confessions. "[W]e sometimes honestly get clean and dirty water glasses mixed up," admits thefinalresult.

"The one thing that tends to always happen regardless of restaurant, when rolling silverware, we will often grab the ends where you eat from," Answerer 2, a professional in the field for more than 10 years, confides. "This is done mostly by rushing to get it done, but sometimes, people just don't care enough to avoid it." And more than one contributor admits that there could be more handwashing, especially after handling cash.

Then there's the notorious three- to five-second rule (see the sidebar for the science behind that wisdom). When food or silverware drops to the floor, does your nimble waitstaff restore the fallen goods and serve them up to unsuspecting diners? More than a few answerers copped to restoring a dropped dish — and one place even rinsed a roast. Then again, more than a few answerers said that they would never, ever serve anything that touched the ground.

So props — of some sort — to those servers willing to eat returned food, per Answerer 10. Maybe that's what makes them stronger.

Don't look too closely at your dish
There are times when you're bound to run out of something, but what if you don't want to disappoint your customers? At one fine-dining establishment, a private party of 50 went through the rosé supply and demanded more of the spirits. The quick-witted but devious manager had two guys mix up red and white to create pink. "When we started serving we realized our homemade mixture was more popular than the real stuff," claims Felonious Monkey.

Answerer 19, who helped in the kitchens of a camp, diner, and truck stop, remembered one place where an old army cook used ham in the creamed dried beef. "[O]nce it's fried up and mixed in the sauce, you can't tell the difference," points out Answerer 19, who addresses at least one religion's dietary concern: "Before anyone raises the kosher objection, if you're keeping kosher you shouldn't be eating beef in a cream sauce, either."

A caterer warns to avoid breakfast buffets: Scrambled eggs are liquid egg substitutes that go through a microwave, sausages stew in fat, mushrooms of uncertain vintage come frozen, the tap water might've spent some time in the kitchen sink, the juices are watered down. "[A]nd finally, the has browns," Answerer 4 writes, "I have no idea what they even are."

It's (more than) a living
Waiting is "probably one of thee [sic] most unappreciated jobs out there," Owly says. Answerer 27, who worked as a waitress for 16 years before becoming a steakhouse general manger, agrees: "We work every holiday, we work our birthdays, we give up our normal lives and we are under appreciated!"

Yet the payoffs are undeniable, from being part of a "little dysfunctional family" to learning to be a "master of everything," Answerer 27 says. "It is the only job where you get instant feedback if you're doing a good job or not. I have made some super friends over the years that are our regular guests. And it beats the hell out of a cubicle!"

As long as you have good people working alongside you, Answerer 20 says, a tough job may be its own reward — well, that and compliments and a decent tip. "20 percent will put a smile on our faces. Thanks."