Chronicles of a chicken wing waitress

A glimpse into the lives of fast-food workers

Victoria Ernst, Staff Writer

Last summer, I started a nonprofit, assisted in discovering a new antibiotic, saved an endangered species, had dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin, ended world hunger, cured cancer, met Stephen Hawking and established a colony in space.

 That almost sounded believable at first. Some Washington and Lee students could say they did a few of those things (kudos to y’all). I can sort of say I attempted to end world hunger. After all, I did give lots of free food away while waitressing at Buffalo Wild Wings. 

 Yeah, I was a waitress at Buffalo Wild Wings. I used to work at a local restaurant in a wealthier part of Long Island where my customers treated me very well. That job made me love waitressing; it was a game of how well I could read my audience and tell them what they wanted to hear.

 While I was away at school, the restaurant hired more staff to replace me. My boss could only offer me one shift a week, which I happily accepted. But one shift a week wasn’t going to be enough to fund my shopping addiction. 

 So I found a job posting for Buffalo Wild Wings in a neighboring, less affluent town. With an hourly wage of $10 plus tips, it seemed like a good gig on paper. I should have been more suspicious when my manager immediately gave me the job, no questions asked. 

 I began my training with a middle-aged immigrant from Columbia, who for the purposes of this article I shall call Michael. He was a short, stout man with a heavy accent and thick glasses, but he could run laps around the establishment.

 Michael, whose face always gleamed with perspiration, took two hours to explain the menu in unnecessary detail to me, as if I had just awoken from a coma. He knew I had serving experience. How could he treat me like I was so incompetent? I go to Washington and Lee University. 

 After seeing some of the staff who came and left in a matter of weeks, I understood why he did. The fast-food industry burns through staff like wildfire. So many short-term employees either lacked the common sense to do the job or couldn’t take the fussy customers. 

 I was thrown on the floor after five days of shadowing Michael. Three servers, without a busser or food runner, simultaneously took care of 25 tables.  We cleared our own tables, served our customers their food and catered to every one of their outrageous requests. This was the modus operandi of the understaffed Buffalo Wild Wings in Westbury. 

 It was a Tuesday, so we ran our “buy-one-get-one 50% off” deal on traditional wings. The place was packed. I had forty tables in five hours. I had to move quickly, while personalizing the experience with my tables as much as possible.

 I greeted every table with the same line, verbatim. I couldn’t afford to spare any more time. I talked so fast when greeting my tables that my voice came out in a southern accent. Every shift, at least two of my tables asked me where I was from. While most of them loved it, some poked fun at my “accent.” I was just trying to do my job, and frankly, a southern accent sounded a lot friendlier than the New Yorker in me.

 “Hi, welcome to Buffalo Wild Wings. How are y’all doing? My name’s Victoria and I’ll be taking care of y’all tonight. Can I get y’all something to drink?” 

 The average drink order for a table of four took about two minutes, the average food order about five. 

 Most orders went something like this:

 “Uhhh. I’ll take the 10-piece traditional, wait no boneless, wings.”

 “Okay sir, 10-piece boneless. Which flavor would you like?”

 “Umm, well what flavors do you have?”

 “We have a whole list of 26 flavors right on the menu.”

 “Oh. Hm. I didn’t see that.” He paused for ten seconds as he stared at the list on the front of the menu.

 “Sir, I can come back to you if you need more time.” 

 “No, no, that’s okay, I’ll take buffalo.”

 “Sir, we have five different kinds of buffalo: mild, medium, hot, original, or dry rub.”

 “Oh, uhhh, well I don’t really like spicy.”

 “I would recommend mild then.”

 “Oh. Okay. I’ll take the hot sauce.”

 There was more to this conversation, but it doesn’t take Dr. Seuss’s creativity to imagine how the rest of it went. If it was a promotion day, more than half of the time, I’d also have to explain what buy one-get-one means. 

 You can picture the logistical nightmare as five other tables are simultaneously waiting to be served, the cooks are waiting for orders to go out and the bartender is stirring up drinks for the entire floor and a whole bar. 

 Customers were easily aggravated. They did have to wait extended periods of time, but on nights when we were running promotions and their food was already dirt cheap, they should have expected so. Oh, and they loved asking me, as I held a tray of food weighing a quarter of my body weight with one arm, for extra celery and carrots to “compensate for their troubles.” 

 At the end of the night, each server had to sweep some 500 square feet of carpet with a broom from the dollar store. People managed to make crumbs out of saucy chicken wings. While I was sweeping my section and waiting for my last table to leave around 12:15 a.m., my customer struck up a conversation. 

 “It is crazy how no one wants to work these days.”

 He had said this after waiting for 30 minutes for his food. My true self would love to say, “it’s crazy how no one wants to cook for themselves these days,” but at that point I still wanted to keep my job. 

 If only that man understood that we averaged 10% on tips. Because of the sheer number of tables we’d get in a shift, we’d walk out with good money, but we’d have to work for it. For most people, an unemployment check was more appealing.

 My coworkers and I bonded over our resentment for the job because we all faced the same degradation. We loathed the way our customers barked demands at us with little or no thanks.

 The difference between us was that I was temporary. I worked there because I wanted to have extra cash for my peace of mind. They needed to work there to be financially secure. They were working to pay for their basic necessities.

 Michael had worked at Buffalo Wild Wings for 10 years and had been in the fast-food industry for 20. He never went to college, but he paid for both of his sons’ educations and always spoke so fondly of them. His oldest son was going to dental school, and he was so excited to show me pictures. 

 I also became acquainted with a dishwasher, Jacob, who had moved to the United States from Nigeria five years ago. He was excited because he had just bought his first car, a used 2005 Honda Civic. But he worried that he would have to get a new job because his rent on his shanty apartment was about to go up. 

 By the end of the summer, I was burnt out. I had several tables walk out without paying their bill, berate me for forgetting to bring them extra blue cheese and write zero on the line for tip every shift. I was starting to get a hunchback, like Michael, from sweeping the shaggy carpet. 

It was like being on a never-ending episode of “What Would You Do?” but everyone was a bystander. 

 There were, of course, few exceptions to the rule. Through the thick fog of ignominy I faced from customers, the few words of kindness are what I can most clearly recall.

 “Please always remember that no matter what, you are never the problem. You work so hard; don’t let these people get to you,” an elderly man once said after witnessing another table castigate me because their extra crispy wings, which they requested when they ordered, were too dry.

 I thanked the kind man and hurried back into the kitchen as a tear trickled down my cheek. 

 I remember walking into the restaurant on the day of my final shift. It was the first day I had walked in with a smile on my face. 

My first two tables didn’t tip me. I laughed. I didn’t care. Several tables seemed to have dropped their entire trays of food in the ground. Still, I didn’t care. At 1 a.m., I’d be free.

 “This is the sad part,” Michael said at the end of my shift. “Everyone always leaves me, but I have to stay here and keep going.” 

 Saying goodbye to the people I struggled alongside dampened my celebration. Excluding the six employees that quit in my two months of working there, the most hard-working, resilient people I will ever meet worked at Buffalo Wild Wings. 

 So next time Coop is busy at 2 a.m. and you have to wait more than five minutes for your buffalo bites, be patient. 

The workers will get them to you, I promise – take it from a chicken wing waitress.