Are South Florida's Experienced Servers the Victims of Ageism?

Categories: Ask the Critic
hothostesses.jpg
These ladies are service industry professionals.
Anyone who regularly dines out will tell you professional service is an issue in South Florida. In a recent column, I had some pretty harsh criticism for the service at Wild Olives by Todd English in Boca Raton. The service just wasn't up to snuff for a meal of that caliber: It felt more like dining at the Olive Garden than an expensive, $50-per-head restaurant. Over multiple visits, the wait staff there was stiff and impersonal. It felt like their service was performed, and that made the whole visit seem less genuine. Worse, the staff had no idea how to execute the important stuff -- dirty dishes languished at our table, servers disappeared for long periods of time, and basic stuff like filling drinks and changing silverware were neglected. Sadly, service of this caliber isn't uncommon in South Florida restaurants. It's practically endemic.

People have a whole list of reasons why they think it's so hard to find decent service in this town. For one, experienced servers tend to gravitate where the money is -- and that means dining-intensive cities like New York and San Francisco. But that theory doesn't quite hold water. South Florida is ranked among the most expensive areas in the country to dine out, according to the most recent Zagat survey -- only Las Vegas, New York City, and Long Island eclipse it. You figure an experienced server could take in some hefty coin working here. Back when I worked as a server, I heard stories of waiters making upward of $500 on busy nights at nice restaurants. I myself would occasionally pull in half of that, and I worked at a notoriously casual chain eatery.

It also doesn't add up that restaurants here can't manage to train a server properly. In recent years, South Florida has seen some big names come our way. And homegrown eateries and chefs have vaulted onto the national radar, garnering attention all across the country. I can't believe that national-level management talent hasn't followed the chefs who have arrived. So how could service lag so far behind what's being offered on the table? Where have all the experienced servers gone?

Well, after my review of Wild Olives, a reader and longtime server -- we'll call him Francis -- contacted me to offer his explanation. Said Francis:
 
As an ex-bartender of 25 years (mostly fine dining), in the Northeast, I really do not go out much for that very reason. Sloppy and unprofessional service runs rampant. Most managers and owners are stuck on the idea that young, buxom, and sparkly are what a restaurant needs to operate. Little do they realize that professionalism comes with experience. Maybe they should read some reviews like yours and count the businesses that go out of business every year. Thanks for saying what us mature and unhirable ex-employees are thinking.
What Francis is saying makes sense. Of course restaurants want young, attractive people in direct contact with their customers. But that last bit irked me: Would they really choose the young and attractive -- especially if they lacked the know-how to properly serve a guest -- over more mature servers who've been around the Hobart a few times?

I asked Francis to elaborate on whether he thinks South Florida's restaurants are practicing ageism. According to him, the answer is yes.

Despite a lengthy and accomplished résumé, Francis says he's been rejected for more than 50 openings covering everything from country clubs to hotels to casual eateries. All of the rejections -- he believes -- were because of his age. He continued that in this culture of beauty, older servers -- those with the knowledge to give guests a proper experience -- are virtually "unhirable." Combine that with an economy that's seen countless people of other professions turn to waiting tables as a way to make a quick buck and that leaves mature waitrons pretty much out of the loop. (Unable to find work as a server himself, Francis now works as a security guard in a private community.)   

I, for one, happen to think his theory holds water.

It's no secret that South Florida is all about beauty. Image is all-important here -- it's why New Times is filled with adds for plastic surgeons and weight-loss centers; for liposuction, diet pills, and Botox treatments. So it makes perfect sense that restaurants would want their direct link to customers -- their servers -- to be attractive. And attractive, of course, means young.

Granted, this isn't a phenomenon that's exclusive to South Florida. You only need to head down to your nearest Hooters to find that out. But if South Florida's restaurants are hiring solely based on appearance, what' they're doing is selling themselves and their guests short.

I recently attended the grand opening of a local restaurant and was greeted at the door by not one but three attractive young hostesses, each more fit than the last. The three young ladies couldn't have been older than 20 and certainly didn't have much restaurant experience. They scrambled to seat me and seemed confused on where I was going. I stood there while they argued among themselves on where to put me. In the end, the three asked me where I wanted to sit. I had to wonder if an older, more experienced maitre d' would've handled the seating arrangements better. This place wasn't a sports bar that serves mainly chicken wings either. It's a well-known, family eatery.

Later in the night, I peeked back at the hostess stand to check in on them. The restaurant's manager was constantly running to the stand to ask them to not just stand there and chit-chat with their backs to the door. He'd tell them over and over how he wanted them to seat guests: Keep your back away from the door. Smile and be cordial and greet them promptly.  But when the guests arrived, they'd do nothing he said. They'd just gossip to themselves with their backs to the customers.

Is it just a case of bad management? Maybe. But I think it's more likely bad hiring. Whoever thought it would be better to have a guest's first impression of a restaurant be a gaggle of attractive, chatty college girls and not a confident, experienced hostess who could properly and efficiently greet customers as they entered was wrong. Still, I can't even attempt to count how many scenes like this I see reproduced at restaurants all over SoFla.

If image means everything and experience means nothing to South Florida's restaurateurs, then service is going to continue to fall behind. Not only that, but it won't be long before a wise group of ex-servers brings a lawsuit against some clubby nightspot that hires only staff that sports rock-hard abs or busts like Victoria's Secret models.

But the worst part is that we're the ones who are suffering. Until our restaurants start hiring more mature, experienced servers, we're going to continue to front the bill for the beautiful. And that I can't swallow at any price.
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