Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Savvy Server

Like most college kids, I worked my way through school so I could help pay for my tuition. Working class parents finally wised up and started sending their kids to college in record numbers during the early years of the Reagan presidency. In retrospect, that was a really smart move. The problem was that college, even in the dark ages of the eighties, was expensive, and families often lacked the financial means to send their kids away to school. And so we worked at jobs we mostly hated with the understanding that our paychecks would cover stuff like food and clothes and books.

I wanted out of the lower middle-, working-class life so much that I took any job that came along. During the school year, I worked in offices around campus and in the cafeteria. The office jobs were so boring I wanted to beat myself to death with a stapler. I think that experience influenced my decision to become an educator so I wouldn’t have to get a real job with real hours like everyone else.

I started working in the cafeteria for a couple of reasons: It was a steady income, and I got to eat all the food I wanted for free. Since my alma mater had only one meal plan—three meals a day, seven days a week—that was mandatory for everyone, I saw free meals as a significant fringe benefit. I could make money while bringing down the cost of my meal plan by almost half. (And I chose English over Business as my major. What a dope.)

My little business plan was sound in theory, but the reality on the ground was quite another story. On good days, I was chosen to serve, which meant doing little more than wearing rubber gloves and handing entrée selections to hungry coeds. But on every other day, I was damned to the conveyor line, a thirty foot moving pig trough of trays with food in various stages of the digestive process. My job was to scrape the food into a disposal, separate the silverware, and send the empty trays down the line. I always made sure to eat before work because I’m not sure I could have done it after.

Summers during my college years, despite my hopes and dreams, were not filled with days at the beach and nights out with my friends. I worked. Day and night. One summer I worked three jobs at the same time. I worked forty hours in one of the local salt factories, part time at the Salty Dog Saloon (which was located right across the street from the salt factory), and part time at the Birdfeeder, a diner owned by my friend Ginny. It stayed open twenty four hours on the weekends to feed the drunks who came out to eat after the bar closed. These were the restaurant’s busiest times of the week.

In addition to bartending and cooking at my part-time jobs, I also waited tables. Of all the jobs I’ve held, present employment excluded, waiting tables was my favorite. For me it was like being a performer—a little stand-up, a lot of schmoozing, even more fawning (mostly over blue-haired Polish grandmothers), and a good dose of the All-American-Boy charm. This last bit usually came between the time I delivered the food and the check. It’s a trick I learned early on that servers use in hopes of boosting their tips. After all, that’s the major income for this line of work. The money I made from tips went a long way to funding my “discretionary spending” during the school year. (By the way, if you want to read a good book on the life of a food server, pick up a copy of Waiter Rant; it’s based on a blogger who anonymously wrote not very flattering things about his customers, co-workers, and bosses).

Whenever I see food servers in the restaurants around Flint, most of whom have been at it for more than a few years, I wonder how they’ve managed to stay in the business for so long. Even at their best, customers are demanding, high-maintenance, and down-right annoying. At their worst, and I’ve seen it first-hand, their bloody loony.

And through it all, the best servers rarely let on that they might be irritated or annoyed by their customers’ rude behaviors, even as they’re running frantically to fetch this or that for as many as six or seven tables of hungry guests. (Another by-the-way moment: if you want to be taken care of by the best wait staff in town, then pay a visit to The Red Rooster on the corner of Averil and Davison. They rock!).

The unreasonable work load is most noticeable for servers in restaurants like Coney Island Diners. And there’s a reason for it. The dining experience, especially for breakfast or lunch, is far more abbreviated than it is for more elaborate, more expensive restaurants. The key, at least for the diner owners, is to turn around as many customers as possible in the shortest period of time. That’s what they count on in order to eke out a razor thin profit margin.

The other deck that’s stacked against the wait staff is the price of the food on the menu. It’s pretty closely linked to the size of the tip one gets after all is said and done. With cheaper menu prices at Coney Island Diners comes much smaller tips, so a server has to wait on far more tables to net a respectable salary.

And yet most of them do it gracefully, with smiles plastered on their faces and with cheerful demeanors, real or fake, as they try their best to please the madding crowds. Such was the case on a recent trip Stephanie and I took to Starlite Diner & Coney Island on the corner of Davison and Center Roads, on Flint’s east side. (Isn’t that interesting. Most diners bill themselves as either Coney Islands or family restaurants, or sometimes both. But Starlite is a diner first, and a Coney Island second, and not a family restaurant at all. Sometimes I think I’ll never figure this out).

If you’ve never been to the Starlite, then you probably don’t know that it has a deep history and a humungous following. It’s been around for at least fifty years ( I don’t know exactly how long it’s been in business, but I ran into Ron Krueger today, Food Editor for The Flint Journal, and he informed me that he has a column coming out next Thursday in The Journal that traces the history and the ownership of Starlite, so make sure you catch it). Starlite’s Facebook page boasts over 4,000 followers, which is about the strongest testimonial a restaurant owner could ask for.

Stephanie and I got there by 11:30 and the place was already filling up. The dining room is shaped in a big L formation, and it’s pretty expansive. The chatter of the dozens of customers was pretty loud, but the place was alive and it felt good to be in a restaurant so full of energy. I recognized the hostess who seated us, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on how I knew her. She was warm and friendly and chatted with us for a few minutes after leading us to our booth. Come to find out, I knew her when she was a server at the Old Olympic (before it burned down). She also worked at Paul’s Coney Island on Center Road, and then at the New Olympic (after it was rebuilt), and now at the Starlite.

Our server was also attentive and friendly, despite all the other people she was taking care of in her section. She rattled off the daily specials, which were also posted on the front door on a big poster. Seems like meatloaf and stuffed cabbage are popular specials with the diner crowd because this the third or fourth place we’ve been to that’s offered them. We started our meal, as we usually do, with soup. I had the beef barley and Stephanie put on her brave, big girl hat and went for the stuffed pepper soup. Mine had a good hearty base with lots of tender meat and a not overwhelming amount of barley, which gave it a nice flavor/texture balance. Stephanie’s soup, though, was the real winner. It was a deconstructed stuffed pepper turned into a thick, rice-based stew. It had a great balance of peppers, tomatoes, spices, and broth. If they don’t serve this on a regular rotation, they certainly should. Our happy server took both cups away completely empty.

The obligatory Coney Dog, which I’m having second thoughts about only because I’ve eaten more Coney Dogs in the last three months than I think I have in my whole life, was a handsome fellow, presented with an overflowing mound of “sauce” and bright white onions that rivaled the bright yellow mustard. Looks aren’t always everything, though, and in this dog’s case the saying holds true. It was tasty enough if you’re just in it for a good Coney Dog, but our more critical palates found it pretty mediocre. The sauce on some of our previous tastings was complex and a bit intense. This dog was rather bland from a lack of seasonings, both in quantity and in numbers. We could taste a faint chili powder, but beyond that there wasn’t much to write home about. The sauce lacked that perfect greasiness that should marry the sauce to the dog to the bun in a ménage e trios of yumminess. But we were hungry and ate the whole thing anyway.

The tempo of our food coming and our empty dishes leaving and our drinks being refilled was smooth, almost choreographed, and our waitress still took the time to make sure our experience was good and lingered at the table to make small talk when she could. Despite the stressful nature of waiting on a half dozen tables at the same time, our waitress gave us great service that added to an already satisfying lunch.

I tried to go for a sandwich that I hadn’t had before, so I skipped the burgers, club sandwiches, and Reubens and went for the Smoked Turkey Po Boy with a side of fries. The sandwich was served on a hoagie bun and was more of a sub than a Po Boy. It was good enough, but in retrospect I should have ordered something else. The fries, though, were the best I’ve had this year. They were made in-house from fresh potatoes and sliced in such a way to maximize their outer crispiness while preserving their moist interior. Thinner and narrow than steak fries, these babies were well seasoned and hot as blazes—right out of the fryer. Whatever you order when you go to Starlite, and you really must come here, make sure fries are part of the mix.

Stephanie went for the chicken gyro which, like my smoked turkey, was good enough, but it didn’t knock her socks off. The onion rings she ordered, however, more than made up for the sandwich, and they were even better than my house-made fries. I learned a little secret about ordering Starlite onion rings from another dining diva, Mrs. Hopkins, who I have lunch with at least twice during each year’s tour. If you just ask for onion rings, you’ll get the stock, frozen variety that they serve. But if you ask for the house-made version, you’ll get some of the best onion rings in town. I’m not ready to crown them the best in Flint, but they were near perfect. Crispy and colorful on the outside. Not overcooked on the inside. Grease pooling a bit on the plate. Napkins at the ready. I couldn’t stop eating them. Stephanie and I have a little system when we order. One of us usually orders fries and the other orders onion rings, and then we share. It was Stephanie’s turn to order the onion rings, so I felt a little guilty that I kept reaching into her plate after these goldenly delicious (that’s not trademarked, is it?) gems.

On our way out, people were still filing in, and the place was very near capacity. If every meal at Starlite is as good as the one we had, then it’s no wonder to me that 4,000 people have taken the time to log onto Facebook and sign themselves up as fans. Which is what I’m going to do right now.

(Do you have a personal history with Starlite Diner, or any of the places I’ve written about this year? Write your stories down and send them to me at I’ll repost them and you can be a guest blogger).


  1. I love Starlight! I was thinking of it today while my brother and I had coneys at the new Flag City Diner in Davison. We got to choose Flint or Detroit style (we chose Flint, of course) and were very pleased. The fries were similar to Starlight's so we liked those, too!

  2. Ah, I have fond memories of the Starlight. I most recently went with my folks before the twins were born. My dad wanted a coney and at the hour they got in at the airport, it was the safest bet. Despite my parents' grumblings about the smoke, my dad happily managed to choke down a couple. I also love how the place is so open with windows. If I were ever there during daylight hours, I bet the light would be great.

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  6. Matt, how's that baby girl doing? I saw the fb pictures. She's beautiful!

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