Patience and Kindness, Big Time: Longtime Servers Talk Shop
It’s a stormy afternoon when I pull into a parking space in front of The Range–a unique Spanish home-turned-steakhouse in Santa Margarita. I brave the rain for a few seconds from my car to the covered patio, and am rewarded with a dry, safe pocket of warm air, courtesy of several large space heaters. At a table against the wall are servers Jamie Avrett (Sidecar Cocktail Co.) and James Ray (Ember). The third server, Demetrius Vengel, has insisted on doing this interview at The Range—his home turf—so he can bring us handcrafted pizzas while we talk. He tells me I’ll recognize him by his distinctively Greek eyebrows and perpetual Stetson hat.
How long have you all been working in the food service industry?
Jamie Avrett: I started bussing at Spirit of San Luis when I was 18, and now I’m 38. So, twenty years.
James Ray: I’m similar to that. I started as a busser at The Quarterdeck restaurant when I was 19, and I’m 41 now, so that’s twenty-two years.
Demetrius Vengel: I’ve been doing this my whole life. I owned that liquor store across the street for twenty-eight years, so I literally know every child that was born here—and now I know all their kids.
Did you expect to be in it for this long? What kept you interested in serving?
JR: I never expected to be serving for as long as I have, but it became a very comfortable job. It was easy money, but after a while, it became good money. Honestly, what kept me around was the social interaction. The people. It’s something exciting and new every night.
JA: Same for me. I didn’t think that twenty years later I’d still be working in a restaurant, by any means—but the people are the reason why I still love this job. Spending a moment with a person who you might not normally cross paths with, and getting to know how they tick.
DV: I was going to retire and kick back once I got back from Greece. Then Lindsay, the prettiest girl in the history of Morro Bay High, moved next door to me. She and her husband opened this place, and they literally offered me this job over the fence. It’s fun, isn’t it?
A cursory cruise through Yelp makes it apparent that you three are leaving positive impressions on a lot of the people you serve. What are you doing correctly? Why do they remember you?
DV: My secret is just being myself. It’s just love, man. I’d take a bullet for these people.
JR: I think a big part of it is remembering them. Taking an interest in them—being honest and genuine, and treating them like real people; not just another number. I try to focus on entertaining and having fun with them, and reading what they want from me. I try to provide whatever it is they’re looking for from a server.
JA: We’re standing by the side of their table, but we’re dining with them as well. We’re sharing stories and listening to theirs. People become friends. Maybe not in the literal sense of hanging out with them, but we hang out when they come into the restaurant.
JR: Very true. Even if they’re not in my section, I’ll walk over to talk to regulars and see how they’re doing. I’ve made friends with customers who I do hang out with after work now, because I got to know them and made a connection.
Sometimes when I’m dining out, it feels like my server would rather be somewhere else. What is your secret to remaining positive and present when you’re working with the public?
JA: Every table is different, and for me, that keeps it from being repetitive. It’s always a new experience. I read in a book once that we should walk towards the people we were taught to walk away from.
JR: There are days when I’d rather be watching football or going out with my family than going in to work. We all feel that, no matter what kind of job you have; but you should always focus on where you’re at. It’s about the focus.
DV: You have to be there—you may as well enjoy it. And it’s bitchin’ food, man. Really bitchin’ food.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from this job?
DV: Patience, big time. And it pays off.
JA: Kindness is mine. Being kind to someone is never going to die, in this industry. We can be kind to someone, and hopefully they’ll leave our restaurant happy, and be kind to the next person.
DV: Pay it forward.