Turning the Tables

I was interested to read in today’s New York Times how Frank Bruni, the paper’s head restaurant critic, put down his notebook recently and worked as a waiter for a week. I’ve always thought that waiting tables is one of those jobs everyone should do at some point. It’s a great exercise in multi-tasking and reading people and learning the art of customer service (really, you should get college credit for it). The two college summers I spent as a waiter, in Atlanta and in Yellowstone Park, made me a more empathetic and critical customer. I know the skill it takes to juggle multiple tables, a moody chef, and demanding diners (I didn’t always possess it, but I saw it in my more experienced colleagues). And I can usually recognize when someone’s coasting, undermining the efforts of others on the restaurant staff.

Years ago, Bruni waited on tables, too. But he wanted a reminder of what the job involves. After all, he’s reviewing waiters week in and week out. It’s the right instinct, getting a different perspective on your work and the people whose performance you critique. It reminds me of executives like Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy and JetBlue CEO David Neeleman. They regularly pitch in, serving fast-food and serving drinks. They’re not just interacting with customers. They’re experiencing someone else’s job at the company, which gives them a much deeper understanding of those who work closest to the customer.

How do you get closer to customers and frontline employees? What have you learned?