When I got a job at Olive Garden, I hadn’t waited tables in 13 years, and they were the only place that would hire me with an employment gap like that. For the first time in over a decade, my freelance writing business (which tends to fluctuate along with the economy) had dried up for so long that I needed to get a part-time job. My first official day of employment was a few weeks before Thanksgiving on my 37th birthday.
At first, I wasn’t even sure I could still physically do the job. Could I still lift and balance a tray? Could I still keep track of everything in my mom-brained head? Serving is physical work, and my body wasn’t 20 anymore. I worried about this all through my training, but the Olive Garden made it easy to relearn serving.
They deliberately kept the sections small so servers could keep up with all the refills and focus on service and turning tables. My arms got stronger. I mastered the rhythm and got used to the chaos. I made friends with my co-workers. I figured out that if I lay on the floor with my legs up the wall after every shift, my feet would stop hurting.
By Valentine’s Day, I felt confident enough in the job that I could actually think about other things while I worked. And when I started looking around me, I was surprised by what I saw.
That night, Olive Garden was a madhouse. Servers everywhere. Every surface a mess. The lobby was packed with people waiting. We were short-staffed. A fight was about to break out in the kitchen. And instead of three or four tables in my section, I had more like nine.
In the midst of all this chaos, I was struck with a deep sense of appreciation for what I was doing. All my anxieties about being too old for the job and my writing business falling apart dissipated, and I kind of fell in love with everything the place was.
I know Olive Garden isn’t seen as gourmet dining by many people (and some openly sneer at it), but for others, it feels like home. In many parts of the country, it’s the place people look forward to going on a Friday night or for a birthday dinner. Olive Garden was a favorite night out when I was a kid — a place we went to celebrate. I grew up in a rural area south of Cleveland, and we had to drive 45 minutes just to get there. It was a place of good memories for me, even if it was just the Olive Garden. Standing in that packed dining room, with my apron and name tag on, I saw myself in the guests — the big families getting together to celebrate love and the couples who were there on casual dates. As the server, I wanted to honor that for them.
I hit that zone of appreciation that exists in the food and beverage profession and comes with the desire to host guests, show people a good time, and let them make their own memories. It was a moment of clarity, of camaraderie, of resonance. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever drank the Kool-Aid on a job the way I drank it that night.
After that, I made a practice of working on my empathy skills, of always asking myself what a person might be experiencing when they were annoying — and letting them be that way. And I made it a personal challenge to make them happy and to always give people the benefit of the doubt.
Olive Garden attracts all sorts. I saw everyone I knew in town come through those doors eventually. And I experienced every genre of restaurant guest stereotype. People who ran my ass off and then tipped hardly at all. People who were rowdy. People who were drunk. People who were mad at each other. People with messy, wild kids.
We had people coming in trying to get a table five minutes before close, and people who were looking for a way to get something for free. People who left fake 20s printed with Bible verses when you unfolded them. And a ton of people who surprised me with their generosity. I found a deeper well of empathy in myself than I ever imagined, and it allowed me to care about the experience of all of them.
While I was empathizing with the people around me, I started to feel better about my situation as well. I came to terms with my own expectations for my life. All my emotions around my writing career eased when I was running from one end of that kitchen to the other. And learning not to be so hard on the people around me made me less hard on myself.
But the most important lesson I learned about empathy was about where it ends. Because sometimes, no matter how hard you try to really look at a person’s motivation, there’s nothing there to understand.
Coincidentally, on another Valentine’s Day, and my last day at the restaurant (though for an unrelated reason), I waited on the most memorable table I’ve ever had, before or since. I greeted them — a man and woman probably in their early 50s — with the same introduction I always used, welcoming them in and taking their drink order.
They ordered water and pasta with sauce, which was the cheapest item
on the menu that still came with unlimited salad and bread, as well as
the fastest to prepare. The man asked me to hold off on putting in the dinner order because they wanted to enjoy their salad. Like ordering light, this was also a common request, and I said not to worry, I would take care of the timing.
I brought their salad and bread, served other tables while I waited for them to finish it, and then, when they placed their empty bowl on the edge of the booth, I asked if they wanted more. “Yes, please,” they said.
On my way back to the kitchen, I stopped at an open computer and put in their dinner order. Not because I was trying to rush them, but because the lobby was full and part of my job was to keep things moving. They’d ordered pasta with a spoonful of sauce on it, and so the kitchen saw an easy order come in and put it out right away. By the time I was done making their second salad, another server was at the table with their dinner. The guests, who had been perfectly polite up to now, were outraged.
People at the Olive Garden often got annoyed about their food coming out too fast, but this man and his wife were shamelessly livid. For a second I thought it was a joke because their anger was so outrageous. Honestly, in all my combined years in food and beverage, I’ve never had people so mad at me. (A close second: once, when I was 16 and working at McDonald’s, a woman threw an ice cream cone through the drive-thru window at me.)
“Oh, you’ll take care of it?!” The guest parroted my words back to me. My manager offered them a discount that amounted to $5 on their $20 check, but the guests insisted they’d never come back if they couldn’t get their food for free. My manager — a total hero — held the line. He told me later that if they were going to come in and spend $20 and give people a hard time, then it was cool if they never came back. He emphasized that just because they were looking to get something for free, didn’t mean they were going to get it.
When I summoned my empathy skills and tried to parse the interaction for
their motivation, I felt like I’d been tricked. Theirs was a complete self-absorption — a total disregard for everyone else involved in the Olive Garden experience that night. And sometimes people are just like that.
There’s something about being yelled at by a jerk that brings a sense of clarity. When people get like that, it usually has nothing to do with the other person and everything to do with their expectations, realistic or not. And no matter how powerful empathy can be, simply saying no and not letting it bother you is just as transformational.
Today when I hear about customers being ruder than ever and see video footage of people harassing workers in places like Target and Applebee’s on social media, I wish I could tell those workers that not all customers are good customers. Not all people are good people. Not all expectations will be fulfilled. The best way to live in uncivilized times is often simply not to let it ruin your night.
I moved on to another restaurant after that. I figured if I could master serving at the Olive Garden, I could do it anywhere. My new job was at a fancier place with a completely different clientele. The money wasn’t really any better, and I left as soon as my writing work leveled out again.
There are so many factors that play a role in making it in any kind of freelance work, and if anything, working at Olive Garden forced me to become more comfortable with the fact that I can’t control many of them. Just like there might be a jerk in your section, countless other things may not work out the way we expect. Shifting political winds, pandemics, changing markets, technological advances — sometimes no amount of hard work can overcome them. Things change. Learning how not to be so hard on myself and others has made me better able to accept my own lack of control. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told myself that everything will be all right because I can always go back to the Olive Garden.
Melinda Copp is a writer based in Bluffton, South Carolina. Her work has been published in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals, including The Rumpus, The Cleveland Review of Books, and The Petigru Review. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter for more essays on reading, culture, and life at
https://melindacopp.substack.com/ and connect with her on Instagram