For hospitality workers, Derby means war.
It’s not a contest against the sea of festive diners. It’s a battle against time and against mistakes, against anything that tries to keep us from the summit of a perfect service. After weeks of preparation, it’s a brief war, lasting at most two days; but a crucial one on a couple of fronts. Financial, surely – gotta pay for those premium ingredients and the extra hands hired for the weekend. It can also make or break the reputation of the restaurant or catering operation that’s fighting it, what with all the celebrities and celebrants from out of town who will go back out into the world with the names of our hometown establishments on their lips, not to mention the locals who will stay here and bring us repeat business. Are we not warriors?
Picture this: It’s 5:30 Oaks night. Every water spot has been polished off every piece of flatware in the building. Every linen napkin has been folded with extreme precision. Every salt shaker and olive oil bottle is filled to the top; every rack of wine glasses is within easy reach. Each morel cap has been lovingly rinsed of grit, every fiddlehead fern blanched and shocked in ice water to brighten it to a shocking green. Each cook has a supply of freshly laundered side towels and a clean apron, and all her favorite utensils at hand. The kitchen is chatter-free and quiet but for the roar of the hood fans. A single drop of sweat rolls down the back of the expeditor’s neck into his kerchief, which is dry for the last time this evening. He checks again to make sure he has at least three working pens and a comically tall stack of plate wipers next to the pass. The front door opens. The first diners of Derby weekend are here! Now the war machine rumbles to life; the battle is joined.
Servers are on the front line. They are, naturally, highly motivated. A good server will make a month’s worth of tips this weekend. Even a busboy will likely take home a lot more than usual after the servers and bartenders tip him out. The line cooks and prep cooks and dishwashers won’t make any extra bank, though, unless they go into overtime, since they’re just being paid their regular hourly wage. Their motivation isn’t monetary. Their motivation is glory.
Though it’s a battle, it’s also a ballet – highly coordinated, its potential perfection fragile. Harmony and synchronicity are a must if we’re to turn the dining room twice, which is critical from a profit standpoint. That means each table and seat in the dining room needs to be used twice this evening, so service must be quick without seeming hurried. This is a particular challenge when the main events of both Friday and Saturday, the featured races, go off between 6 and 7 p.m. With travel time, the main wave won’t arrive at the restaurant until after 7 whether they’re coming from the track, from home, or from another event.
If your meal is close to flawless this Derby, show your appreciation with tips and compliments, and if so inclined, a positive on line review, whether on a review platform or just on your own Facebook page. Give a shout-out to this army. And don’t forget the cooks; it’s nice to send a few beers to the kitchen if your meal was special. Don’t worry, we’ll drink them after service is over.
If you haven’t made reservations for Oaks or Derby yet, do it today! But if your favorite restaurant is already booked, keep in mind that there will likely be tables available after the race on Saturday, because folks do get worn out after two days of drinking and celebrating, and often cancel or don’t honor their Derby reservations. So don’t be afraid to call and ask, but not until after 6 p.m. on Saturday.
So bring it: your taste buds, your appetites, your aunt who needs blue sweetner packets instead of the yellow or pink ones. And if your reservation slips block out the sun? Good. Then we will fight in the shade.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.