Rugby Shirts, Stir Frys, and the Top 40 – My First and Last Winnipeg Waitress Job

It was the late ’90s.

Leonardo DiCaprio was riding a wave to fame. Big Shiny Tunes 2 spun in boom boxes. Plaid skirts, cargo pants, and chunky heels were all the rage.

In 1997, I left the semi-bright lights of River Heights, pulling a 14-month round trip: Winnipeg to Arborg to Winnipeg. While in Arborg, I’d landed a sweet job at the Arborg Co-op bakery as a cake decorator, making roses and black forest cakes. But during the summer of 1998, I decided to return to the ‘Peg for Red River College.

According to lore, Business Administration is logical. Besides the social and marketing aspects, I loathed the program. I couldn’t wrap my head around the x3 – y3 + (hippopotamus x 3.14) – (purple) courses.   

Regardless, I rented a cool 600 sq.ft. one bedroom apartment in the River Heights area. Laminate flooring throughout, all utilities included, ample parking, large kitchen, walk-in coat closet, close to Grant Park Mall, this sounds like a sales pitch.

My apartment reflected various eras with a mid-1990s, 100 lb futon, and a 1970s tube television – complete with bunny ears on top of a VCR. After catching up with friends, the job hunt began. I blanketed Grant Park Mall with my resumes, dreaming of a call from Mariposa or Suzy Shier. #discount. Scouring the help wanted section of Saturday’s Winnipeg Free Press. Applying by mail or fax – as was the style.

After a brief flirtation with retail, the coolest restaurant called in late November: *Bananarama’s.

I loved Bananarama’s. Part restaurant, part sports bar. Servers wore chic rugby shirts. Stir frys sizzled to the Top 40s. Known today as hits of the ’90s. Tiffany lamps dangled over tables. Booths brimmed with happy customers. Chipper hosts practically broke into dance while leading “guests” to their table. And, extra bonus, it was close to my apartment.

In Arborg, I’d was a waitress from grades 10 to 12, and the year before university. Slam dunk, right? After a short interview with *Nate, the assistant manager, my dream became reality.

But from day one, Bananarama’s was a nightmare.

I had visions of skipping around Bananarama’s offering endless coffee refills and chatting with the regulars.

But Bananarama’s didn’t have 3 p.m. coffee crews and bottomless cups. One refill per customer? That’d cause a riot in Arborg.

And those rugby shirts? Not as chic as I thought. Everyone else rocked them. Except me. Thick maroon and navy stripes, and a stark white, Miami Vice-stiff collar? It was more like an “ug-me” shirt.

This was years prior to the Manitoba labour law, insisting companies pay for one uniform. The hideous shirt was $45. The 1998 version of $65. Since I made minimum wage, half of my first pay cheque went to the ug-me shirt.

Then came the rules.

During my first morning, the day manager rattle off the dress code. They were in the “Welcome to Bananarama’s” handbook. But *Sally felt the servers needed a refresher. No nail polish. No jewellry such as rings, dangly earrings, and/or Mr. T necklaces. No visible tattoos. No nose or eyebrow piercings. Black pants only. Black socks only.

Then Sally made us lift our pant legs and – I kid you not – she inspected our socks like a drill sergeant. And, gasp, sure enough a server was wearing evil brown socks.

Despite a blizzard – I kid you not again – Sally sent him home to change socks. Vehicles were sliding through intersections, but Sally didn’t care. She just wanted the server to conform. The poor guy returned shaken because he was nearly involved in an accident. By, hey, at least he conformed.

And I was sent home to remove my stark red nail polish. In my defence, nail polish wasn’t in the handbook! At least I lived within walking distance. By time my shift ended? I was prancing home through knee-deep snow.

*Haley, a one-year Bananarama’s survivor – I mean, server – taught me the ropes. She led me through the other craptacular rules.

When you worked a six or eight-hour evening shift, you ate upon arrival. But we could drink coffee, soda, and tea – minus iced or herbal – for free.

The least popular rule. Tips were kept by the training server, not the trainee server. Almost as compensation? Despite this rule, Haley, the nose-stud wearing rebel, split the tips with me.

Unlike Arborg restaurants, Bananarama’s had a computerized system. Through a magical connection, the kitchen staff knew the dining room needs – right down to extra guacamole. No more yelling “Order up!” when people wanted a bacon cheeseburger with poutine and attaching a slip onto a sliding order bar.

Literally, because at Bananarama’s, servers weren’t allowed in the kitchen except to pick up or return food.

And that computerized tap system? To gain access to the desktop retro-iPhone tablet, you needed a swipe card. Similar to a bank card. However, the system doled out grief rather than money. If a customer requested a large chocolate milk, you’d tap beverages, chocolate milk, quantity, size, and then press enter. Sounds simple.

But imagine there’s a table of six, and everybody wants a different drink. Of various sizes. You’re punching that computer like the pedestrian button at a crosswalk.

I’d enter a large Coke for a small orange juice. Or three chocolate milkshakes for large chocolate milk. They ordered a small iced tea? Oops, they’re getting a large. Happy early birthday!

Guest were served water as they scanned the menu, and I became an avid water pusher.

“And you’re good with water?”

“No, I’ll have a medium iced tea.”

“Are you sure? The water has lemon.”

“No, I’d like an iced tea.”

Then the entire table wants iced tea. In various sizes. Thanks, table of eight.

For safety reasons, the kitchen had an exit and entrance. We were constantly yelling, “Order up!” and “Order out!” Those sizzling stir frys required screams of “Hot skillet!” It was usually the managers that didn’t abide by the in-out entrance. Isn’t that ironic? Don’t you think?

The first time I flew solo was a disaster. Haley still had me under her wing, but at an arm’s length. One of my tables complained to the manager because I wouldn’t leave them alone.

Bananarama’s had a three-check rule after guests receive their food: Check one: within one-minute, ensure everything is scrumptious. Check two: when they finish, push dessert like a telemarketer pushing credit cards. Check three: Give dessert and/or check, and say, “No rush,” and slink into the shadows.

I smashed through the rule like  Mark McGwire.

I checked on the table three times while they ate with offerings of coffee and refills of beverages. I thought they were finished eating, and I asked about dessert. One of guys said, “Maybe after we finish eating.” At that point, I noticed the night manager pull Haley aside. She told me, “I’ll take it from here.”

The guests were given a discount because I went overboard to ensure their happiness. Due to Haley saving their Bananarama’s experience, they left a tip. When the manager wasn’t looking, she slipped the five dollar bill into my apron.

With Bananarama’s feeling like restaurant hell, I entered my third week. I wonder how it could get worse. It was a short wait.

Bananarama’s was short staffed, and they pulled me in for a four-hour night shift. In the centre of the restaurant was a sports-style bar. When Bananarama’s closed that night, the bartender blasted Semisonic’s Closing Time.

For a sliver of a millisecond,  I thought maybe Bananarama’s isn’t so back. The tips were good. The customers weren’t all grumpy-poos. The gleeful moment wore off as the night manager, Nate, ushered another server and me into the kitchen.

I wasn’t fond of Nate. He overstepped boundaries, treating the male servers poorly – often berating them in front of other servers. He would hit on the female servers. I ignored his advances. That could be the reason for what ensued that night.

Nate lead the other server, *Sasha, and I into the backroom, aka the garbage room. He handed us rubber gloves.

“Go through the garbage and look for silverware,” said Nate.

I laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No. Sometimes knives and forks get thrown away by accident,” he said. “Each of you open a garbage bag and search.”

The other waitress, *Sasha, followed his orders. But I just stood there, dumbfounded. Dig through garbage? To search for ten cent spoons and knifes?

“Tammy, open a bag!”

Nate crossed his arms and watched us on our knees, pushing through rank napkins, stinky rice, and chunks of hamburgers in guacamole-streaked bags. I mumbled to the other server, “This is b***s**t.”

“I found a fork,” I said, tossing it aside and standing up.

“Keep looking.”

“No,” I said, taking off my gloves. “Since you’re just standing there ” –I offered Nate my gloves– “you grab a bag.”

I’ll never forget the Cheshire cat grin on his face, and how it dropped when I told Sasha to stop digging. I signed out and left.

I was scheduled for the busy Sunday morning shift, and I called Bananarama’s and quit. They pulled the usual, “We need two weeks … ” but I was part time and I’d been there for three weeks too long.

When I went to Bananarama’s to pick up my final check, and Nate said, “You’ll never get another job as a waitress.”

I thanked him for the cheque. I walked home, smirking, because I’d already been hired as a part time banquet server at the Radisson, where I stayed for about 28 months. And that was awesome.

And I donated that over-priced rugby shirt.

I never liked the game anyway.
*Names changed