Restaurant server breaks the mold

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 2, 2013 - 4:34 PM

In our continuing series about everyday people mastering their craft, a steakhouse server at the top of her game talks about reaching for greatness.

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Nancy Olson, 45, has been a waitress at Manny's Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis for 10 years and a waitress for 30.

Photo: Star Tribune, Tom Wallace

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In her four-table section at Manny's Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis, Nancy Olson, 45, is a star performer.

Clearly in charge, she serves cold drinks and piping hot steaks with the physical grace of a Fred Astaire, the charm of a Meryl Streep, the steely-eyed field awareness of an Adrian Peterson.

She racks up three to eight miles a day, four days a week, in a profession where servers are often seen as "waitrons" -- robotic and faceless parts in the restaurant food chain.

Achieving excellence as a server means breaking out of that mold, she said.

"I can really be myself here -- like an actress on stage," Olson said. "I love food and learning about food, and most of all I really like my customers. I make a decent living at a job I love, a job I'm very good at."

But she's not the best server at the popular and high-priced steakhouse, she said, where it's easy for a couple to drop $200.

"I've been here 10 years and I'm probably about in the middle," she said. "But just being at Manny's means you're among the best" -- a notion food critics generally support.

She started 30 years ago in ninth grade as a server at Bridgeman's Ice Cream in Roseville and never left the business. Along the way she got a sociology degree at St. Catherine University. Like many in the field, she was working in restaurants until a better job came along.

"But after I started at Manny's -- it took about a year, because there's so little turnover in the staff of 24 servers -- I realized how much I love this work, how fulfilling it is for me," she said. "When I retire, it'll be from Manny's."

Sitting in the dining room as a recent lunch-hour crowd began to swell, Olson talked about achieving excellence as a server.

What makes an excellent server? "You learn to read your tables, anticipate what they need. You may be quiet and reserved at one table, but joking and rowdy at another. Every customer should leave saying, 'That was a great meal and great service.' 'Good' isn't good enough."

Can servers really make $100,000 a year? "I think that statement [by gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer in 2010] was a little exaggerated. Maybe somebody does. Here we do very well -- much better than I've done before -- but it's still minimum wage plus tips. Tips are higher because the food's more expensive."

How do you get to the top? "Remember you're always on stage. You're here for the customer and you leave your problems at home. Watch experienced servers, ask questions, talk to the chefs, learn where the food comes from, how it's prepared. Learn about wine. Be yourself as much as they'll let you, and try to make every dining experience perfect."

What's the best and worst about the job? "I love my job, I make a good living and work with great people and get to laugh every day. What I like least -- it's not very often -- is having to cut someone off from drinking. And guys getting out of line? You learn to head that off before it's a problem."

Do servers need mentors? "I do. I'm always learning, always finding people who know more and are willing to show me the ropes. It started with my dad, who had three salvage yards in St. Paul, sold trucks and taught me to care about people. It continues with people I work with. No matter how good you get, you've got more to learn."

What's the sacrifice? "I've been married eight years and my husband and I have opposite work schedules. I've missed a lot of family celebrations over the years. I've got enough seniority that now I have weekends off. It's been a sacrifice -- but I'd do it again."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253

  • ABOUT THE SERIES

    This is the second in an occasional series about everyday Minnesotans who exhibit mastery -- the combination of knowledge, skill, experience and understanding that offers a deep command of a topic or activity. Last month featured a 51-year-old triathlete. Future installments will delve into the lives of people in athletics, the arts, science and other personal pursuits.

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