“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, and Rich Edwards, a wine steward at L’Auberge de Sedona restaurant in Arizona, kisses his son Devon goodbye. He won’t return home until long past 10 p.m., when Devon is fast asleep. A brief embrace is all they will share together this holiday.

The heat is on. Long lines form at the hostess stands of area restaurants. Foodservice workers report for duty like Marines headed for combat, armed with comfortable shoes, caffeine and determination. Before them lies a 12-hour stretch of nonstop service in which they will dish out hundreds of turkey dinners without a break or a meal. For these food-and-beverage workers, Thanksgiving is no picnic.

The restaurant industry employs 12 million people nationwide, making it the largest private-sector employer. In Sedona, a city where tourism constitutes the backbone of the economy, this means the majority of its workers report for duty on the holidays, all at a subminimum wage of $2.13 an hour.

Just another day

From diners and drive-throughs to gourmet restaurants, America’s dedicated foodservice workers embrace their long holiday shifts with cheerful attitudes and even enthusiasm for the stressful, if not Herculean, task at hand. For them, it is the best of times and the worst of times.

“We take it in stride,” said Faith Spicer, a waitress at Shugrue’s who has served food in Sedona for more than 12 years, five of them at the Hillside restaurant. As the mother of two boys who also juggles two jobs, Spicer works a “double” on Thanksgiving, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Also making similar tradeoffs is Melody Rennie, a waitress at Denny’s and the mother of a 2-year-old. This Thanksgiving, she’s getting ready to serve 65 passengers of a tour bus due to pull up at any moment. “I miss my little girl right now, but I do get to spend a lot more time with her than I would in most regular jobs,” she said.

Over at the Red Planet Diner, “earthlings” munch away at Buffalo wings and fries instead of turkey and mashed potatoes. Here, servers work in two rotating shifts, some of them filling in so that others can enjoy the day off with their families.

The holidays offer a chance to pocket some extra cash in preparation for January’s long, lean drought when, according to many servers, their restaurants resemble mausoleums. Feast or famine. But today, it’s feast — or rather, feeding frenzy — as servers scramble to keep up with the maddening pace.

Grace under pressure

This is no job for the faint of heart at any given time. The demand requires servers to be fast on their feet with a mind quicker than lightning. Every second counts, and the loss of a precious five minutes while customers ponder their salad dressing choices can spell disaster. One simple, innocent mistake can completely ruin someone’s dinner — and the server’s gratuity.

From restaurant to restaurant, a similar situation repeats itself. Stretched beyond the imaginable with an unusually high volume of patrons, the city’s eateries look like a loaves-and-fishes scene from some Hollywood Biblical epic. By some small miracle, foodservice employees will feed hundreds at a time with pure finesse.

“At any given moment, I have a dozen or more people demanding my attention and plates in the kitchen awaiting delivery,” said a server at Joey’s Bistro. “There’s an endless to-do list running through my brain at all times. I have to appear calm. If I lose it, I can lose my tip. It’s not based on effort; it’s all about the guest’s perception of your performance.”

In the nearby Hyatt complex, martinis line up at a bustling service bar. The kitchen is in full-tilt-boogie, all visible through the open pick-up window. Stress runs high in a business where anything can go wrong and often does. And then everybody wants a separate check.

“We get absolutely slammed,” said one resort food server. “There’s gonna be lines; there’s gonna be a wait for food; there’s gonna be mistakes. After all, we’re human, but we do the best we can. Anyone who goes out to eat should bear this in mind.”

Stress? Maybe it’s why food servers rank high on the list of the Top 10 Stressful Jobs in a recent health magazine article, along with coal miners, air traffic controllers and emergency medical technicians. Yet they remain unflappable.

Cheerful troopers

By late afternoon, people descend in droves on the dining rooms at Los Abrigados Resort, where the staff will serve several hundred meals in the next few hours. The scent of food fills the air, along with the perennial sound of whirling cocktail blenders and wailing infants.

Diners fix their gaze on the swinging door, anxious for a server to emerge with their food. Bussers scurry back and forth like ants, in a frenetic dance between the bar, the kitchen and the dining room. A hostess scans the room for an empty table, desperate for loitering guests to vacate their seats. The staff appears cheerful and upbeat despite the great duress and occasional “stiff” or “deadbeat” — the patron who fails to leave a tip.

A waiter brings out a combination fajita to a woman who insists she ordered the chimichanga. A foreign tourist wants to know why he got beef when he ordered the chicken fried steak. A family complains that their soups are cold. One customer is furious because the bar doesn’t stock his preferred vodka. A mother becomes upset when a restaurant runs out of high chairs. The kitchen loses a ticket, and food is delivered to the wrong table. Everyone wants a window table, and no one wants to sit near the door.

Resort bartender Tami Green, a 21-year veteran of the business, says she’s worked every single holiday to date. Today, she’s working 14 hours; “maybe” she’ll get a break. Still, she braves a constant smile.

The work begins

By nightfall, it’s pure pandemonium at many restaurants. No parking spots, long lines. Frantic hostesses struggle to accommodate hungry families without reservations. Bussers race like supply workers on the front lines in Iraq.

A waltz through the swinging doors into the back of the house reveals a world of heat, chaos, grease, cuss, sweat and debris everywhere. Armies of kitchen workers perform a host of prep duties, and the cacophony of shouting cooks, chopping knives and sizzling saucepans permeates the air. Weary servers, now in their eighth hour without a break, grab a bite of a roll and a sip of coffee while adding checks. There’s still four more hours to go.

At 9 p.m., foodservice workers, blood sugar now plummeting, still brave a smile to welcome the final strays of Thanksgiving diners. Like their colleagues around town, they’ve been running on their feet hauling turkey dinners for several hours now — without one of their own.

Their work has just begun.

When the last person has been fed and the doors are shut, servers still face “side work” — closing cleanup duties performed before they can clock out and return home to eat leftovers.

Tables must be reset and napkins folded. Silver, still wet from the dishwasher, is wiped and polished. Counters encrusted with 12 hours worth of caked soup spills and gravy splatters must be scrubbed. Refrigerators are wiped, beverage machines cleaned, pitchers emptied, salt shakers and sugar bowls filled, food wrapped and put away, floors swept and mopped. By 11 p.m., the restaurants are hushed and littered with debris like a stadium after the game.

Coffee breaks, sick days, weekends, holidays and health insurance? These remain as remote to most foodservice workers as the comfort of a leather-back desk chair. But the lure of the job lies in the daily cash.

A waiter at Dahl & DiLuca said, “When I look at all the awful office jobs, I’m thankful I have one that pays tips. I’d never make ends meet without them.”

The truth about tips

Most food servers across America report wages of $2.13 an hour, with no overtime or holiday pay. More than 40 states condone these subminimum wage practices under a “tip credit” provision, which the powerful National Restaurant Association fiercely and successfully lobbied for — without opposition or voice from 12 million foodservice workers — in 1996.

Therefore, a server earns $25.56 for a 12-hour shift, before regular deductions and tip taxes. That’s where tips come in.

“Tips are definitely down,” claimed one waitress, “People are clinging to that extra buck they used to leave on the table. I couldn’t believe that some are leaving 10 percent tips — or even nothing at all — for excellent service. The verbal tips just don’t help us make the rent.”

Others describe their tips as “Russian roulette,” claiming that “they turn customers into employers.” While most report decent income for their labors, others said they earn less than expected. “I didn’t even make 15 percent of my sales,” declares one resort waiter, “yet I’ll still pay taxes on all of it. People don’t realize we only get two bucks an hour. Plus, we have to tip out the bartender, the busser, the cooks and the hostess.”

Even when performing non-tipped duties, such as mopping and scrubbing, most servers earn a subminimum wage under current labor laws. In 1991, waitstaff received $2.13 an hour, or half of the $4.25 minimum wage. In 1996, Congress passed the Minimum Wage Increase Act, with an amendment excluding food servers from any future increases in hourly wage under a tip-credit provision. Therefore, their hourly wage has remained frozen at $2.13 for 14 years, exempt from any minimum-wage increases, while the cost of living skyrockets.

“My hourly wage hasn’t risen since I first began serving in 1991, and neither have my tips,” said a veteran waitress. “Years ago, we always got 20 percent tips. Now I feel lucky to get 15 percent.”

Add to this the contradiction of “zero paychecks.” The IRS requires servers to report all tips and then taxes them based on their sales. Base wages insufficient to cover the amount of standard deductions and tip taxes translates into no paycheck. In fact, according to many servers, they often “owe” money on payday.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that America’s foodservice workers rank among the nation’s lowest wage earners, with an average annual income of $15,000, including tips. While they comprise the largest employee sector in the nation, restaurant workers still lack a unified voice in Washington.

“A little compassion and a lot of humanity go a long way,” Green said. Apparently, so does a little generosity.

America’s abused ambassadors

One out of every 15 adults has worked under McDonald’s “golden arches” at some time in their lives under an exploitative, nonunion wage structure of an industry plagued with pervasive patterns of abuse, racism and sexism.

Yet foodservice workers are often the first people foreign visitors meet upon their arrival in America. They are also the stewards of celebration for birthdays and anniversaries, proms and promotions, galas and weddings. What if we had no bartender to mix our margaritas and no busser to clean up the mess? What fun would it be to stay housebound all the time and eat Hamburger Helper?

As multitasking professionals, restaurant workers deserve far more credit for their mental expertise and physical prowess than our condescending society extends them. Serving others is actually a privilege — yes, privilege — and it should be performed with a sense of grace and pride. Instead, bruised dignity seems to come with the job description, along with burning feet and burnt toast.

To America’s giant foodservice corporations, these workers represent an ignorant, cheap, disposable pool of desperate laborers who have built their empires on a near-zero payroll. Restaurants make millions in profits while failing to accommodate the basic needs and rights of their employees, who are often fired illegally and denied breaks, with no grievance or mediation.

As American workers undergo an assault from both government and big business, collective action offers the only viable solution to their vicious cycle of alienation, powerlessness and pitiful wages.

Catherine Rourke (rourkescribe@aol.com) is an award-winning labor journalist who specializes in the foodservice industry.