My First Forays in Food Service -- Working at Pagoda Inn
Waitressing was one of my first summer jobs. After a stint in a mailroom, stuffing and addressing envelopes, I found a job working downtown Goshen at Plain and Fancy. In my short white uniform dress and my tan hose, I soon learned what made the customers tip: a good memory, willing service, a little chitchat and one honest human connection. My laugh might have helped also, or so I’ve heard…
From Plain and Fancy, home of the Swiss Steak supper, I broadened my horizons and moved onto Chinese food. Pagoda Inn was the only Chinese restaurant in town, out on U.S. 33. When I started serving there, the owners had just upgraded to a new building. I first met Alice, who hired me, and soon I was rubbing shoulders with Harry, Peter and Steve, the three brothers who really made the place run. After working side by side with a mostly female and conservative staff at Plain and Fancy (except for Rosie, who took me in once she found out I smoked, like her), I was thrown into the mix of townies at Pagoda, probably more my cup of tea.
Alice was just the right mix for a boss. She was firm but kind and flexible. I felt like I could talk to her and she wasn’t only interested in what I could offer to the business.
I switched to a short little red dress with black Chinese accents, tan hose and black flat chinese slippers. It had a pocket for my order pad, and my tips. I soon moved from the small section to the large front section and learned how to carry those broad oval trays filled with silver platters in one hand.
I loved the adrenaline rush of getting to work, settling in and building up to a non-stop frenzy of orders yelled over the counters, orders in, orders out, dirty dishes here, teapots full of hot water there, fighting for my order (I need it right now!), the cooks working as hard as they could stir frying and chopping and grilling. From 4 to 10, the night would build into a crescendo and then slowly wind down to pianissimo. I loved the regulars who ate the same thing in the same spot, and left the same reliable tips. I loved the joshing back and forth in the kitchen, and the camaraderie that evolved.
But the best part came at the end, when my pocket hung heavy with money and my favorite cook, Harry, would fix us his own special meals, not part of the printed menu.
After the last customers paid and went out to their cars, the front door was locked. We would sit down at the back table and slowly unwind as we savored the food freshly made just for us. That’s where the workplace turned into more than just a work site. We ate and caught up with each other and lingered and let our waitress selves aside.
Much later, when I owned my bakery, I repeated those gestures with my staff. And even though it got late, the joy of sitting down after a hard shift and having the pleasure of eating good food together made all the difference in the world. Thanks, Alice and Harry for setting good examples for me. In my mind, I think I can still do the front section at Pagoda Inn...