While in college in coastal NC some 20 years ago I worked at a really great and well run seafood restaurant called The Bridge Tender. It was on the waterway and directly next to the draw bridge that led to Wrightsville Beach NC…hence it’s name. It was (and still is) a local favorite all year long and a vacationer’s favorite during the summer. In fact – it stayed pack every night of the summer – causing it to be a sought after job for broke college students. A few buddies worked there – before I did – and would boast about making $150-$200 a night in tips. For a college student whose rent and bills totaled a few hundred bucks a month – it was a lot of money. The veteran wait staff (who got the primo shifts and sections) could make $1000/week cash in the summer. That’s not too shabby.
So after hearing about this over and over and comparing it to my current job weaving hammock beds (making $3.00 a piece) – I decided to turn in my t-shirt and board shorts, get a hair cut and see if I could get a job there. For many reasons – it would turn out to be a huge change leaving my not so stable day job where me and my surfing buddies would show up around 10am, weave 3 hammocks for a whopping $9.00, then bail because the wind switched offshore and the incoming tide brought clean waist high surf. Ah yes, it was the life – but it was time to clean up and make a little more progress.
As a surprise to me when I applied for the wait staff job, the owners told me that I would have to be a dishwasher first. It was a rule. Everyone in the restaurant had to do it – the kitchen staff, the wait staff and the bartenders. Heck – even the managers had to do their time. No one walked right into a great paying restaurant job without doing their time in the soggy guts of the restaurant that – at the end of a hot summer night – smelled like a 3-day old wet towel. You had to earn your way out – no matter who you were or what kind of experience you had. When a spot opened up – and you were at the top of the list – you graduated….
So my timing was pretty lucky and I think I washed dishes for about 3-4 months. Since the turnover in the front of the house staff was so low – there were stories of people staying back there scrubbing pots and pans for years just waiting their turn. Who knows for sure it that’s true – but I was out and was glad. I threw my dish washer outfit in the nearest dumpster and was issued a seriously pressed pair of brand new dickies khaki pants and a burgundy collared shirt with the Bridge Tender logo on it. It felt great – I was out of the evil, window-less dungeon and now in the sweet smelling, temperature controlled dining room with happy customers and a wonderful view of the intracoastal waterway. I’d made it!
While the crazy challenges I faced learning to become a good server over the next few years were many – the one thing that I did not have to learn was where everything was and how the kitchen was run. Due to my time dish washing and assisting other staff with all manor of things in the back, I was intimately familiar with the kitchen and everyone who worked in it. I never had to ask where we stored extra ketchup, how the bread warmers worked, which walk in freezer had the blue cheese in it or where the napkins and silverware lived.
Looking back on my time there – the owners had a great system and it worked. While they turned away many “all star” staff that felt they were overqualified or too good for dish washing (I witnessed that happen a few times), they ended up with a super team that worked well together and really appreciated what everyone in the restaurant did. It was genius.
View of the draw bridge from the restaurant…what a cool place to live and work.