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Nicole Vega loves her customers & co-workers

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Nicole Vega refills the ketchup bottles at the end of her shift at The Waffle Shop where she has been a server for three years.


POSTED January 7, 2012 1:59 a.m.

Nicole Vega remembers the day that her job as a server changed forever.

After watching a veteran stack and carry seven entrée plates out to a table on one arm with ease, Vega took a lesson from what became her mentor at The Waffle Shop in Turlock and learned how to do just that.

Instantly she was able to cut down the number of trips she had to make back-and-forth to the kitchen to get orders, and was able to clear tables after the meal that much faster.

And when she came to Manteca to take a job at The Waffle Shop – a business owned by a family member of her previous employer – she brought her skill and her upbeat demeanor to a six-person waiting staff that caters to a long list of regulars and first-timers that come in based on the stellar reputation of the restaurant.

She fit right in, and with the exception of some time off she took to have a son – Lars – she’s been a regular friendly face for the last three years.

“It was different coming from Turlock where we had a lot of truck drivers and freeway traffic to a place that was really run by regulars,” Vega said. “You kind of have to win ‘em over, but after that you develop a relationship with them – they become kind of like a second family.

“We had people coming in this year and bringing in presents. When you take customers like that and a boss like Billy (Muhareb) it makes it a great place to work.”

But there’s a whole lot more that goes into the job than just bringing plates out to tables and refilling coffee cups.

While it’s the cooks what whip up the omelets, the potatoes and the sandwiches, it’s the servers’ responsibility to make up the salads and make sure that the soup being served is hot and fresh.

Some restaurants have computerized systems for taking orders, but The Waffle Shop employs the old school ticket – something Vega had to adjust to when she was settling in to her new job.

“When you’ve got a ticket like this you have to memorize everything on the menu, and eventually you start to memorize the prices of everything on the menu,” she said. “Remembering is a big part of the job. You remember names and faces and what people like. It’s something that you just learn over time.”

The job also requires a myriad of personal tools that each server develops on their own to help them throughout the day.

Vega employs her own brand of shorthand to make sure that she gets everything down without having to make the customers repeat anything to her. When it’s a group of regulars, she remembers who wants their coffee freshened up after the first sip and who waits until the cup is empty.

Staying on top of things, she says, is the only way to make your customers happy. There’s nothing worse, she said, than getting a finger raised in the air by somebody who needs something.

“That right there makes you feel like a failure – like you didn’t do what you were supposed to do,” she said. “You want to make sure that you’re on top of that so that it doesn’t happen. You want your customers to be happy and leave happy, and taking care of them while they’re here is how to do that.”

But coming by a table asking people if they need more coffee or a refill on their soda can be a tricky situation for a server.

Vega says that when people are deeply involved in conversation she has to feel out whether the time is right to step in and ask. Some people like to be left alone, she said.

Then there’s the decision about when to take the plate away from a customer that appears done with their meal. She looks for a crossed fork prongs down over a knife or a napkin placed in the middle of the plate. Even with the signals that she’s on the lookout for, there are the occasional times where a miscue happens.

“I had a guy smack my hand when I reached for his plate one time – it was playful but it let me know that he wasn’t done yet,” Vega said. “When it comes to stuff like that it’s almost psychological – you have to learn how to read people.”

Now that she’s three years into the job, Vega thinks that she’s worked out the kinks that she had when she first started. When carrying multiple salads in Turlock she slipped on water, flung them in the air and watched them all come down on top of her. She repeated the slip on her next trip to the kitchen – this time losing her footing on errant salad dressing.

Embarrassment aside, Vega loves the position she’s in now – taking the 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift so she can go home and take care of her son. At the end of her day she refills ketchup bottles and takes care of the area she’s responsible for.

Then it’s back to work the next day – to the friendly and fun-loving boss, the co-workers that she loves and the customers that have become a big part of her life.

“I went to school to work in a rehab facility and didn’t like it and ended coming back here to food service,” she said. “I love it here. There’s something special about this place and the people.

—Jason Campbell

staff reporter

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