Bus' a Move
By David Templeton
THE RESTAURANT HUMS with activity. The house is full, and arriving guests are attended in turn by various people: the hostess or maitre'd, the waitpersons, even the restaurant manager making an appearance at each table to ensure that all is going well. They each wear a badge or announce themselves at the outset. Yet around the periphery of the restaurant is a team of agile professionals that most diners scarcely notice.
Like phantoms winding and weaving among the living, the busers--known in politically incorrect circles as busboys and occasionally referred to as backwaiters--glide anonymously through the room, depositing freshly chilled glasses of water and baskets of warm bread while swiftly spiriting away the used dishes and dessert forks.
The busers set and clear tables, fold napkins to look like puffy flowers, and can tell at a glance when someone is using their dinner fork to eat their salad. They contribute as much to their customers' dining experience as the chef or the waitperson or the interior decorator. Yet they are the invisible people, unsung heroes of the restaurant world.
If they are noticed at all, it is only barely so.
Customers may not recognize the contribution of a restaurant's busing staff, but savvy managers and other food workers do. In the words of one Sonoma County waitperson, "Without the busers, the whole machine would grind to a halt."
Luis Gonzalez is known as "the king of the busers" to his fellow workers at Hemenway's Restaurant, Santa Rosa's stylish eatery in Montgomery Village. A former accountant in his homeland of Mexico, Gonzalez has carved a niche as one of the restaurant's most valued employees; when his parents were injured in an auto accident back home, and he took a two-month leave, his absence was acutely felt. "Oh, we felt his absence deeply!" laughs restaurant manager Linda Cade, as Gonzalez sits shyly nearby. "It took two busers to do what Luis does all on his own.
"He is the king!"
"I like doing it," Gonzalez says of his job. "I like the people, the customers. I like to help them do their job. I like keeping busy, moving fast. It's good."
Though other workers tell him he'd make a darned good waiter, Gonzalez likes the pace of his present position. "I wouldn't want to have to slow down," he grins.
"A buser has to have the personality of a dingo dog," suggests Hemenway's business manager Robert Muszynski. "They wait on the perimeter and just watch everything. Then when they see something that needs to be done, they pounce. This is not a job that just anybody can do."
Andrea Jones is the restaurant's wine buyer and one of the wait staff. "If the busers weren't out there," she says, "we couldn't keep up. Luis and the others make me look even better. I wouldn't make nearly the tips I make without him."
SPEAKING OF TIPS, most waitpersons know how important the busers are, and will graciously "tip out" to them, giving the busers a minimum of 15 percent of their own tips. Many give even more. Like waitpersons, most busers and other back-of-the-house employees work for the minimum wage and depend on the tip system to make ends meet. Aside from the percentage they receive from the waitpersons, there is the occasional tip from a customer who is aware that their buser deserves a little extra.
Underlying the issue of back-of-the-house workers is the notorious mistreatment of such employees that sometimes occurs in the industry. Last year, a federal labor investigation revealed that more than 20 Sonoma County restaurants had been underpaying their busing, dishwashing, and prep-cook staff, many of whom were undocumented workers and some of whom were not being paid at all. As a result of the probe, 255 local workers ended up receiving back wages totaling $121,000.
"Back-of-the-house workers tend to be Latinos," asserts Alicia Sanchez, spokesperson for the Union of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, Local 18, who mentions that only one restaurant in Sonoma County, the Nutty Irishman, pays union scale. "We're always fighting over issues of respect," she says. "These jobs take a lot more skill than people notice."
"Busing staff is the hardest staff to keep," offers Bridget Lee, business manager of Petaluma's Graziano's Ristorante. "They can easily get to feel like peons. If you don't work for waitpersons that appreciate you and share their tips, it's a hard job to want to stay in. Our busers do pretty well here," she adds. "Customers frequently tip them separately and all the waitpersons tip out. We try to treat them well.
"If we find a buser who's good, we do everything we can to keep them."
"I make good money," enthuses Dennis Johnson, head buser at Graziano's for over a year. He also finds that as a full-time student, the nighttime schedule serves him well. "People call up to make a reservation and sometimes they'll specifically ask that I be their buser. When that happens, I know that some people appreciate what I do for them."
Asked to describe his most difficult night on the job, Johnson recalls a meeting of podiatrists, during which slides of diseased feet were shown during dinner. "That was pretty nasty," he laughs. "I earned my pay that night."
That's nothing compared to Gonzalez' story of finding an envelope that was left on the table. It contained $10,000 cash, some jewelry, and a gun. Thinking drugs were involved, he reported the finding to management. It turned out that the goods belonged to an elderly woman who'd stopped at Hemenway's for lunch to celebrate moving from a retirement center into her daughter's home.
Then there's Trish Bagley, who has bused tables for years. She is completing her final month at Hemenway's, after which she's going off to college to become a nurse. "I once worked at the Flamingo," she shyly recalls. "And this one guy started choking to death."
The future nurse leaped to the diner's rescue, performed the Heimlich maneuver, and saved his life.
"I got a huge tip!" she beams.
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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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