Posts tagged #waitress

Celebrating Waitresses Who Love What They Do

Jean Joseph - Al's Good Food. San Francisco, CA

Jean Joseph - Al's Good Food. San Francisco, CA

Why devote my career to studying and celebrating waitresses?  First of all they are some of the most under-valued workers in America. How do I know? I waited tables for almost a decade. I spent many nights rubbing my swollen feet and I knew how painful it was to be yelled at by a hostile customer. Most sociologists write about jobs they have never done. The fact that I had waitressed for so many years helped my research tremendously. I wasn’t an outsider trying to understand the plight of the hard-working server. They trusted me. During interviews we traded insider stories about the industry and tricks of the trade. I was one of them.

Based on my own waitressing experience, I expected to meet women who felt overworked and under-appreciated, but that’s not what I found. All but a few said they loved their jobs and if given the opportunity, they “wouldn’t do anything else.” I thought, how can this be true? Waitressing can be a grueling, thankless job. And where were all the complaints about carpal tunnel and varicose veins?

After five more years of research and listening to heartfelt testimonies about the job, I took a closer look at their lives. I analyzed their work environment. I studied theorists, academics, and historians who wrote about sociology, gender, ethnography, labor, restaurants, spatial politics, and power. I read Michel Foucault, John Berger, Barbara Ehrenreich, James Clifford, Dorothy Sue Cobble, William Foote Whyte, Studs Terkel, Richard Gutman, Mike Rose, Victor Burgin, and many others. I considered that, although we had the same job, an older waitress’s experience might be different from mine because we were raised in a different time.

Career waitresses know how to make the job easier. In many cases, their seniority status earns them a higher hourly wage and respect from their coworkers and managers. Ironically, the physical and mental labor keeps them healthy instead of wearing them out, and their regular customers make the job more enjoyable and profitable. Regulars often leave better tips than strangers who are just passing through. These are not poor, struggling women. Most of the career waitresses I know are financially stable, they own their homes, drive newer cars, and many have sent their children to private schools. That's why I wrote the book.

Dolores Jeanpierre - Ole's Waffle House. Alameda, CA

Dolores Jeanpierre - Ole's Waffle House. Alameda, CA

"Counter Culture" is not a scholarly study, a memoir, or a historical account of waitressing. And even though there are over 100 photographs, it’s more than a coffee-table book of a pop culture icon. It combines oral history interviews, cultural criticism and photography to recognize an overlooked group of working women who have brought meaning and culture to the American roadside dining experience. It show how career waitresses are different from average service workers; it investigates issues of power in the workplace; it shows how older waitresses are physically able to handle the job; it explains why they are marginalized and sexualized in popular culture; it examines the work ethic of their successors, and reveals why they choose to keep working well past retirement age. Ultimately, it explains how these women have taken a job that many people avoid and made it their livelihood.

I have launched a crowd funding campaign to produce an App, eBook and product line to celebrate the incredible women I interviewed for “Counter Culture"

Counter Culture Facebook Page  -

Read it for yourself.

Meet Charlotte - A Fred Harvey Waitress

Charlotte Solberg was one of the first waitresses I interviewed for Counter Culture. I found her working in the dusty town of Seligman, Arizona on Route 66.


"I was born and raised in Seligman.  I’m Mexican. My mother was born here too. I started washing dishes when I was 10. They put a crate on the floor for me to stand on. My first waitressing job was at 13.  It was just a little old restaurant, called the H&J. I was really shy then. I didn’t want to be around all those railroad guys.


I worked at the [Grand Canyon] Caverns, when old [Route] 66 was popular for Fred Harvey in the late '60’s. I was 21 years old. Me and my sisters Fern and Josie were all Fred Harvey Girls and we had to wear the uniforms. They were black dresses with white pinafores. Oh I hated them things! We had to wear dresses, we couldn’t wear pants. If you had long hair you had to wear your hair in nets. You couldn’t chew gum, and there was no smoking either. You had to be real neat and you had wear a starched uniform everyday. Everyday.

Fred Harvey's Grand Canyon Restaurant, Route 66 in the 1960's.

Fred Harvey's Grand Canyon Restaurant, Route 66 in the 1960's.

A lot of people say waitressing is stressful and if people give them a hard time, they can’t take it. I’ve gone through a lot of bad experiences but I’ve also had people send me gifts. One day this guy came in from Los Angeles, he was really nice. He was wearing a religious metal and I said, “Oh your metal’s so pretty.” And few days later he sent me a little gold metal in the mail.

Copper Cart - Seligman, Arizona

Copper Cart - Seligman, Arizona

Some people from Taiwan came in The Copper Cart. They asked for a plate and poured out what looked like strips of squash and tomatoes. It looked so good. I asked them what they were eating and they said “Would you like a taste?” I said “Sure.” After I tasted it, I said, "That is so good.” When they left they asked for my address and I never thought anymore about it. Well like a few months later I get this box in the mail and it was from Taiwan. I still have some at home. They sent me packages of different types of vegetables with the hot sauce that they use. It took about 3 months for that package to get here. It passed inspection and everything. Amazing."

Charlotte (in white) and sister Fern (in red)  - Yes, that is their real hair.

Charlotte (in white) and sister Fern (in red)  - Yes, that is their real hair.

Interviewing Rivers at a formerly segregated “Key Club” restaurant in the American South

For my book Counter Culture, I traveled over 26,000 miles and interviewed 59 waitresses working in large cities and rural towns with only one stoplight. As a black woman, I was unsure how I would be received in some of these out-of-the-way places, but practically every location I visited offered the highest standards of hospitality. Small Town USA opened up their homes, uncovered their histories, and shared their lives with me.


One of my most memorable interviews was with Rivers Coleman at the Crystal Grill in Greenwood, Mississippi. I set up the interview months before and while preparing for it I read that in the 1960s the Crystal Grill was a "key club" establishment. Having a "key" was code for being white. During the Civil Rights Act, the mayor of Greenwood was dead against desegregation and said, "Any business that voluntarily integrates in the Delta is ruined as far as local people are concerned. We are not going to help any businesses that want to integrate." The "Crystal Grill" during that time became the "Crystal Club" where whites had to pay a "membership fee." To get access patrons had to hand a membership card through the door. Lifetime memberships cost a dollar but white patrons admit they were never asked to produce a card and they never saw any black people in the restaurant.

After reading about the history of the Crystal Grill, I thought it would be a good idea to send newspaper articles about the project to Rivers with pictures of myself so she would know that I was black. I wanted to interview Rivers because she was still waiting tables in her 80s and had been a waitress for 55 years. When I spoke with her on the phone she was a little standoffish and reluctantly agreed to do the interview. 


On the day of the interview, it was raining so the 95-mile drive from Jackson took even longer than it was supposed to. As we passed Kudzu draped fields on rural county roads, I started to mentally prepare for the interview. I was nervous about this one. Driving into the town of Greenwood, we saw blocks of boarded up buildings but at the end of the street on the corner was the Crystal Grill, open and ready for business. As we walked in, we were greeted by an openly gay black man, which immediately made me smile. He found Rivers and we sat down for the interview. She was a little nervous at first and but after a half an hour she relaxed and shared stories with me that I will always remember.

Rivers has a strong constitution and an incredible work ethic. She grew up poor, picking cotton as a child. The only time she took off from waitressing was when she had uterine cancer and she was back to work after only 3 weeks. She told a story about a white man slapping a black man in the restaurant for getting up to put sugar in his coffee. I imagine that was just one of many violent outbursts of racism that she witnessed growing up poor in rural Mississippi.

Obama had just won the Primary the night before our interview and Rivers said she was so happy that he had won. She paused for a moment with tears in her eyes and said, "We have come a long way." I teared up as well. I left Greenwood that day thinking that although I will always use my instincts on the road, listen to my gut and be as informed as possible, I will never prejudge a situation, especially when it comes race.


Listen to an audio clip of Rivers here.

Does anyone have stories about restaurant culture and race that they want to share?

For more stories you can buy the book, COUNTER CULTURE  - $25 (includes shipping in the US)

email request to:


Getting Stories for Counter Culture

Sondra Dudley. Buttercream Diner. Napa, CA

Sondra Dudley. Buttercream Diner. Napa, CA

At practically every talk or book signing I do, people want to know how I found the waitresses featured in Counter Culture. Most people assumed I took a road trip one summer and stopped at diners along the way and interviewed and photographed waitresses. No, it didn't happen that way.

During the seven years I spent documenting this subculture I gathered over 300GB of data (approximately 1000 images and about 1200 pages of 68 transcribed audio interviews) that was logged, color coded and indexed for the book.  

Finding these women and convincing them to share their time and stories with me was not easy. Being a former waitress helped the process tremendously; I wasn’t an outsider trying to understand the plight of the waitress, I was one of them. I had also rubbed my swollen feet after a long night at work and I knew how it felt to be yelled at by customers who were impossible to please. This was one of the main reasons, I believe, these women shared insider stories with me and allowed me to follow them around with a camera during the busiest times of their shift.

Before I did any interviews I had to figure out the type of diner waitresses I was looking for. I decided they should be:

A. 50 years or older

B. Have waitressed for at least twenty years

C. Must work in a diner or coffee shop (a place that serves breakfast and has a counter with stools) that is staple in the community

D. Have a large clientele of regular customers. 

Once I figured out who I was looking for, I had to find them. The classic diner waitress is so ingrained in the American imagination, it is assumed that these women are everywhere but really, they are a vanishing breed because a lot of mom and pop restaurants are closing their doors and most chain diners hire a younger staff.

Traveling is expensive so to make the best use of my time and resources I couldn't risk driving around hoping to find the type of waitress I was looking for. And even if I found her, she would probably be working and way too busy to sit down with me for an interview. So to find the waitresses I reached out to Visitor Bureau and Chamber of Commerce employees who worked in the towns I planned to visit. Usually people who work in these offices have an affinity and love for the place; oftentimes they grew up in the area and had a wealth of information that was useful to me. I asked them about the local diners that were popular and if there were any waitresses they remembered from their childhood.

Once they suggested a restaurant, I called and spoke with the manager and asked if they could recommend the best waitresses who fit the parameters of the project. Then I called the waitresses they recommended (which was a challenge to get them on the phone while they were at work) and did short interviews on the phone to get a sense of their waitressing history and personality. If they were willing to be interviewed, I set up an interview time and sent out pre-questionnaires that asked detailed information such as dates and addresses of places they had worked. The pre-questionnaires were important because this was information I figured they wouldn't know off the top of their head, so I wanted to make sure that this was filled out ahead of time. This was also was a great way to trigger memories from their working past, so that during the interview I could hopefully get better stories. 

Finally I asked them to gather any old photographs and newspaper clippings that I could scan during the interview. This provided quality vintage material for my book, such as classic menus, old newspaper and magazine articles from decades ago and incredible black and white pictures of them in their uniforms. Here's a picture submitted by Pat Dermatis when she started working at the Sip 'N Bite in Baltimore at the age of 16.

Pat (in the middle) at age 16. The Sip 'N Bite, Baltimore, MD

Pat (in the middle) at age 16. The Sip 'N Bite, Baltimore, MD

After all these years later Pat is still at the Sip 'N Bite. Here is a photo I took of her after our interview with one of her regulars, "Cowboy." 

Pat & Cowboy. Sip 'N Bite - Baltimore, MD

Pat & Cowboy. Sip 'N Bite - Baltimore, MD

There was only one waitress that I found spontaneously on the road. After visiting the Historical Society in Worcester, MA to research local diners, I stopped by the Boulevard Diner and Ronnie Bello had just finished her shift. She was sitting in a booth and I asked the owner if she worked there and he said yes. Bingo! It was meant to be. 

Ronnie Bello at the Boulevard Diner. Worcester, MA

Ronnie Bello at the Boulevard Diner. Worcester, MA

To purchase Counter Culture on Amazon click on the link below: 

Click on this link to learn more about Counter Culture, watch videos and listen to audio clips of the waitresses.

How it all started


I started Taylor Made Culture in 2002. Wow, I can't believe that was over 10 years ago. I had just graduated from the California College of the Arts with a Master's Degree in Visual Criticism. It's a fancy liberal arts degree that may take me the rest of my life to pay off, but it was an incredible program and just what I needed. My Bachelor’s degree is in Painting & Drawing. I entered grad school as a scenic painter for film and television productions and left as a critical thinker who could tell a story in any medium. Viz Crit (that's what we called it) liberated me from a world of canvas and paint. It was one of the most challenging things I've ever done. I studied semiotics and deconstructed Foucault, Derrida, Burgin, Benjamin, and others. I felt like I was in way over my head but it taught me to think differently and find meaning in everyday experiences, like getting my hair done or eating in a restaurant.

My thesis was on diner waitresses which evolved into the book and exhibit, Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress. The idea came to me while slinging sushi in San Francisco. After a busy Friday night, I sat down in the back with the other servers to count my tips. The back table was a place to do paperwork, tip out coworkers, and relive all the drama of the evening. We swapped stories about our futile attempts to reason with irrational customers and commiserated about the great effort it took to get the food out of the kitchen. While eating our late-night dinners at 1:00am and balancing our sales reports we dreamed about what we were going to do with our lives after we left our service jobs for our true calling. We complained about how tired we were—our feet throbbed, our legs ached, and our arms were sore. I thought to myself, if we are this tired, how do waitresses twice our age (I was in my early thirties at the time) do this, and how do they feel about their jobs? Are they bitter after years of dealing with difficult customers? Do they have dreams they never realized? Are they worn out from the physical and mental demands of the job? And what about those who worked in coffee shops? They average eight to ten-hour shifts, and my workdays were only four to six hours. I made decent money serving sushi in San Francisco but what about those who worked in greasy spoons in small, remote towns? What about health insurance? Aging in the workplace? Retirement?

Truck Inn - off Route 80 in Nevada, near Reno.

Truck Inn - off Route 80 in Nevada, near Reno.

The questions kept coming. I did some research and found that very little had been written about this subculture. Although there were several excellent books about waitressing only a few featured older career waitresses who refer to themselves as “lifers.” Realizing this window of opportunity, by the end of the month I was on the road with a digital camera, a recorder, a scanner, and a map (that was back when we still used maps to get around). Over the following six years I traveled over 26,000 miles interviewing diner waitresses. I loved being on the road capturing the stories of these American icons. I was hooked. 

Jean Joseph has waitressed for over 60 years - Al's Good Food. San Francisco, CA 

Jean Joseph has waitressed for over 60 years - Al's Good Food. San Francisco, CA