Why St. Louis career servers make the hospitality industry a home
Ken Bollwerk, a 68-year-old man with a twinkle in his eye, has made a living laying napkins on the laps of the rich and famous, plating fettuccine with duck confit from a tableside cart and pampering guests. He’s worked for 44 years at Tony’s, the iconic St. Louis restaurant just a few hundred yards from the gleaming Gateway Arch.
A long-time waiter and now manager, Bollwerk carries a worn pocket notebook where he’s jotted down not only memos about new wines and regular guests, but also dictums from his late boss like, “Take pride in your work – your work is you.” Vince Bommarito Sr. ran his father’s eponymous restaurant like a Marine drill team for 60 years and taught Bollwerk everything he knows. Bommarito passed away in April, but his words have sunk in.
“I want to be the best waiter I can be,” Bollwerk said.
The Tony’s veteran belongs to a cadre of St. Louisans who’ve made waiting tables and serving restaurant patrons a career as opposed to a get-through-college gig. They’re found at high-end establishments where a popular waiter can net $800 to $1,000 in tips each week or upward of $50,000 a year after assistants and bartenders get their cuts. That’s on top of the minimum $4.30 per hour in wages they’re owed as tipped employees in Missouri.
This kind of money may pale in comparison with the 100 grand some New York City waiters reportedly earn, but it secures a middle class lifestyle in St. Louis despite most waiters’ absence of health care coverage and 401(k). Bollwerk and his wife own a home and have put four children through college.
But it’s not just the money that keeps people like Bollwerk taking orders for decades.
A hallway at Tony’s is covered with photos of VIP guests, many hearkening back to yesteryear – Frank Sinatra, the two Bush presidents, Ozzie Smith, Carol Channing. Bollwerk has greeted or waited on them, but the restaurant’s rarified atmosphere – where waiters used to wear tuxedos – made him want to quit after his first day on the job at age 23.
“I told my mom, ‘I’m not going back; it’s way over my head,’” he said. “Mom said, ‘You’ve got to give it a chance.’”
He paid his dues as an assistant waiter for several years before becoming a full-fledged captain in charge of a station of six tables and two assistants. After 20-odd years of captaining, Bollwerk moved up to manager. In that role, he performs some maitre d’ duties like taking reservations, greeting and seating guests, introducing their captain and, if need be, he helps serve.
Bollwerk doesn’t intrusively chitchat with guests. The Bommarito Way minimizes server-talk to maximize table intimacy. No need to ask, “Now, who gets this steak?” The earlier placement of a steak knife at a diner’s plate provides the cue.
At the same time, Bommarito taught his waiters to become acute students of their guests, according to Bollwerk. “He said, ‘Get the pulse of the party.’ Do they want to linger? Or are they fast eaters? Some people are going to the theater. We want to get them out on time. Some want to ask the waiters questions about the restaurant, others don’t – they’re doing business.”
Respectful reticence doesn’t rule out close bonds with guests. As a server, Bollwerk had scores of call parties – diners who requested him whenever they made a reservation. “I have a lot of friends who are guests here,” he said. “I socialize with some outside of work.”
Bollwerk recommends serving as an option for individuals who don’t view themselves as college bound. He quit community college to work full-time and support his divorced mother. “I made no six-figure income, but I made more than I would have in a factory,” he said. Especially when some guests tipped 100%.
There’s another payoff for good service. “The greatest thing about working here is that you make people happy every night,” Bollwerk said, his face lighting up. “When they leave, they can’t wait to come back.”
That’s one way Bollwerk has made his friends.
“If you don’t have relationships,” he said, “you have nothing.”
Lisa Haddon, a waitress at Trattoria Marcella, once dreamt her station of tables was as big as a parking lot. By the time she got back to each table with multitudinous orders, the diners had left.
Such dreams come with a high-stress occupation, but 53-year-old Haddon has successfully weathered it since 1982 when she landed a job as hostess at the original Pasta House restaurant in University City. Founder Kim Tucci, a former Tony’s waiter, died in March, one month before Vince Bommarito Sr.
Except for a brief stint as a hairdresser and a longer one co-managing the now shuttered Stellina Pasta Café, Haddon has made the rounds – Houlihan’s at Union Station, Peppe’s Apt. 2, Russell’s Cafe, the old Sea Chase at the Chase Park Plaza, to name a few.
“People who’ve been in the restaurant business a long time say it gets in your blood,” Haddon said. “It’s really hard to get out once you get in it.”
Money is one reason why the profession is addicting. “Nobody’s a millionaire, but I bought a house 20 years ago, and went on a vacation to Croatia this year,” she said. “You can make it a career, but most people do a little something extra because you have your days free.” In Haddon’s case, the side gig is an Airbnb business, which she hopes will eventually become a full-time affair.
Haddon also touts the flexibility and autonomy her job affords. It’s not hard to find someone to cover her shift if she needs time off, she said. And her station, usually five to seven tables, amounts to her own mini-business. “My boss expects me to take care of my station. The goal is getting people to come back.”
Like other careerists, Haddon relishes the camaraderie on the restaurant floor. “Your work family is here,” she said. “They’re the best people I’ve ever met, the funniest people I ever met, the most eclectic, eccentric.”
The restaurant family is bonded together by crisis – mixed-up orders, a shorthanded kitchen, an obnoxious guest – and the constant stress of being scrutinized by a roomful of people. “It’s no wonder that so many actors are servers,” Haddon said. “You have to be ‘on,’ and not everybody can do that. It’s like being onstage.”
But the play doesn’t last forever. The performers may get red-faced during the evening rush. Curses may be muttered. “But everybody knows it will be over,” said Haddon. “And they’ll have money in their pocket.
“Afterwards, you have a drink, tell jokes and forget about it.”
What happens when a Tony’s patron drops a napkin on the floor? Nobody picks it up right away.
“We first give a new napkin to the guest,” said 58-year-old head bartender and private-party director Donny Bonds, hired in 1978. “Then we pick up the napkin on the floor so nobody wonders if they’re getting the dirty one back.”
If anybody knows the Bommarito Way, it’s Bonds, who’s held almost every job at Tony’s outside of cooking, including dishwasher, barback, lounge waiter, wine cellar manager and captain.
“He trained me himself,” Bonds said about Bommarito. “He showed me how to carry a tray of glasses using my fingertips instead of my palm so I can control it better.”
Bommarito wasn’t above raising his voice to make a point. Bonds said he tried to quit after his first week, telling Bommarito, “You yelled at me.” He persuaded Bonds, then a teenager, to stay on the job. Bonds became the restaurateur’s daytime driver in the last two years of his life, taking him to doctor’s appointments and eating lunch with him frequently. “He told me he’d take me to every restaurant in town,” said Bonds.
Like his friend and colleague Bollwerk, Bonds remembers to take the pulse of the party. “You never comment on what’s being said at the table,” Bonds noted, “but you listen to know if anything is wrong.” Serving drinks behind the bar, he adapts to each customer’s conversational bent. “You can be talking to one person about kids and another about a strip club,” he said.
Bonds doesn’t hesitate to recommend bartending and serving as a career. He did well enough that, together with his ex-wife’s income, he could buy a home and put four children through college. “But we miss a lot of stuff,” he said, meaning anything that happens in the evening – school plays, presidential debates, television shows.
For Bonds, what happens at Tony’s makes up for what the dayshift experiences at night.
“When I started out, it was a party life for me,” he said. “The party never ended because I like what I do.”
Peggy Conley began waiting tables under the chandeliers of the old Lt. Robert E. Lee steamboat restaurant on the St. Louis waterfront in 1979.
“At the time, I never thought about waitressing as a career,” she said. “But it was good money – $500 a week in cash – and good benefits. I also met some of my best friends there.”
A fire destroyed the Lt. Robert E. Lee in 2010, but Conley, now 62, continues to serve hungry, thirsty people. She’s an institution at Sidney Street Café as a bartender-waiter presiding over 13 barstools and nine tables. On weekends, she has an assistant.
“Seventy-five percent of my clientele come here just to sit with me,” said Conley. “I’m waiting on some customers whose parents brought them here 25 years ago. Now, they’re bringing their kids.”
She comes across as warm-hearted with hard-headed wisdom, boiling down serving success to pithy proverbs: Kill them with kindness. Give nice, get nice. The customer is always right.
Bartending and waiting long enough can exact a physical price. In Conley’s case, the price has been two rotator cuff surgeries and two cervical disk surgeries from shaking mixed drinks over her head. “I developed bad feet on the Robert E. Lee wearing 1½-inch heels,” she added.
Aches and pains, though, haven’t dampened Conley’s festive spirit. Her work wardrobe includes some 100 different bow ties – jelly beans on the tie for Easter and ghosts on her Halloween tie.
She owns a house and sits on a retirement nest egg. “I’ve always made good money,” she said. One key to financial security has been living on cash tips and banking her paycheck.
She said she’ll continue full-time restaurant work until she turns 65, when she anticipates switching to private parties. “I can do them forever,” she said.
Spoken like a lifer.
Robert Lowes is a contributor to Sauce Magazine.
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