More than 200 volunteers showed up at Aspen High School on Tuesday night to serve food to roughly 1,000 people who came through its doors for a free Thanksgiving community dinner.
Hosted by Aspen T.R.E.E., the volunteers welcomed diners, seated them and checked for food allergies. Then, they delivered plates of locally sourced food — which had been prepped by another army of volunteers and farmers in the weeks leading up to the event — to these hungry tables of eaters, followed by cleaning and resetting the tables.
It was relatively seamless and fun. Interacting with different groups of people brought me back, somewhat nostalgically, to my days in the service industry. But above all, it reminded me to be nice despite which side of the table I’m on.
For a town with reputable chefs, restaurants and trend-setting food, service in Aspen and Snowmass can be a disappointment. Given the transient nature of a seasonal resort economy, retaining professional servers can be tough and it sometimes shows. Making sure that waters are full and doing it with a smile seems easy enough, but sometimes understaffed restaurants, disgruntled management and grumpy customers turn it into swimming upstream.
Yes, even customers can be at fault. It’s surprising what people can find to complain about, even when they’re receiving a free meal served to them by chefs, volunteers and a clean-up crew donating their time. Overall, people were grateful of the experience, but there were a handful who found distress in the salad dressing, lack of second servings or time spent waiting while others were fed before them.
The service industry is full of horror stories like these — those unappreciative customers who really will find something wrong with anything. And for every angry eater, there’s a bad server who may just not be cut out for the job.
These are the outliers.
In between are lots of thankful guests who understand that it’s hard to manage eight tables of diners ranging from “hangry” baby to hyper-friendly, wanting-to-chat grandmother. They appreciate when the salad dressing is actually served on the side, but won’t lose it when it’s not. They’re looking for a fun dining experience, perhaps even celebrating something special, and will reward good service when it’s delivered.
In between are lots of happy waiters who really do like their jobs. They probably have a passion for food and wine, and in this town usually hold some sort of graduate degree. Most likely, they got a few runs in on the ski mountain earlier in the day and are generally pleased to help you decide between the arugula or beet salad. They want to enhance your dining experience, instead of hindering it.
At the end of our shift at the community meal, one diner offered a tip. We thanked him, and told him told to donate it to Aspen T.R.E.E., the organization which really deserves the money. I think he added extra to the total amount.
Sometimes eating out isn’t just about the food. It’s about demonstrating integrity and compassion from both sides of the table. A little niceness can go a long way.
Kudos to the Aspen T.R.E.E. team for another successful year. Email your best-surprise-as-a-server stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.