A waitress since age 14

At Work

Harbor East Oceanaire's Nancy Oliver says talking about food, and wine is her passion


December 27, 2006|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,Special to the Sun

Nancy Oliver


Oceanaire Seafood Room, Harbor East

Salary --$3.08 an hour plus tips; she averages $30,000 a year

Age --41

Years on the job --One. But she has been a waitress for 27 years.

How she got started --Oliver said she began working in the restaurant business at the age of 14, by following her mother to her job at a catering hall. She worked there for about four years and has stayed in the profession ever since. Other area restaurants where she has worked include Bandaloops (now closed) and Legal Seafood. "I find it enjoyable. I could talk about food all night long."

Typical day --She works four nights a week starting at 4 p.m. and regularly picks up extra shifts. Her night starts with about a half-hour of prep work. The Oceanaire, known for it's "ultra-fresh" seafood, prints a daily menu with fresh catch selections that are always changing. A staff meeting starts at 4:30 p.m. to discuss issues of the day, including special menu items. At 5 p.m. the doors open and customers begin to come in. Oliver said the Oceanaire is not a "turn-and-burn" type of restaurant where waitresses make their money by serving as many diners as possible. Instead, she typically has three or four tables and serves between 12 and 25 customers a night. She expects customers to stay about two hours.

Tips --20 percent is the industry standard for good service, said Oliver, who averages between $125 and $150 in tips a night.

Best tip --$450. Oliver said she worked a party of about 10 people who spared no expense. "They were exceedingly generous."

Busiest time --Convention season, which includes spring and fall.

Most popular items on menu --Scallops and black cod. Oliver said the scallops are "magnificent in size" and are best pan-seared, while the cod is served with a perfect combination of miran and miso to give it the signature "black" color.

The good --"I love meeting new people, talking about food and wine. That's my passion."

The bad --Time management. "Making sure you have been able to focus on what needs to be done. When you get three or four tables all going at once and all the chairs are full, you need to know how to focus."

Physical toll --Oliver said her mother waited tables until she was in her late 60s and it took a toll on her body. "I can't imagine doing this my whole life because it is so physically demanding. It puts a beating on you."

Future --Although she expects to continue to waitress a few more years, Oliver is preparing for her life outside restaurants. She has taken business classes and hopes to open a garment business. She previously worked as a bike courier and has designed over-the-shoulder bags, which she sold through word-of-mouth to messengers around town.

Perks --Small meals are offered at the start of a shift and select dinner specials are available for tasting. Oliver can also dine at the restaurant for 50 percent off most menu items.

Helping customers decide --"I really like the challenge of someone coming in hungry and not really knowing what they want. And when they come away with a really great experience, that's when I enjoy it."

The difficult customers --"I take everything with a smile. We look at a complaint as an opportunity to turn things around and make them pleased with how we handled it."

Philosophy on the job --"Do my best to make their experience good."

Nancy Jones-Bonbrest Special to The Sun

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