It’s summer on the Vineyard, and they’re on the front lines, delivering lobster rolls to hungry hordes, serving up beers to thirsty tourists.
For wait staff at Vineyard restaurants and bars, the summer is the big show, the time of year where crowds make up for the slower off-season months. Summer days — and nights — are crazy, some say, but the benefits, like living on the Vineyard and being part of a tight-knit “industry” community, are big enough to keep them going, year after year.
“I’m on Martha’s Vineyard, I’m working, and I’m making money, so I can’t really complain too much,” said Gillian Badot, 29, a longtime waitress at the Lampost and, until recently, Sharky’s Cantina.
Ms. Badot said she spent a few off-seasons traveling and working elsewhere, including some winters in California (where going for a wait staff job is like “an open casting call,” she said) and one winter working in Key West. She said the clientele there paled in comparison to the Vineyard. “We’re so spoiled here,” she said. “Even in the off-season, it’s so nice and people are so great.”
“I kind of feel like I’m here to stay,” she said, adding that she makes better money than she would at a so-called real job.
The clientele in Oak Bluffs ranges from kids to seasoned drinkers, she said, and some parts of the job are tough, like making change using an old-fashioned register in a dark, loud bar or cutting off people who have been drinking too much.
It’s hard because “you don’t know what they did before,” she said. “You have to be really aware. Better safe than sorry,” she added.
“It was just a means to make money in the beginning,” said Samantha Cleland, an Australian native who is part owner at the Sidecar Cafe and Bar and a waitress at Offshore Ale Company, where she’s worked for about eight years. “I actually enjoyed it . . . meeting different people, and different faces.”
Ms. Cleland moved to the Vineyard about 20 years ago, and first worked at the Lampost in the early 1990s. Her story may sound familiar; she “fell in love with the Vineyard and I’ve been here since.”
“It’s funny how being here for 20 years and knowing what the summer’s like here, you always get blindsided by the fact that it’s busy all of a sudden . . . the switch goes on and here they all are,” she declared.
“I actually really enjoy the summer,” she added. “There are people who save all year to come for a week in a place I get to live year-round, I see every day on my way to work.”
Erik Peckar, who has worked behind the bar and as a server at Offshore Ale for eight years, sees both sides. “There’s a lot of good and a lot of bad,” said the 31-year-old who also works full-time as an executive administrator at Vineyard Power and does some wedding photography.
For a few years he said he worked five months a year and then spent time traveling.
“Some people affect you in ways you never think will affect you, they’ll be genuine and sweet and kind. That’s the off-season kind of good,” Mr. Peckar said.
“Summer good is affecting people’s vacations and time spent here, and reminding people to do as the locals do and relax. Take a walk . . . They come here and have a 24-hour whirlwind and you’re the one person they ask about what they should do. That’s a cool experience, letting people know they should go ride on the Flying Horses.”
Then there are those that test the patience. “When you’re working in the customer service industry, 95 per cent of people who come in are fabulous and sweet, and five per cent are difficult to handle. That’s the difficult part of the job,” he said. “[The trick is], just be really patient with people. When people are upset they want someone to listen to them. “Always trust your bartender” is a good thing to remember. People tell you all types of crazy stuff that they wouldn’t necessarily . . . People want to talk to me about what’s going on in their life.
“I had a woman the other night who was complaining about how her husband drank too much and how it was affecting their children.”
He continued: “The difficult part is marrying the yin and yang of the seasons, and its ups and downs. It can be extreme. Seven months of the year everyone comes in and you know them and then it rapidly switches gears to a whole new group of people who don’t know you and don’t know your idiosyncrasies, you don’t know theirs. I love when people come in and I know what they drink and I can pour it for them as they walk in the door. You lose that effect in the summertime because you don’t know everybody.”
To preserve sanity, all agreed, days off are best spent away from the crowds.
“I try not to go anywhere near Oak Bluffs,” Ms. Badot said.
Ms. Cleland concurred. “When I’m not working, I’m not anywhere near town,” she said. “As much as I love that there are people here enjoying the Island . . . I tend to try to just have quality down time with family,” she added.
This includes barbecues with friends she made 20 years ago while working in restaurants. They’ve now become parents, she said, and “grown up together and became a community in itself.”
“We enjoy each others’ company,” said Ms. Cleland, who has two sons. “I love being able to walk in the post office and they know my name, that kind of community is definitely something you’d have a hard time finding in the big city.”
She said the Vineyard has “become a home for us . . . none of us really are from here, this isn’t where we planned to be . . . it just kind of evolved.”
Ms. Badot agreed. “Most of my really good friends are year-rounders, they have lives,” she said. “They all still work in the industry because it is really good money and it can be really good money all year round.
“It’s a great community. Everyone just kind of sticks together.”
Ms. Badot recalled one year when her bike was stolen in California. When she came back, “everyone pitched in to buy me a bicycle. Like a really nice bicycle,” she said.
Some friends in the industry come in to visit after a shift, and fellow wait staff are “good tippers,” she said. On a day off, they’ll all go to Nancy’s for lunch.
Then there is the community of regular customers. There are year-round regulars and Ms. Badot said some who get cards and birthday cakes from the staff. Some patrons are “bizarre, but we just love them.”
Some summer patrons come back every year and seek waiters out, she said. “You build a following,” she said.
“It’s definitely fun and kind of rewarding that they are looking for us . . . that they come searching for us,’ Ms. Cleland said.
Then there’s that ever-thorny issue of tipping. “I want to say that people do tip,” said Ms. Badot, who said tips are the main source of income for most bartenders and wait staffers.
Her suggested guide? A dollar per drink, or 20 per cent of the tab. “But I’m not negative about it, I’m lucky to be making good money in this economy,” she said.
So some advice for diners headed to the bar, or the restaurant? Have a good time and be respectful, Ms. Badot said. “If you’re happy, then I’m happy for you,” she said.
“Patience, patience, patience,” Ms. Cleland added. “We’re not a fast food industry. You’re going to get . . . really nice atmosphere and good food. But you may just have to wait.
“Why are you in such a hurry? You are on an Island, you’re not going to go anywhere.”