Vancouver's veteran servers take pride in restaurant jobs
Before starting her final Friday night shift at Tomahawk Restaurant (1550 Philip Avenue, North Vancouver), 21-year-old Samantha Stremel affectionately refers to restaurant owner Chuck Chamberlain as her “work dad” while on the phone with the Georgia Straight. She goes on to describe other staff members and regular customers at the popular North Shore diner as “family”. It’s not often you hear someone speak so fondly about her boss and coworkers, but Stremel, who at the time of the interview was two days shy of leaving Tomahawk to pursue a career in hairdressing, had been working there since she was 14 years old.
“Basically, it was my first job. My mom sent me down here. I lived close by so I walked here, and Chuck kind of knew my mom,” she says very matter-of-factly. “So I came down, and he made me fill out an application, and looked it over and was like, ‘Okay, you start Saturday.’ ”
Stremel started as a busser before quickly moving onto hostessing and then serving.
“It was a pretty straightforward job—clear tables and set ’em,” she says. “I was a busser for six months and then I was a hostess for two years. I was pretty chatty at the job, so he [Chamberlain] asked me how I’d feel about moving up front. Then one of our long-time servers was leaving, so it all kind of just happened.”
Over the five years Stremel has been a server, she not only developed a close relationship with other restaurant staff but many customers as well.
“I enjoy seeing my regular Saturday and Sunday customers,” she says. “I’ve been here for so long that people get to know me, and I know a lot of people by first name, and it’s just a nice little atmosphere.”
While local celebrities, including Nardwuar the Human Serviette, actor Jason Priestley, and former NHL coach Pat Quinn, have all dined at Tomahawk, Stremel considers her regular customers the most memorable.
“I have one customer, he’s kind of like a big trucker guy. He drives a truck, and he’s kind of…growly looking,” she says, breaking into laughter. “He doesn’t look like the most friendly person, and all the girls are like, ‘He only wants you to take his order. He only wants you.’ But I think he’s awesome.
“I’ve known him since I started working here because he has been coming here for a long time,” Stremel says. “He’s really quiet and doesn’t really talk much, but he’s just a warm-hearted person who’s so nice. He’s probably one of my favourites.”
Satvinder Saini has been a server for 16 years at Ashiana Tandoori. Tracey Kusiwicz photo
Over at Ashiana Tandoori (1440 Kingsway), Satvinder Saini, who has been a server at the 31-year-old family-operated restaurant for 16 years, is also in high demand among regular customers.
“A lot of customers know me, so when they come, they say, ‘Hi,’ or they ask, ‘Oh, where is Satvinder?’ ” the mother of two, who emigrated from India 18 years ago, tells the Straight by phone before a weeknight shift. “Everybody likes me, so it’s good.”
While Saini was a tutor in India and a clothing sales associate in Surrey before working at Ashiana, she says that serving came naturally to her.
“I was not nervous because I was working at a store and dealt with customers too,” she says. “Whenever you have a job, and you can do your job, you’re happy, right?”
Shelly Chapman is a long-time server at Le Gavroche.
Across town, Shelly Chapman has been a server at Vancouver fine-dining restaurant Le Gavroche (1616 Alberni Street) for eight years and tells the Straight that, like Stremel and Saini, she finds interactions with restaurant regulars the most memorable.
“A family recently held an engagement party in the restaurant where they had come for many, many years,” she says over the phone from her West End home. “I’ve known them through other restaurants as well, but their children were brought up in that restaurant [Le Gavroche] for every birthday celebration and graduation. To see this person that I knew as a baby become engaged, this beautiful woman who’s now becoming a lawyer, it’s just…it’s quite warming.”
After Chapman completed high school in Steveston, she decided to enroll in a three-month serving course at Vancouver Community College in 1977.
“I wanted to do something that was physical. I’m not a desk person, and that [serving] made good money and was people-oriented,” she says. “The chef’s side of the school would make the food, and we would serve it. We would all take turns, one would be the hostess, one would be the bartender, and back then, we were flaming Spanish coffees by the table, that sort of thing.”
Chapman says she was inspired by the course instructors, who were then career servers working at the now-defunct William Tell restaurant.
“These people made you feel that European side of it, that it’s not the top of the ladder, but the pride that you put into it is what you get out of it, and that it can be a full-time living,” Chapman says.
Abel Jacinto has worked for 22 years at Bishop's
Long-time Bishop’s (2183 West 4th Avenue) employee Abel Jacinto grew up in Portugal, and from the time he started serving at a small hotel in the touristy Algrave region while still in high school, he knew that a career in hospitality was right for him.
“Once I started working, I just couldn’t go back to school. I just liked it so much,” he recalls over the phone. “There were a few people in the village who were working on cruise ships and it was good money at the time, so it was a dream for me to work there. It took me a while because my English wasn’t that good at the time, but once I got started, I worked there for six years.”
After meeting his wife aboard a Princess cruise ship, Jacinto immigrated to Vancouver in 1989. He started at Bishop’s a year later, where he has stayed for 22 years, serving local customers, international tourists, and big-name celebrities, including Robert De Niro.
“A couple of years ago, he was shooting a movie in town. He used to come three, four times a week, and I was the bartender at the time. He’d say, ‘I like white burgundies’, and we would bring the very best out of the cellar,” Jacinto recalls. “I’ll never forget those moments, serving Robert De Niro, serving an expensive bottle of wine. As a kid coming from Portugal in a small village, I’ll always remember that.”
Jacinto says one of the things he values most about being a server is the relationships he builds with returning diners—a stark difference to what he describes as the detached, “factory-type” customer service that comes with working at a hotel or cruise ship. He also enjoys helping customers celebrate special occasions and seeing generations of families come through the door.
“Here, you get to see people more often and you get to know what they like,” he says. “They have kids, they bring their kids when they’re young, and 10 years later, they get bigger. You follow them through their lives.”