Big Nights, big tips


Michael Lewis is preparing himself, body and soul, for the playoff run. He lifts free weights in the mid-afternoon to strengthen his legs and arms. And he makes a deliberate attempt to keep his state of mind positive. However, Lewis isn't a professional hockey or basketball player. ML, as he is universally known, is a food server for the Old West Steak House team, playing nightly in the Downtown League.

ML is in his 18th season as a waiter in Ski Town USA. And he says March in Steamboat's restaurants is definitely the equivalent of the postseason in major league sports.

"March is the playoffs," Lewis said. "It's a clichn sports, but in the playoffs you take it one game at a time. You've got to take March at the restaurant one night at a time.

"Otherwise, you'll be Post-Toastied by Saturday night."

When the Steamboat Ski Area is busy in March, every night is Saturday night at local restaurants.

"March is typically the biggest month of the year," Jeff Little of the Ore House at the Pine Grove said. His restaurant currently employs 16 waiters and waitresses. Little agreed that in March, food servers have to come to work with their game faces on.

"This is the make it or break it month for the season," Curt Church, bar manager at the Steamboat Brewery and Tavern said. "You limp along until March and that's supposed to be the big kaboom!"

But March is also the time when the resiliency of restaurant workers in ski towns is tested, Church said.

"You've already spent three months catering to people. When people sit down in the restaurant, people can already be frustrated because they've been waiting, because you are busy. It can be hard on on people working in the front of the house. In fact, it can be hard on people working in the back of the house."

Church said restaurant workers can take two different approaches to handling March madness.

They can say "Oh no, March is here," or they can take his own approach, Church said.

"You can be very psyched and say 'This is the time for me to make money.' I say, 'let's make money and let's make people happy,'" Church said.

ML is known at the Old West, on Eleventh Street in downtown Steamboat, for the number of restaurant guests who request him to be their waiter.

"There are nights when six tables request ML," Old West owner Don Silva said. "People will actually rearrange their schedules. They say, 'We want Michael.' I think he's the epitome of the professional waiter in Steamboat."

ML says it's no coincidence that people request that he be their waiter when they phone in for reservations he actively solicits repeat business, especially when he has a good time with a table.

"If it's people I like, I always say, 'When you come back, make sure you ask for me.' I've got a cult following. I always solicit (return business) and it pays off."

VIP's at every table

ML said that his approach to waiting on tables is to make every party feel like they are the only table he is waiting on that night. But when his regular customers come into the restaurant, he said he goes the extra mile to make them feel special.

"I like to make them all feel like VIPs," ML said. "Straight up I'm a people kind of guy and the entertainment is provided at no extra charge."

When Paula Tissot and Frank Gilbert arrive for their reservation at the Old West, ML arrives on cue with a couple of Finlandia's on the rocks and a half-pound of shrimp as an appetizer. A couple of baseball cut sirloins are waiting to go on the grill. Tissot and Gilbert will never even be presented with menus ML already knows what they want for dinner.

Andrea Barr waits tables across town from the Old West at the Grubsteak, in Gondola Plaza at the base of the ski area. This is her first season waiting tables in Steamboat, and she understands ML's appreciation of repeat business. She previously worked at Lucille's, a locals favorite in Fort Collins.

"I loved waiting tables in Fort Collins a lot," Barr said. "Here, you don't get that repeat business. That's one of the best things about waiting on tables repeat business."

Barr said her favorite part of her job this winter is working with colleagues who hail from all over the country.

ML doesn't hesitate to admit that he does his best, in a subtle way, to build the size of his tickets. That's the name of the game for waiters who are working for 20 percent tips. The more appetizers, bottles of wine and desserts a food server sells, the more tips they are apt to go home with at the end of the night.

Food servers at the Old West get a computer print out at the end of the night that tells them their gross sales and their sales per head.

However, ML says it's a big mistake to approach a restaurant table with dollar signs in your eyes. If a waiter or waitress is preoccupied with the size of the tip they anticipate receiving, it will actually make it harder to focus on providing the level of service that actually leads to big tips.

"I never go up to the table wondering what I'm going to get," ML said. "If you get worried about that, then you're not going to have a good time at the table. I learned a long time ago, I just take every table on the same."

Besides, ML observed, there are plenty of times when it's the guy in the John Deere ball cap who leaves the $20 tip on an $85 tab, and the guys in the Gucci loafers who leave 10 bucks.

Treat everybody the way you'd want to be treated, ML said, and at the end of the night you'll have made "your nut." At the Old West, he explained, waiters and waitresses go home feeling like they've made their "nut" if they leave with $100 after tipping out other dining room personnel who aren't tipped directly.

Scaling back

ML has scaled back from the five nights he worked most weeks for 17 years to just three nights a week at the restaurant. He's developing a business, caretaking large vacation homes for clients, many of whom he met at the restaurant.

He's grown his list of clients from six last winter to 13 this winter. He checks each house once a week, delivers cars to the airport for incoming homeowners and even picks up their Christmas gifts at the post office.

"No detail is too small," ML promises.

At the age of 49, Lewis said he isn't about to give up waiting on tables yet.

"I still have fun doing it and I make a damn good living doing it," ML said. "I've been able to buy a condo in Steamboat."

The playoffs are underway in Steamboat's restaurants this month, Lewis has kept himself in the starting lineup longer than most players ever dream of.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.