Catering Servers Master the Waiting Game
Rudy Winford and George Clark
Judy LaBorde Photograph
It’s really been a blessing to me, it kept my wages up,” Bobby Anderson says about his long career as a waiter in New Orleans’ households. “And, it lets me help my church, since I tithe and I give back 10 percent. It’s just a part of my life.”
Either working along with a catering company to produce a successful party or working for a family or private club full-time, Anderson’s job of choice is one that appeals to many New Orleanians as a career or a way of adding income with a second job.
People have come to this work from different starting points. But, on one thing they agree. As Anderson put it, “you have to have a spirit of liking people.”
“Anybody can serve dinner, but not everybody can make people feel comfortable. I want to have the best spirit and personality I can give,” he says.
While Anderson’s first job was in a home, Rudy Winford followed a different route. “The backyard of the chef at the Boston Club ran into our backyard,” Winford says. “One summer he asked if I’d like to help. I started off there right out of high school.”
Winford worked his way up through the ranks at the Boston Club. “First in the kitchen, then I went out front as a waiter. I began at 19 and I retired from there 35 years later.”
As Winford explains, “All the men I served dinner or supper, they became friends.” Being known and making connections is the key to success in booking other work for events in homes, or perhaps working full-time for one family.
“You worked at different clubs – the Louisiana Club, the Pickwick Club – and then you’d be working at different houses,” he says.
One of the keys to Winford’s career was the training and support he received from a Boston Club employee for 50 years, Alden McDonald Sr. “He taught me the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, he was well known serving parties and I started working jobs with him,” Winford remembers.
According to his obituary in The Times-Picayune in 1994, McDonald “was probably best known to New Orleanians as the person who assisted Rex as he toasted his queen on the balcony of the Boston Club on Mardi Gras.” His chosen career enabled him, and others in this field, to raise a family and educate his children. Alden McDonald Jr., president of Liberty Bank and Trust, is his son.
Alden McDonald Sr. also mentored James Kelly. Kelly worked full time at Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) but McDonald introduced him to his sideline as waiter and bartender. “I started working with him as a youngster in different locations, and it was a career I continued.”
“It’s a job, it’s a good paying job. What you make out of it is what you put into it,” Kelly says. Personal relations are most important. “Your personality speaks a lot. I have to be well liked and be trustworthy,” he says.
Besides being a waiter and a bartender, Kelly can also cook “a beef tenderloin, or fried fish and oysters.” He takes pride in his skill at decorating trays and can handle a Christmas tree. “A genteel way of being a good person and a good waiter: that’s my signature,” Kelly says. The result? “You’re not treated as a waiter, you’re treated as a person.”
Like Rudy Winford, George Clark began as a waiter at a club, in his case the Petroleum Club. “I had twin daughters, so I started working at night at the restaurant at the Hilton.” From there he moved on to work at parties and a full-time job with a family. “In order to give good service, you’ve got to have a passion for what you’re doing,” he says.
Hill Carrere started at the time of the Republican Convention in 1988. “My sister was working at the Job Corps and they needed adult supervisors to help with convention work – I went along more as a chaperon.” The head caterer asked for his number, and that began his second career. “Right now I’m the Demolition Coordinator for the City of New Orleans,” Carrere says. “Being a waiter has always been a part time thing for me.”
His secret? “Folks always want to be around folks who are positive. You have to genuinely like what you’re doing.” Carrere always comes prepared. “Most waiters carry little bags with them. I have bar tools, a wine opener, a pourer, a little knife, a tray, sometimes they ask you to bring an extra martini shaker or some ice.”
Byron McDonald, son of Alden McDonald Sr., learned early on the importance of a good work ethic. “I’ve always had more than one job,” Byron McDonald says. One career was with the U.S. Post Office. Today, he operates Byron’s Professional Waiter Service at 2936 Conti St., supplying all the assistance needed for caterers or others to put on an event. He insists on staff he can recommend. “People come in, they have to have the right attitude and that’s hard to find. A waiter’s job is only for people who don’t mind working!”
Every one of the men interviewed had a difficult time in Hurricane Katrina and with rebuilding afterwards. And not everyone returned. Byron McDonald today has fewer names on his roster than before the storm.
Perhaps the most telling Katrina story about the importance of these men to the city comes from James Kelly. “When I got home there were only two of us back in New Orleans. People greeted us with open arms! They gave us whatever we needed – we went right back into business!”
For some it’s a career, but for many people being part of a catering company’s “wait staff” is a second job. There is even a shade of nail polish named “I’m Really Not a Waitress” and The New York Times acknowledged the trend of part-time employees in food service coming from fashion and the theater in a May 2012, article on “Cater-Waiters.” Primary or secondary, it can be lucrative work for New Orleanians. In Louisiana in ’12, there were 2,690 food service jobs in non-restaurant locations (including private homes). That will increase to 2,869 by 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Employment Statistics.