It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college at the University of Florida.
I accidentally wrecked the truck of a guy I was dating, causing $1,200 worth of damage. And in 2002, that was a lot of money. Especially for a college student with no income.
After calling my parents and hysterically reporting the news, I did what any logical 20 year-old would do. I opened the local newspaper and looked for part time employment.
The Red Lobster posted an ad in the classified section for servers.
Perfect, I thought.
I didn’t have any waitressing experience, but who cared? I could wing it. At the time, the average entree at Red Lobster was around $12, which meant I would earn good tips and ultimately be able to help pay for the damage to the vehicle while putting some money in my pocket for the school year.
My boyfriend drove me to the Red Lobster so I could apply for the position in person. He agreed to wait for me in the parking lot while I went inside. (Because, back in “the day”, I didn’t have a cell phone to easily contact him when the application process was over. Read about other modern conveniences that didn’t exist when I was in college here.)
When I arrived, the manager on duty, a middle aged woman named Barb, advised me that I had perfect timing, because they were about to start interviews, and she invited me to participate. Barb started working at Red Lobster as a busser when she was 15, had leathery skin, a tattoo on her left ring finger, and a gold front tooth.
I got this, I thought.
The interview process had two parts. The first was a timed, written exam that was graded electronically. Those who passed the written portion engaged in one-on-one interviews with the management, who made the final hiring decision.
There were roughly 15 other people in the Red Lobster entrance area who were applying for serving positions along with me.
They varied in age and gender, but there was one common denominator. They all smelled like a bowling alley: cigarettes and onion rings. Some of them looked like they hadn’t bathed in a couple days. One lady was wearing a Food Lion uniform. There also was a Hispanic man who handed Barb a piece of paper stating that he couldn’t speak English. She directed him to the kitchen.
I was certain I was the only person in the room with any type of higher education. I was also certain I was the only person who showered in the last 24 hours.
Being a stuck up, self-absorbed twenysomething, I thought to myself: I’ve got this interview in the bag!
Barb corralled us into a room where were given an exam packet, a Scantron-style grading sheet, and a Number 2 pencil. She advised she’d return in ten minutes, and we had to answer as many questions as we could.
The clock started ticking.
I felt like Rocky in the Final Countdown. I slicked my hair into a pony tail, grabbed a Tic Tac from my purse, and put on my game face.
Question One: What animal do baby back ribs come from?
A. Pigs. B. Cows C. Fish D. Chickens
Me: Jeez. I don’t really eat baby back ribs and I don’t remember the cook ever serving them at the sorority house. Shoot, I thought this was a seafood place, not a meat place. I guess they’re from cows. Yeah, must be cows.
I bubbled in the B.
Question Two: How many quarts of coleslaw would it take to make a gallon?
A. Two. B. Four. C. Six D. Eight
Me: Why is this relevant? Wouldn’t it be easier to just scoop a bunch of coleslaw into a milk jug until it’s full? I don’t flipping know. Eight sounds about right. Moving on.
I bubbled in the D.
Question Three: Sally’s meal is $14.99 and Justin’s meal is $12.99. They both order sodas, which are each $.99. Sally orders a brownie sundae, which is $3.99, and Justin follows her lead by ordering cheesecake, which is also $3.99. When it’s time to pay the bill, Justin gives his server a $50.00 bill and tells him to keep 20% as a tip. How much change should the server give Justin? Round the numbers up and don’t account for sales tax.
A. $3.51 B. $2.99 C. $3.99 D. $4.47
Me: What? I need a calculator. If I was good at math, I’d be pre-med instead of pre-law. I scribbled some numbers on the side of the examination packet and started getting nervous it was taking too much time. None of my “answers” matched the choice options. I looked at the numbers. Two of the choices end in $.99. All of Sally and Justin’s food and beverage selections ended in $.99. So, clearly, either B or C were correct. I’ve always heard if you’re uncertain of the answer on a multiple choice test, go with C. So that’s what I did.
I bubbled in the C.
The questions continued. Some were difficult and others were easy. Eventually, a buzzer went off and Barb entered the room and collected our bubble sheets. She advised us to gather back into the lobby while the computer tabulated the results.
While we were waiting, nobody else seemed nervous. I saw the Hispanic man leave the kitchen area and give one of my fellow server applicants a high-five, so I assumed he secured some type of position as a cook or dish washer.
Did he have to take an exam?
I overheard one of the applicants ask another applicant for a ride home after the interview because she and her baby daddy were in an argument and she didn’t want to take the bus back to her apartment.
She literally said “baby daddy.”
After a couple minutes, Barb returned to the lobby.
Jennifer Daku? she said, eyeballing the room.
I raised my hand.
Yes yes yes yes yes! I thought. I must have received the highest score on the exam! That’s why Barb’s specifically calling my name and nobody else’s! She’s probably going to suggest bypassing the serving position and directly promoting me to management without the need for an interview!
You didn’t pass the exam. But everyone else can come back to the offices with me for interviews.
To say I was shocked was an understatement. I thought Ashton Kutcher was going to swing the front door open and tell me I just got Punk’d. I thought Barb was going to confess that my boyfriend gave her $10 to mess with me and the entire thing was a practical joke. I thought I would eventually wake up from this Cheddar Bay biscuit and Shrimp Scampi nightmare.
Defeated, I walked to the parking lot, got into my boyfriend’s truck, told him what happened, and eventually started crying.
The experience was humbling and humiliating.
Served me right for thinking I was too good for Red Lobster. Served me right for thinking I was better than the other applicants. Served me right for mentally jeering Barb, the Hispanic guy, the Food Lion lady, and the woman with the baby daddy.
I went in seeking a server position but, instead, got served a dose of reality and it served me right.
Thirteen years later, I tell the story and laugh.
It’s pretty hilarious.
For anyone wondering, baby back ribs come from pigs, it takes four quarts of coleslaw to make a gallon, and the hypothetical server should have given Justin $4.47 in change.