Hey, Waitress! The USA from the Other Side of the Tray

Most of us have sat across the tray from a waitress, but how many of us know what really is going on from her side? Hey, Waitress! aims to tell us. Containing lively, personal portraits of waitresses from many different walks of life, this book is the first of its kind to show the intimate, illuminating, and often shocking behind-the-scenes stories of waitresses’ daily shifts and daily lives.

Alison Owings traveled the country—from border to border and coast to coast—to hear firsthand what waitresses think about their lives, their work, and their world. Part journalism and part oral history, Hey, Waitress! introduces an eclectic cast of characters: a ninety-five-year-old Baltimore woman who may have been the oldest living waitress, a Staten Island firebrand laboring at a Pizza Hut, a well-to-do runaway housewife, a Native American proud of her financial independence, a college student loving her diner more than her studies, a Cajun grandmother of twenty-two, and many others.

The book also offers vivid slices of American history. The stories describe the famous sit-in at the Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, which helped spark the civil rights movement; early struggles for waitress unions; and battles against sexually discriminatory hiring in restaurants.

A superb and accessible means of breaking down stereotypes, this book reveals American waitresses in all their complexity and individuality, and will surely change the way we order, tip, and, most of all, behave in restaurants.


“Story after story Owings recounts in this lively book, a cross between Studs Terkel’s oral histories and Barbara Ehrenreich’s reportage, confirms the many struggles and occasional joys waitresses face.”San Francisco Chronicle

“Marrying social history and oral history… Owings presents her findings with compassion and wit and a sense of feminist indignation that doesn’t detract from her journalistic balance. These qualities make for a lively read in this trailblazing contribution to the study of women and work. Like Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, this could appeal to a broad range of readers.”—Publishers Weekly

”Amusing . . . attempt to describe the lost of waitress in a society that seldom appreciates them.”—Smithsonian

“This book affects readers, teaches them something about respect, and forces them to tip better.”—Bust

“Absorbing. Part of the interest is in [Owings’] choice of locales: an Ursuline convent, the Woolworth’s counter where civil rights sit-ins took place, one of the Harvey restaurants that ‘civilized the West,’ the first New York haute cuisine restaurant to hire a woman, and Everglades National Park, among others. Judicious editing also makes the book compelling: each waitress is full of insights about her life and her life’s work and does not seem mired by the job.”—Library Journal

”Story after story Owings recounts in this lively book, a cross between Studs Terkel’s oral histories and Barbara Ehrenreich’s reportage, confirms the many struggles and occasional joys waitresses face.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Talk about profiles in courage, author Alison Owings traveled the country interviewing scores of women who wait, profiling these individuals in a style that falls somewhere between scholarly and journalistic.”—Seattle Times

”Some might call Hey, Waitress! a tribute, but it’s much better than an earnest celebration of the downtrodden working class. For the most part, Owings is confident enough in her subjects to trust that, beyond working their asses off, they have something insightful to say about the behavior of ordinary Americans. Thus, while some of Owings’ more famous subjects offer a fresh perspective on history—who doesn’t want a front row seat at Woolworth’s during the famous North Carolina sit-in?—their stories end up being less eye-opening than the goings on at an ordinary greasy spoon.”—Salon.com, 10/14

“Alison Owings serves up a delightful chronicle of waitressing—from the first commercial eating establishments to a contemporary Pizza Hut—as seen through the eyes of its stalwart practitioners. Hey, Waitress! is a great pleasure to read, not least because it’s a long overdue tribute to some of America’s most tireless and least appreciated working women.”—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

“Owings is keenly sensitive to the class antagonisms of restaurant service. And bless her sisterhood of overworked, underpaid, harassed and harried informants in their aprons, hairnets, and rubber-soled shoes. This is oral history at its finest.”—Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape

“Welcome to the real world of table service. Alison Owings delves deeply and perceptively into the too-often out-of-view lifestyle of the female server. Hard working women tell their own stories in their own voices and as anthropology—as oral history—it’s a comprehensive and thoroughly enjoyable work that will bring cheer and enlightenment to both those inside and outside the restaurant business.”—Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential

“Alison Owings has written a clever, compassionate book to celebrate the unsung and terribly important heroes of the workforce: waitresses. This book contains a rich trove of social history; I guarantee that after reading it you will look at the next waitress who serves you with different eyes. And if you want to get a good reading on how classy or unclassy people are, just watch how they treat their waitress!”—Letitia Baldrige, author of A Lady, First: My Life in the Kennedy White House and the American Embassies of Paris and Rome and Letitia Baldrige’s Complete Guide to the New Manners for the 90′s