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In Era of Restaurant Boom, Servers' Impact Can Often Get Overlooked

Friday, January 28, 2011

New Yorkers' appetite for dining out has recently vaulted the restaurant industry into the spotlight.

Mayor Bloomberg championed the industry as among the city's biggest employers and an economic success in these uncertain financial times during his State of the City address in January.

And Restaurant Week, which kicked off this week, is a huge revenue-driver to the city, drawing $5 million last year, a 13 percent increase compared to the prior year.

But what often goes unnoticed amid the self-proclaimed dining-out denizens and hotshot celebrity chefs are the servers behind the industry, a place where the customer is presumed to always be right, management isn't always encouraging and everyone is a critic.

Fanny Alava, a server at Katz's Deli in the Lower East Side for the last 15 years, has been waiting tables for 32 years. She said servers' skill set can be under-appreciated by eatery owners who sometimes adopt the idea that servers can "easily be replaced like a chair."

 "If they took a survey of the customers, they would know customers often come here to see us," said Alava, who knows much about the personal goings on of her estimated 30 regulars.

Bartender George Kornienko, who works at Rocky Sullivan's Red Hook, Brooklyn, said he's counseled customers on challenging breakups, lost jobs and has heard wacky confessions.

"Sometimes people just tell you personal things you don't want to hear," he said, laughing. But connecting to customers is an important part of his job -- just as much as perfecting the art of making a dry martini.

Shailesh Shrestha, a 13-year veteran of the industry who is currently employed at an Upper East Side private club, said he takes pride in his work but occasionally the customers he deals with forget to treat him with a basic level of dignity.

"I have to remind them I'm their server, not a servant," he said.

Servers and bartenders are an integral part of the fabric of the city's economy and culture. What are some of your most memorable or challenging interactions been with servers in the city? Leave us a comment below.

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