Lessons Learned at Dude’s Diner

Nearing my 16th birthday, I started dreaming of getting a job. I wanted to have my own money. Once my birthday rolled around and I received my driver’s license, I started putting in applications. I had NO idea what I was doing, but I put in an application at a small local restaurant. When I got a call back, I was thrilled. I went in, talked to the owner, and started my first job as a waitress. And I absolutely loved it. On good nights, I averaged about $10 per hour with tips, which was AMAZING to me at the time. Minimum wage was only $5.15 at the time, so I was really BALLIN’.

I learned a few lessons about money (and a lot about life) during my years as a waitress.

It’s easier to spend money than it is to make money, so spend wisely.

Straight ballin’ with $10/hour.

Even though I felt like I was making bank at about $10/hour, I still figured out that spending money took a lot less effort than making it. With this insight, I determined to be a good steward of my money in high school. I knew I could buy a single shirt for $40 at the mall or I could buy a pair of pants, a skirt, and two shirts at Goody’s (a local discount clothing store) for the same amount. Being that I only had a limited amount of money, I always chose the better deal.

Why spend money when you don’t have to?

In addition to learning to shop for a bargain, I also learned to prioritize my spending. I spent more money on things that would last and less money on things that do not last. The first item I bought with my own hard-earned money was a beautiful sapphire and diamond ring. I spent a pretty penny on that ring. To this day, every time I catch a glimpse of that ring in my jewelry box, I get nostalgic for my time working at the restaurant while in high school. For me, that purchase was definitely worth the price.  I’ll be able to hand it down to my own daughters while explaining the significance of spending money on treasured items that can withstand the test of time.

On the other hand, there were things I knew weren’t going to last forever. For example, I desperately wanted to change the look of my bedroom. I went to the store to look for new bedding and curtains. I searched for the absolute best deal I could find on a comforter set that I thought looked okay. It was a hunter green plaid comforter. Then I found matching hunter green shades for a bargain too. At 16 years old, my priorities (and personal tastes) were strange, but the point is that I didn’t spend a fortune on something that I knew wasn’t going to last forever.  Though I believe those hunter green blinds are still hanging my old room.

Cash is dirty.

At some point, I needed both hands to do something while I was counting money. To free up my hands, I slipped my dollar bill in between my lips the same way you might hold a sheet of paper if you were moving things around your desk. (Side note: Now that I’m somewhat grown up, both of those scenarios sound weird. Why couldn’t I just put the dollar bill down on the counter? Why wouldn’t I just put the sheet of paper down on the desk? But in my younger days, I didn’t think twice about holding papers in my mouth.)

On the other hand, my boss knew better and quickly reprimanded me. “GET THAT MONEY OUT OF YOUR MOUTH! IT’S FILTHY! MONEY IS DIRTY! DON’T LET ME EVER SEE YOU DO THAT AGAIN!” In all honesty, I had never thought about it before. It does seem weird that I had to learn a lesson like that at that age, but what can I say? I probably had an immune system of steel with all the weird stuff I did. But truly, you don’t know until you know. And since that very moment with my boss, I have known. I’ve also made sure to spread the fear of money germs to my own children by telling them money is dirty and to never put it near their mouths, thankyouverymuch.

People steal. And some people have absolutely no remorse whatsoever for stealing.

Case #1
We literally threw dollar bills and change into a little basket like this under the bar. At the end of the shift, we’d collect all the money and divide it between servers.

We were such a small operation that only two servers worked at a time, except Sundays when we had three servers for the after-church crowd. We pooled all of our tip money into a little open basket under the bar counter. And at the end of the shift, we’d count it and split it evenly.

Well, when I first started working, I had no idea how much money we should typically make in tips. I didn’t even look at how much people left us. I’d just throw the tips in our tip basket and would keep on doing my job. I didn’t actually care how much money we made because I didn’t need to care at that point in my life. I was mostly working for the fun of it and to be out of my house.

However, the other waiters I worked with knew we weren’t making as much money as usual. One waitress in particular often asked if I was sure I had put all the tips in the tip basket and if I was sure I had emptied my pockets of all tips. I was so naïve that I didn’t even realize she was accusing me of stealing. She’d even say things like, “We should have more money than this.” Or “I know we made more than just this.” But I always thought she was mistaken and maybe being a little over-confident in how much we should be making.

During one shift, my boss came up to me and told me not to clear off any tips on the table. I agreed without any questions, and again, little naïve Jennifer just kept on happily working oblivious to whatever else was going on. At the end of the night, my boss came over and told the other server and myself that he caught our dishwasher stealing our tips. My boss had marked all the tips on the table with a red sharpie, and at the end of the night, we had to all empty our pockets. The dishwasher had our money in his pockets, and he had been stealing our tips the entire time I had worked there.

Talk about learning life lessons. This one still makes me sad. I talked to that guy ALL THE TIME. Typically the only people working a shift were 2 waiters, my boss who cooked, and a dishwasher. I liked this guy, and it turns out he had been stealing from me the whole time I worked there.

The kicker is that I went to high school with this guy too. After he was fired for stealing, he had the nerve to smile and say, “Hi, Jennifer!” to me in the hall. REALLY?! I could not believe him. He should have been ashamed of himself. I learned from that situation that some people don’t have remorse for doing something that’s wrong. It was a tough lesson for me as I believed the best about everyone.

The other waitress apologized with the caveat that I was probably thinking that she was stealing too. I wasn’t thinking that, but it was still big of her to apologize to me.

Case #2

I had one other incidence of stealing while I was working at my first job, but it was very different from the previous case.  I was training a new girl who had just started working that night. While I was teaching her how to properly roll up the silverware in a napkin, she asked me if we had active security cameras in the building and on the register. Again, I was naïve and did not question her motive. So I replied no and kept rolling the silverware. That night, one hundred dollars was missing from the cash register.

Though I will never understand stealing, that situation didn’t bother me near as much as the dish washer who knew me and still stole from me!

Tips should be earned. And you should always give your best.

While working one day, a regular came in and took his regular seat at the bar. I could not keep up with him for whatever reason that day, and his coffee cup was empty more than once. He had to wait to pay, and honestly, his service was pretty sub-par.

He left me a nickel as a tip that day.

I tell you what, that meant something to me. I knew I hadn’t been attentive. It was a CLEAR indication of how I had performed. I would have never thought twice about my service had that man just went ahead and tipped me the standard 15%.

Sometimes making a point is necessary and the right thing to do. That man definitely has no idea he shaped my life, but it made me realize I should always give my best. As a server, I wasn’t entitled to tips. And in life, I’m not entitled to money. I have to take responsibility for all of my decisions, including my financial ones.


So there it is… that’s a small sampling of what I learned from Dude’s Diner all those years ago. I worked there up until the restaurant closed down, which was right before I went away to college. Even though I always smelled like French fry grease and I didn’t like having to refill ketchup bottles, I lovingly look back on those days. I’ll never forget the man who accused me of not allowing him to have pork chops or the time a family left me a $20 bill and begged me not to split the tip with the other server on duty. I did anyway.  I remember my boss going next door to Hardees and getting milkshakes for us after shifts.  He was a generous, kind, and good man, and I’m glad I worked for him.

I miss those simpler days! Ahh to be young and free!

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