Working Weddings: Being A Server At Someone Else’s Special Day

by Alexandra MacRae

I grew up across the street from my church and would often spend saturdays in the summer peeping through the trees in my yard as guests, then groomsmen, and finally the groom trickled inside to wait for the big moment. Amid the sound of bagpipes, I watched until the last limousine pulled up in front and the bride emerged: this was the moment we were waiting for. Sometimes the wait wouldn’t pay off and I only caught a puff of white, but it didn’t matter because there would always be another bride to glimpse the following week.

I wasn’t envisioning myself as the bride one day. It was simpler than that: I got to catch the last moment of her day when she was not expecting to be watched, before she walks down the aisle and straight into the center of attention.

Years later in University, working as a banquet server at a hotel, I had a different view of weddings. During the summer months, I spent nearly every Friday and Saturday night attending to guests at wedding receptions in the hotel’s banquet rooms.

Although I first “met” the wedding guests well into the evening, my preparations began much earlier. The first shift began around noon, and consisted of laying the most basic groundwork: preparing both the outdoor and backup indoor ceremony locations, speculating on whether or not it would rain, throwing the chair covers in the dryer to de-wrinkle, evaluating whether they needed individual ironing when they still came out wrinkled, throwing them back in the dryer with a wet towel, and sharing urban myths about the time a server dropped the wedding cake. The late afternoon shift workers trickled into the ballrooms with the air of being the talent, simply by virtue of showing up later, toting coffees and stories from the night before. We began the serious work of folding napkins into fans, polishing the silverware, setting the tables, looking for a lighter, discussing who might have a lighter, checking the smoking hut for someone with a lighter, and lighting the candles.

It took a surprising amount of manpower to staff a wedding, but with simultaneous receptions going on in the ballrooms all at once, it’s hard to pin down an exact number. If anyone was vulnerable to becoming cynical about weddings due to overexposure it was us, but we didn’t. In the downtime before each reception began we shared our opinions on the decor with the seriousness of actual guests, paying due attention to the accent colors on the cake even though they showed up in every ballroom multiple times per summer.

Banquet serving was easier than waitressing in the sense that you didn’t need to take orders, but harder because you had to keep several tables on the same schedule for each course. The pay was comparable too, although you didn’t get to take home your tips in cash at the end of the night. Instead, we got gratuity payments on our paycheques that usually equalled the slightly-above minimum wage hourly wages. So if you worked the Friday and Saturday wedding shifts, which could easily run until 3:00 or 4:00 AM, you could rack up enough hours over the weekend to equal the same pay as a full-time position at $8.50 per hour.

As servers, we were each responsible for three tables of eight to ten people. We operated on a system of cues that were timed around the speeches, recited to us with military precision by our supervisor in the back hallway while we pilfered rolls and butter from the nearby trays. The salads and mains had to be ferried to the tables in perfect harmony with the DJ’s schedule for speech announcements.

A few weeks into my first summer, I was confident that I had my serving duties down and was functioning on autopilot, which freed up my attention to focus on the goings on in front of me. Witnessing a wedding from the reception on was like walking into a play during the second act. The bride was no longer the star in my eyes; instead I became fascinated with the family and guests. A best man giving a speech that dated back to his high school days with the groom was packed with intimate details that I didn’t get during my regular duties serving during conventions or awards banquets.

One night I missed my cue and served one of my tables just as a speech was beginning. My supervisor told me I’d go on break last as punishment, meaning I’d get last pick of the leftover chicken dinners and cheesecake. But the real punishment had already happened as I watched the guests shift uncomfortably while their food grew cold in front of them. I had never thought the cues were that big of a deal until I missed one. I felt immense shame during that ten minute speech that I had let my arrogance get in the way of doing a good job serving at an event that I lived night after night but that the bride and groom would only experience once in their lives.

On the whole I did do a good job providing an experience to guests, as did my coworkers. Any reasonable request would be met without question. There’s an episode of “How I Met Your Motherwhere Barney discovers that you can basically get anything you want at a wedding if you claim it’s for the bride. Despite the absurd lengths they took that joke to, it’s fairly accurate. Nobody wants to be the one to deny the bride or groom something they need on their wedding day. Even if it was a bridesmaid demanding that she hadn’t been issued her drink tickets while sporting telltale red wine teeth, we complied to keep the peace.

I can’t remember now the size of the last wedding I served at or the colors on the cake. In the years since, I’ve become a frequent wedding guest as my friends and family couple up rapidly — but the servile attitude still lingers. I happily put in time on the dance floor, dancing to songs from high school when I’d rather be out on the patio, and line up for the bouquet toss when I could just as easily be ensconced in the bathroom having a long conversation about hair care while drinking straight from a flask someone smuggled in.

At my brother’s wedding, when the opportunity to be useful came up I seized on it. He mentioned that he was feeling slightly tired and I immediately tracked down the nearest employee. Even though he was clearly a busboy not a server, and the trappings of dinner service had long been cleared away I had no problem voicing my request. “Can I have a cup of black coffee?” I asked. “It’s for the groom.”

This piece is part of our Wedding Season series.

Alexandra MacRae is a writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow her on Twitter @alliejandra_m

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.