Plus the top news of the week: Mask mandate nears end — Lawmakers approve new election maps — Ingersoll Rand pulls out of Davidson — Latta Plantation to become Latta Place
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We sent our humor columnist undercover as a server at Dogwood in SouthPark to assess the state of the restaurant industry; a nerve-wracking five-hour shift for ‘C.C.’
By Colleen Brannan
It’s 5 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, and the first diners with reservations start walking in the door of Dogwood Southern Table & Bar in SouthPark.
At Table 201, these first customers are actually two couples, at a four-top (which for me immediately raised the question, “Who goes out with another couple on Valentine’s Day?”) They’re in their late 40s or early 50s. One of the women orders a margarita, the first of several drinks I help deliver to the table.
So began my one-night adventure of serving guests at Dogwood — the first time I’ve waited tables in 35 years. Ordinarily, I’m Colleen, a PR professional, wife, mother and resident smartass. But for a night, I transformed into somebody my fellow servers knew as “C.C.,” a trainee who was shadowing Chris Alderman, a 10-year veteran of Jon Dressler’s Rare Roots Hospitality, which owns Dogwood and four other restaurants in the Charlotte area.
We’ve all read about recent turmoil in the hospitality industry — labor and supply shortages and challenges with the pandemic — so I wanted a behind-the-scenes look at how that plays out at an upscale restaurant on a busy night.
So while many of you were off celebrating the annual day of love with chocolates and wine, I was hard at work in one of the world’s oldest professions — waiting tables, of course. Could I still do the job?
I’m happy to report that while my experience was much different than my last waitressing gig — in the late 1980s, at an Italian restaurant in Fairfax, Va. — the night turned out well. Though exhausting, I survived my five-hour shift. Unlike me, the people I worked with were pros — well-organized, full of hustle — even on the busiest of nights, and if there were any hiccups, I didn’t witness (or cause) them.
On Monday afternoon, I donned jeans and a white button-down, pulled my hair back in a ponytail, masked up and reported for duty at 4 p.m., praying I didn’t see anyone I knew.
They handed me an apron and immediately put me to work shining utensils and glassware to achieve dining room perfection before the doors opened. Other than Chris and the restaurant’s general manager, Michele, my co-workers were unaware of who I was or what I was doing. They did think it was odd a new server would start on Valentine’s Day and were probably wondering if they had to share the tip pool with the newbie.
On that first table, 201, there were many questions about the food and drink menus that Chris answered flawlessly. I, on the other hand, pretended not to speak English, because I was so out of my element. For four hours, I shadowed Chris, ran food, sorted silverware, cleared tables, restocked glasses and bagged leftovers.
During that time, I saw all kinds of valentines, from young lovers and old married folks to “galentines” (groups of women), dating app matches and new parents — one couple thinking it was a good idea to bring the product of their love out to dinner to share with the patrons next to them who were trying to have a quiet evening out. It’s never a good sign when you see a high chair headed your way.
My night undercover was humbling. Here are my greatest takeaways:
Unless you’ve waited tables, diners will never know all that goes into a fine dining experience. What you see is a person taking your order, delivering your food, making recommendations/small talk and dropping your check at the appropriate time. What you don’t witness is the ongoing prep work that makes the well-oiled machine run. It was like an orchestra, with every staff member playing an instrument and the GM as the conductor. From hostess to server to bussers, chefs and expediters, everyone knew their role and did it without being asked.
Servers are athletes: They hustle nonstop and hydrate often. For me, not exactly the exerciser of the group, it was forced fitness. I logged more than 9,000 steps in my five-hour shift because I was constantly on the move. There’s no standing around. If your tables are in good shape, you restock glassware, roll silver and run all food, whether it’s for your table or not. Dogwood believes your food should be delivered as it’s ready and the servers are masterful in staggering the orders so appetizers and entrees don’t come out at once.
Servers have your number as soon as you sit down: These people have seen every type of guest so are very good at profiling you. They can tell by the questions you ask and your manners what your day job might be, who is paying the bill and what kind of tipper you are. For example, the more dolled up they are, the less they spend. And look out if their first question is “What’s your cheapest red?”
Fine dining bartenders are more like artists: Not a chance you will find a Bud Light or well drinks at Dogwood. Instead these cocktail black belts are designing one-of-a-kind craft cocktails and showcasing beers from local breweries. The Valentine’s Day special, created by head bartender, Winter, was called “Red Eye to Paris.” Other popular drinks during my night there included “Apple Sauced,” a bourbon-and-rum combo and the “Clarified Margarita.”
Many servers have day jobs: While there are five full-timers at Dogwood, I was surrounded by side hustlers who had already logged a full day elsewhere before they started their shift. My teammates were teachers, medical office workers, greenhouse specialists and college students either making ends meet or saving for something. All were hard-working team players, constantly on the move, who clearly hold each other accountable.
Campers and no shows are not OK: A good rule of thumb for reservations is that two people take about 1.5 hours to complete a meal, four people take 2 hours and six people take 2.5 hours. If you overstay your welcome, you mess up the reservation behind you. And if you have a reservation but can’t make it, you need to cancel it instead of assuming they know you’re not coming. On Valentine’s at Dogwood, there were 238 reservations and 50 no-shows, but the 4,000 s.f. restaurant was always full.
Ownership makes a difference: Dressler’s employees cite him and “the Jon way” every chance they get — from little tricks he taught them, like wrapping the receipt around the credit card, to his philosophy of take care of the guest, have fun and make money. Unlike the rest of the industry, Dressler says he hasn’t struggled for staff before, during or after Covid, with an average employee tenure of over two years — likely due to the family culture he has created. He compares working for him to Hotel California and prides himself on knowing the name of everyone who works for him. (Besides Dogwood, Dressler owns Dressler’s Birkdale and Metropolitan, Fin & Fino uptown and The Porter’s House in Waverly.) I was introduced to Dressler by Charlotte Restaurant Week co-owner Bruce Hensley, who vouched for me for this covert mission.
At the end of the night, I did not share in the tip pool and refused to be paid in any way — except for the dessert I took home for my valentine, Scott. In other words, I worked five hours for an $8 piece of cheesecake.
While I could still do the job in a pinch, if this whole PR thing doesn’t work out after 30 years, it’s best left to the professionals. I’m better on the other side of the table, as a guest. And yes, after delivering all those drinks that night, you can bet I had one.
Colleen Brannan owns BRANSTORM PR and worked as a server in high school and college at both diners and finer dining establishments. Follow her on social: IG (Colleen_ Brannan), Twitter (@colleenbrannan) and LinkedIn or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, especially if you were at Dogwood on Valentine’s Day.
A little rusty, but she rallied and got the job done: Colleen — a.k.a. “C.C.” — and her trainer, waiter Chris Alderman, after a five-hour shift at Dogwood.
Today’s supporting sponsors are Soni Brendle…
… and Whitehead Manor Conference Center, a peaceful, private, and stress-free space for your organization’s next off-site meeting or event. Conveniently located in South Charlotte, Whitehead Manor is locally owned and operated and provides modern meeting capabilities with attention to stellar service!
Scheduling note 🗓: There will be no issue of The Ledger on Monday, which is Presidents’ Day.
This week in Charlotte: Mask mandate nears end, Ingersoll Rand to exit Davidson, drug company expands in Mooresville, General Assembly-approved maps head for court review
On Saturdays, The Ledger sifts through the local news of the week and links to the top articles — even if they appeared somewhere else. We’ll help you get caught up. That’s what Saturdays are for.
No more contact tracing: (WSOC) Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools announced Friday that starting Monday, the district will no longer do contact tracing to identify close contacts of students or staff who have tested positive for Covid.
Need for translators: (Observer) Nearly a third of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students live in a home where English is not the primary language, and a Charlotte bilingual cultural center said a recent survey it conducted found that three in 10 parents said language barriers are a reason why they’re not more involved in their children’s school. CMS is using a 24/7 language translation service based out of a Massachusetts call center to communicate with parents who don’t speak English.
Wordle in schools: (WFAE) The online word game Wordle has gone viral among adults, but teachers are also using it for everything from reinforcing spelling patterns to helping new English-learners.
New election maps: (WRAL) The General Assembly approved a series of electoral maps for use in congressional and state legislative races. The maps, which will be reviewed by the courts, are believed to be less favorable to Republicans than initial versions, but Democrats say they still unfairly give Republicans an advantage.
Ballantyne apartments rezoning: (Ledger) The clock is ticking on a controversial rezoning for an apartment and townhome project and a new elementary school on Ardrey Kell Road that’s set to go before the Charlotte City Council on Monday. Neighbors and city council member Ed Driggs say the plan to put 349 homes on a piece of land across from Ardrey Kell High School is flawed because the area already suffers from traffic congestion and overcrowding. But city staff are recommending the rezoning and the developers have already reduced the number of units and added concessions like a new county recreation center for the site.
Mask mandate to end: (Ledger) Mecklenburg commissioners voted 8-0 to drop the county’s mask mandate, effective Feb. 26. County health director Raynard Washington said improving Covid numbers, hospital capacity and widespread availability of vaccinations and boosters make requiring face coverings unnecessary — though they are still required in some settings. The school board will discuss masks in schools on Tuesday.
Latta Plantation update: Mecklenburg County’s Park and Recreation Department is making progress on reopening Latta Plantation — which will now be called “Latta Place” — after not renewing its contract with the nonprofit that operated the site last year. Proposals for a new operator are due Feb. 24, and the county has been doing maintenance and partnering with HBCUs and the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP on research and educational programs.
2 pedestrians killed: (WBTV) An Afghan refugee with three young children and a 75-year-old volunteer who was teaching her English were struck by a car and killed as they walked on a sidewalk on W.T. Harris Boulevard on Tuesday afternoon, police said. A driver was charged with driving while impaired and felony death by vehicle.
Ingersoll Rand out of Davidson: (Ledger 🔒) Industrial manufacturer Ingersoll Rand is leaving its longtime offices in Davidson and searching for a new headquarters in the north Mecklenburg area. The company has had offices there since around 1990. There are about 450 workers connected to the site, who will relocate to other facilities in the Charlotte region.
New owner for WCNC? (Ledger 🔒) The parent company of WCNC is in serious discussions to be acquired by a hedge fund, and the owner of WSOC is also involved in the deal.
Drug company move: (WBTV) Mooresville-based over-the-counter drug company BestCo LLC is investing $177M to expand its facilities and is adding nearly 400 jobs.
From the Ledger family of newsletters
Off-duty police rate goes up: (Wednesday 🔒) Security costs are going up starting March 1 for organizers of big events that need a lot of police to help manage crowds. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police say that events with more than 11,000 people expected or that need 25 or more off-duty police officers will pay 50% more for off-duty coverage.
DMVs ranked: (Monday) If a trip to the DMV is on your to-do list, we have a list of 7 local DMVs ranked by a variety of factors. The list was compiled by Morgan Tringali, a high school student who interned with us last month, who visited DMVs across the region to observe the scene at each.
Q&A with city planning boss: (Wednesday 🔒) In an interview with The Ledger, new interim planning director Alyson Craig shares her vision for Charlotte and highlights several thorny topics that are under discussion as part of revisions to the city’s development ordinance.
Meet developer Jane Wu: (Friday 🔒) Charlotte real estate developer Jane Wu made a name for herself in recent years with luxury apartment complexes in University City, and she’s just finished her biggest non-apartment project to date — Panorama Tower in Ballantyne Village, which is home to a new AC Hotel by Marriott, five floors of commercial space and a restaurant and bar schedule to open later this year.
Charlotte FC’s supporters’ groups: (Fútbol Friday) Fan groups, known as supporters’ groups, are organizing to sing, tailgate and bring energy to rooting for Charlotte FC. We break down the differences among some of the major groups.
Goodbye to a coach: (Ways of Life 🔒) The East Mecklenburg High School community is mourning the loss of Bob Forshee, the school’s football coach, who died last month of esophageal cancer at age 43. He leaves behind a wife and two young daughters, and a community that has created the ForshseeTough Leadership Scholarship in his honor. “Intense, driven, with the wave of a hand as he passed by, that soldier marched to the beat of his own drum. Nobody could tell him any different.”
Court rules against Mecklenburg tax collector: (Friday 🔒) A court of appeals ruled in favor of a blind south Charlotte woman whose house was sold in foreclosure following a property tax dispute. The court said the Mecklenburg tax collector’s office should have emailed the woman because she had said the best way to contact her was by email.
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