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Room service waiter dishes out hospitality

In a Harvard Business Review article, Paul Hemp, a senior editor, spent a week working as a room-service waiter at Boston’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. His tale of delivering a cheeseburger and salad to a guest room – but forgetting to offer to open the beer bottle – is a humbling tale of how the customer is never wrong. Hemp finds that the seemingly menial job of room service is adventure in mishaps and successes: of making sure tablecloths have no wrinkles; ice cream is sent up before it melts; stray carts are removed. One of his trainer warns him, before he enters a guest room, “You never know what you’re walking into.”

It’s a role that Antonio Noj knows well. The room-service waiter at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge is an experienced hospitality server who takes great pride in his work. The Guatemalan immigrant, 43, remembers the days in his country when there was little drinking water and no electricity, so he appreciates his job and the opportunity to earn a decent salary. “It bothers me when I see staff cutting corners,” says Noj, who has been trained to uphold the hotel’s standards, whether it’s polishing water spots off silverware or making sure that all condiments are included on a tray.

The Sonesta Hotel has two towers, one a bit further from the kitchen than the other, and Noj estimates he puts four to five miles a day on his skid-proof shoes. He’s especially exhausted today, when a flight from Saudi Arabia was unexpectedly cancelled, and many of the passengers were housed in the hotel. A fellow waiter called in sick, so Noj was alone to deliver 30 breakfasts, shuffling back and forth to pick up and deliver trays. “You try to anticipate whatever the guests will need. That includes ketchup, Tabasco, cream for coffee, or a wine opener. You have one shot at bringing it up and presenting the food. You don’t have to bother the guests again.”

Turnover is typically high for food and beverage workers like Noj, making job opportunities plentiful. Many of the jobs in restaurants are part-time, with few educational requirements, attracting many young people to the field, especially in fast food establishments. In 2008, 21 percent of these workers were 16 to 19 years old, about six times the proportion for all workers. As a hospitality veteran, Noj has been in his job 12 years, finding the hours suitable to raising two young boys.

Q: I think this job must be harder than it appears at first.
A: Yes, you need to be energetic, quick with your feet and hands, and patient. Sometimes you have to do many things at the same time, so you can’t lose focus or become overwhelmed, even if there are a lot of phone orders coming in.

Q: How much can you earn in tips?
A: I serve breakfast, so it can range from about $80 to $120 in tips in one morning.

Q: What’s the secret to being a good room service waiter?
A: I try to make it a dining experience. It’s not like you’re just delivering pizza. I offer to open any bottles, pull the chair out so the guest can sit down, make sure everything they ordered is there, and essentially be sure the guest is comfortable and happy with the meal.

Q: What’s the most unusual experience you’ve had?
A: Once a guest opened the door and he was completely naked. I’ve had guests in bathrobes or towels, or even in their underwear, but never anyone with no clothes on. I politely asked him if he would get dressed, stepped out of the room, and started all over again.

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