Tony Mirabelli, "Learning to Serve: The Language and Literacy of Food Service Workers"

Mirabelli, T. (2004). Learning to serve: the language and literacy of food service workers. In Jabari Mahiri (Ed.), What They Don't Learn in School: Literacy in the Lives of Urban Youth (pp. 143-162). Retrieved from


In “Learning to Serve: The Language and Literacy of Food Service Workers”, Tony Mirabelli presents the genre of communication used by waiters and waitresses as one which requires more skill than is generally assumed. Through the use of familiar internet sources such as “hate mail” directed at websites, Mirabelli shows us that people who think the job of a food service worker is easy are quite common. He shows us the assumptions people tend to make through means of many examples such as economists who suggest that food service workers lack education needed to be considered “knowledge workers” and are essentially left to mindless, routine tasks that anyone can do. Through examples of food service workers, including himself, Mirabelli contends that waiters, though in some cases uneducated, are individuals who develop a skilled genre of communication that no education can teach. This involves interacting with a customer, connecting with the customer, and managing the service of many groups of people at once. Essentially, he expresses that there is something unique about the language of food service workers in the way that they use literacy and language.

Having stated his claims, Mirabelli presents his readers with the example of the Italian-American restaurant “Lou’s Restaurant” to closely examine the discourse, roles, and challenges the waiters have to face. Having worked there in the past, Mirabelli attempts to depict for us a waiter’s literacy skills by telling a narrative of sorts of a string of tiny stories which implement his point. He begins by introducing the characters, three waiters named Tony (himself), Harvey and John. The first explanation he gives relates to the context and full understanding of the restaurant menu. Mirabelli emphasizes the difficulty in memorizing an entire menu by telling the reader that a waiter/waitress must know how every food item is prepared. Mirabelli then goes back into this narrative storytelling showing how because Harvey could not explain what a pesto sauce was, the customer he was attending to did not order the food that had the pesto sauce.

Furthermore, Mirabelli states that a waiter must be able to take in special orders not found in a menu and be able to determine, based on their knowledge, if they may be done. These special requests extend the meaning of the menu with the effectiveness of it's meaning being dependent on the waiter. He continues to present restaurant menus as not only a list of choices, but also a device to let waiters gain control of the customer ordering. Using a script-like dialogue, Mirabelli briefly reenacts a scenario between him and some customers that were placing an order. When the customer came across something unfamiliar in the menu that needed clarification, Mirabelli took full advantage of that. He also took advantage of one of the customer’s requests for steamed vegetables as opposed to the regular pasta dishes on the menu. Indeed, a waiter can then use linguistics to talk about the food or suggest different foods; this often shifts responsibility from the person ordering to the waiter because the waiter makes himself the authority in relation during the interaction.

In addition to reading customers and menus, Mirabelli talks about tricky situations that a waiter must consider while serving people. He presents us with cases when a waiter has regulars who order the same thing daily and how to show these customers that you value them through your actions. The stories that he used to present this point were Mirabelli’s incorrect interaction with a regular during a dinner service and John’s exemplary interaction with a regular on a busy day.

Throughout this entire chapter, when Mirabelli addresses his points, he accompanies it with a very small story in an attempt to get the reader to visualize what he is trying to say. Through light storytelling Mirabelli attempts to prove that although being a waiter is commonly thought to be a mindless, repetitive job, the complexity deliberately explained by Mirabelli seems to suggest a complex nature of work exclusive to food service workers that requires the use of innovative ways of communication.

Notable Quotations

“[…] [T]here is a decided focus on printed texts over other mediums of communication like video and audio. Such a focus limits our understanding of literacy in terms of it’s use in specific situations in multiple modes of communication” (p. 146).

“Reading menus and reading customers […] involves a myriad of cultural distinctions. […] [A]ge, gender, race, and class are all relevant to interactions between customers and waiters or waitresses” (p. 154).

“To be successful at the practice of being friendly requires performing certain techniques over and over until they can be performed at an unconscious level […]” (p. 157).

“I calculated that a waiter had to walk and run about 15 miles during the day and yet the strain of the work was more mental than physical… One has to leap to and fro between a multitude of jobs - it is like sorting a pack of cards against the clock” (p. 158).

“Literacy practices in this environment are nothing like those found in traditional classrooms, but they might be more comparable to those found in the emergency ward or a hospital or an air-traffic controller’s tower” (p.158).


Mirabelli takes a very “honest” approach to proving his point. It felt as if Mirabelli was just talking to me informally. He was arguing a point, but it wasn’t for the purpose of convincing us to believe something. Instead, he was showing us a point of view that most people might not see for the purpose of not taking a side on the subject matter but rather promoting an understanding of what exactly one community has to go through on a regular basis. In a way, Mirabelli is just allowing the reader to wear the other person’s shoes, where the other person is specifically one who worked at “Lou’s Restaurant” as a waiter.

I, Daniel, liked the way he used examples to show what he was saying instead of trying to use big words to explain his points. Not only did it help me paint a picture in my mind of what he was saying, it also helped me remember his main points. The style that Mirabelli uses is comprehensible and interesting to me. Just as a novel keeps you reading by telling a cohesive story, Mirabelli’s piece tells a series of tiny stories that demonstrate a cohesive argument. You get what Mirabelli is trying to tell you without having to decipher what every unfamiliar word means. This makes this piece accessible to everyone, not just experts on literacy. You don’t have to know what every word affiliated with the word literacy is to understand this piece.

While I, Nelsyda, also found Mirabelli’s storytelling style interesting and helpful as I was reading, that was not the only thing that interested me. Mirabelli has a very imagery-focused way of explaining the significance of each story. Summarizing his main argument, Mirabelli claims that “[l]iteracy practices in this environment […] might be more comparable to those found in the emergency ward or a hospital or an air-traffic controller’s tower” (p. 158) while also leaving the stories and the points that he mentioned earlier as a means of comparison. He could have just said that the literacy practices are more like learning as you adapt to a situation rather than just learning for the sake of learning; this is how I interpreted it. Instead he paints another picture, just as Daniel described it before. This picture leaves room for many interpretations while still maintaining the idea that waiters have to learn more than what we initially thought they had to learn.

In addition, he decided to choose a more dignified work field in terms of importance and status. Doctors and air-traffic controllers are looked at with more importance than a waiter because of the fact that people’s lives are at stake in the workplace. I see this as Mirabelli translating what he learned from being a waiter to his writing, such as the skill of taking control of what the customer would order. He takes control of our perception of that one sentence with just a smart selection of words and images. In a way, though his writing, if he is able to convince us that waiters know more than what we think, then not only did he present a decent argument but he also demonstrated the literacy skills of a waiter by applying them to the stories that he told and the actual piece.

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