Nancy Sorensen, 57, has worked as a server for more than 30 years in some of Madison’s most prominent and iconic restaurants — Gino’s, Ovens of Brittany, Wild Iris Cafe, Clay Market Cafe, Deb & Lola’s, and L’Etoile. She is calm, soft-spoken and exudes a comfortable, compassionate understanding. Her eyes seem to be permanently smiling, and she is quick to laugh — it is not hard to imagine her cracking a quiet joke during a stressful Saturday night service. She currently works at Fairchild on Monroe Street.
When I came to Madison, Gino’s hired me. It was definitely formative, building bonds with colleagues and feeling the rush of a busy service. One of the things that hit me right away about the business was how the downtime, the setup and the cleanup, can be really fun. You just invited all these people in [to the restaurant] and they left and it was a good night. It was back in the days of jukeboxes, so all the servers would put on whatever music we wanted, and mop the floors and sing and dance.
One of the things that I really liked about going from Ovens [of Brittany] to [Wild] Iris to Clay Market was seeing the people that I worked with, and their germ of an idea and [them saying] “I want to open my own place.” Then being along for the building of those restaurants — opening new restaurants is super fun. It’s fun when it works. It’s not as fun when it’s someone who is like “I’m tired of investment banking, I want to open a bakery.”
What does hospitality mean to you?
For decades, I didn’t even want to use the word hospitality because it seems so lightweight and not serious. And also not genuine — it seems like the word itself is fake. I was thinking about “deep hospitality,” and what it means to really create an experience for someone. The whole “the customer is always right” thing is entirely opposite to being hospitable, and I think it has set back society billions of years. I mean the customer is not always right. Because there’s nothing to be right about. We’re building this experience for you together. And it takes two to tango.
Anyone who’s getting good service from me, is giving me a good customer/good person vibe. And you might not like me, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given you bad service. There’s always that thing, she smiled at this time, or didn’t smile at this time, and therefore, she’s bad and I will now dock her pay by $4. You know? That’s fundamentally very odd. I mean, the whole tipping thing and pay inequity within the restaurant across the board is odd. And all these things, in an ideal world, should be fixed.
The deepest form of hospitality is a relationship. It might not last for more than an hour and a half, but it’s a genuine human-to-human interaction, and you have to be approaching me on that level as well for it to really work. Because it’s hard when it doesn’t.
One of the things I loved about L’Etoile…I was not quite as formal as some of the other servers, [so] I was able to just build a bridge and say “It’s delicious. It doesn’t matter if you use this fork. You can take home two tablespoons of sauce. I won’t laugh at you.” And every so often, there’d be some person who should get their restaurant card revoked, you know, but there’s really not that many of those. In 30-plus years of waiting tables. I could probably only reel off 15 or 20. Not many people are truly jerks.
That’s the thing after all these years, the job is not easier. It’s like jumping into a double dutch jump rope. And you’re doing that 100 times a night. And that is a wonderful feeling when it happens. When you’re stumbling, that’s also just normal. It’s like an art form that evaporates at the end of the night.
What else do you want restaurant customers to know?
We want you to have an enjoyable time. But you gotta be there for us so that we can be there for you. And give some grace. Just because you can’t see what’s going on doesn’t mean that there’s not something important happening, you know? Just give us a chance, we are human beings. And that’s all I want to be, is a human. I have zero percent interest in being a servant. I’m 100 percent interested in creating a really great experience for you, with you.