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  • Writer's pictureSam Salerno

People Skills Can Pay the Bills: Lessons learned While Slinging Fish

I serve fish on the wharf right down the street from my apartment.

I serve other things too, but it's mainly fish...and squid, which isn't technically a fish...but I serve a lot of that too.

People come in, they sit down, they order fish, I bring them fish, they eat fish, they pay the restaurant for fish, then they pay me for bringing the fish.

It's a beautiful cycle.

And the crazy thing is, I make about $40 an hour doing it.


My waiter-brain is fighting me on this one, but I have to admit that the fish I serve isn't necessarily the greatest fish in the world. Trust me: it's good, but it's not the best. And the fish itself does nothing but get caught, cooked, and consumed. (Though I'm sure people would pay quadruple for fish that got caught, did a dance, sang a song, then flopped onto their plate to become a five-star entree).

So in a world where college graduates are making an hourly wage that hovers below $20 (see the stats here), how does a fish slinger who's still on the long path to a degree make nearly double?

Elementary, my dear Watson: it all comes down to how you deal with people.

It's been an ongoing revelation, but it came to mind this evening while, you guessed it, slinging fish.

When You Destroy their Order

Messing up someone's food order is probably one of the worst feelings in thew world. Not only have they drooled over the menu, but they've had to wait for their order, mentally preparing for the flavor, texture, and fullness that comes with it. Then, on top of that, they have to pay for it.

I don't know about you, but I loathe not getting what I paid for...especially when it comes to food. If I agree to pay for salmon, you'd better not bring me chicken, right? If I agree to pay for pasta, you'd better not bring me soup, correct?

Well...I messed that whole system up this evening.

A gentleman had ordered the Italian sausage penne pasta with a side of steamed vegetables, and I, in my foolish racing, input an alfredo linguine with no vegetables into the order system.

You can imagine the awkwardness when I brought the plate out. Not only was it the wrong color (and flavor), but the noodles were significantly different, the sausage was missing, and the vegetables were still frozen back in the kitchen.

It was wonderful.

Fortunately for me (and this only happens once every 10 patrons), after apologizing profusely and offering to fix it, the guy was totally cool with his new order. I couldn't leave him hanging though, so I talked to the manager and threw in a quick side order of sausage and brought that out a few minutes later.

As he admired the new combination before him, he looked at me, beaming, and said, "Even though you got the order wrong, this is ten times better. And the fact that you're smiling and brought [the sausage] out without're going to go far." At the end of the evening, his tip was a whopping $40 – almost 50% of his bill.

Again, having a happy patron after you decimate their order will only happen once every 50 times. But this guy's words really stuck with me. I had messed up, I had confessed my error, I had fixed the error, and I continued serving with a smile. I don't plan on ever doing it again, but the reward was well worth it.

The Most Important Skill To Master

Over the years I've realized that the most valuable skill you can learn in life is how to deal with people. Whether you are slinging fish down on the wharf, talking to your boss about a promotion, hanging out with friends, asking the hottie out on a date – whatever it is, learning how to interact with people in a way that makes them feel valued and understood will make you stand head and shoulders above the rest.

If you had met me during my freshman or sophomore year of high school, you'd have seen a super timid dude who didn't say much. I only had a few friends, and even then I would never really hang out with them.

That changed when I decided to challenge myself to really meet one new person per day. You can imagine how awkward it must have been for the people in my Algebra 2 class who had been sitting next to me for eight weeks to all of a sudden have me turn and finally introduce myself. And it was so awkward and uncomfortable for me, too! But as I started talking to more and more people, I began to see a pattern:

You don't need to be the greatest conversationalist in the world. You just need to care enough to listen, empathize, and ask good (and sometimes silly) questions. On top of that, if you make it a point to go out of your way to do something for that person, you're going to jump to the front of the line in their minds as an awesome human being.

Ignore the awkwardo that you might get down in your gut. Think about it from a different perspective: if you were in their shoes, what would you want someone to talk to you about or do for you? Whatever the answer is, you should make it a point to do that for someone else.

Just do it and see what happens!

...And Then There's the Fish

The fish doesn't make me $40.

Dealing with people does.

So take the lesson for a struggling fish slinger: approach people with a smile and a genuine desire to show them that they're valuable, and you're going to go far.


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