Old-style service with a smile
Waiting on hotel guests may not be everyone’s dream job, but Erika Dietermann has found 40 years of fulfilment
• “My daughter always says, ‘I don’t know how you can start each day in the middle of the night, put on a dirndl, wait on guests and be polite to everyone all the time.’
“I put my heart and soul into my work. I wear the traditional German dirndl dress as my work outfit, because it suits the hotel atmosphere and the thin white blouse is cool, even in summer. I have always liked my job, whether I am working late at night or early in the morning, which is what I do now. Yes, I serve people but I don’t feel like a servant. I do it because I want to.
“Of course, it is much nicer for a waitress like me if what you bring to the table is top quality. I really like setting out and serving our hotel breakfast. There’s a choice of meats – Parma ham, Black Forest ham, Westphalian ham on the bone, Tyrolean bacon, cured pork, roast beef and homemade liver sausage. And fish: pickled herring, roll mops, herring in cream, smoked salmon, marinated salmon. Guests can also order à la carte options, such as oysters, scrambled egg with truffles, eggs Benedict or fried black pudding on rye bread. It’s all included in the room price, or €29.80 [£26] for non-residents.
“The Jagdhof Glashütte is a five-star hotel in the heart of the Rothaar hills in Westphalia. People come here to enjoy the peace and quiet. There’s hardly any mobile phone signal, which many people like. And they look forward to the gourmet breakfast, which we serve until noon every day – actually it can go on until 1pm, because the buffet is not cleared away until then. We try to pamper guests. ‘Oh, Frau Dietermann,’ they sometimes say as they leave, ‘You have spoilt us so much, we’d really like to take you home with us.’
“I have been the breakfast manager more or less continuously for 10 years. I get up at five, shower, drink two cups of coffee and eat half a slice of bread. I have only once eaten breakfast in the hotel. Mrs Dornhöfer, the owner, invited me one day before a managers’ outing. I go to bed at 9.30pm, so I never see the 9.45pm news. Nor the end of the TV crime series Tatort – my husband tells me who the murderer was the next day. I work most Sundays. On Saturdays I used not to get to bed before 2am, if the hotel had hosted a party. But I am 57 now and I can’t do that anymore.
“It takes me nearly half an hour to get to the hotel by car. At the reception desk I say hello to the night porters; the cleaners and the cook are already at work. He is 20 and he says it is only my good mood that really wakes him up in the mornings. In the breakfast room, I switch on all the lights and open all the doors and windows to let in fresh air. Then I check the guest list, write welcome greetings on little slates, put milk, butter and jam on the tables, get all the juices out and the ice bucket with the sparkling wine and the vodka for the fish counter. When the kitchen puts out all the cheese, sausage, fish, bread and fruit, I check that everything there is as it should be, wrap napkins round baguettes and loaves, and wipe away any spills.
“Breakfast officially begins at 7am, but a recent conference of bakers in the hotel turned up half an hour earlier. They said being bakers they were early risers and they couldn’t break the habit. I never refuse to serve anyone. I’ll always do whatever I possibly can. If a guest wants to enjoy breakfast outside in the sun after a long winter, I’d rather quickly wipe and lay a table on the terrace than waste time explaining why it’s not possible at that moment.
“Our team book says: ‘The guest is the focal point of our house.’ You have to bring that to life. The most important thing is to smile; it sounds corny, but smiling is a language everyone understands. After all, in the morning you may be the first person the guest has seen.
“I welcome new arrivals at the entrance to the dining room and say something like, ‘Good morning, Schneider family. I have a table for you,’ and take them to their place. On the way, I explain the buffet and show them where everything is – muesli, cottage cheese and yoghurt, and where they can squeeze fresh juice. Then I take orders for coffee or tea. If they were at breakfast the day before, I might ask, ‘Jasmine tea again and a Darjeeling like yesterday?’ Then they feel at home. I also make sure I say goodbye to everyone before they leave the room. As soon as I see that a guest has finished, I dart across to the door and open it for them – that is just courtesy.
“We are only supposed to serve the hot drinks, the smoothie of the day, eggs and the à la carte orders at the table. But if I see a guest with limited mobility, I’ll bring them all the other things as well. And if someone is buttering a roll and calls out, ‘Could I have a glass of orange juice, Frau Dietermann?’ I’ll fetch it. Yesterday a guest asked for some oat flakes. He said he liked to put some in his quark. The buffet offers three types of muesli, cornflakes and oat flakes with nuts and fruit – but no plain oat flakes. So I brought some from home and this morning I had a happy guest.
“Working eight hours without a break is strenuous, of course. It’s all I can do to manage a toilet break. Today we had 78 guests for breakfast, and just me and a trainee to serve them. It’s often been like that lately. But we don’t want guests to notice. Once we had so much to do that we hardly had time to breathe but someone remarked: ‘Oh, it’s so nice and peaceful here!’ Experiences like that give me strength. I work hard at home, too. I do my own cleaning and some child-minding. But you don't always feel valued or get compliments for those jobs. Sometimes I tease my husband: ‘Henning, you won’t believe what a man said to me at breakfast today, and his wife was sitting right next to him!’
“I earn any praise I get. I never get praise that I haven’t worked hard for. I think I can carry on for a few more years, but it’s getting harder all the time. I often have to train new staff because temporary workers often don’t stay long. And trainees give up a lot sooner, nowadays. There is a serious shortage of staff in catering because of the working hours and the low pay. What I really need is someone at my side for a long time; someone who is properly trained and can do a full day’s work right from the start.
“I take any mistakes really hard. Guests very, very rarely complain, but recently it did happen. A woman found something not very nice at the buffet – a little mishap caused by another guest, but not spotted quickly enough by the service staff. We just couldn’t calm her down. She was threatening to post it on the internet. So in the end I said: ‘I’m terribly sorry. It’s my fault and I would like to apologise. I didn’t check the buffet properly and I take full responsibility.’ And that finally did the trick. We also gave her a box of chocolates, but I think the bit about taking responsibility was decisive. At any rate, there hasn’t been anything on the internet so far – fortunately!
“Why do I choose to do this job? Perhaps because at home I was never put off by having to help with things like laying tables, making beds, cooking and baking. I had four younger siblings – a sister and three brothers. My younger sister liked helping my mother with all the housework while I went out with my friends after school. So I didn’t have to do any housework, but I was often told I was so friendly and outgoing that I could talk to anyone. So one day I picked up the directory and looked at the catering section. Then I closed my eyes and pointed. My finger hit an entry for the Jägerheim hotel in a neighbouring village, Brauersdorf. And not long after that, in August 1977, I started work there as a trainee in the hotel trade.
“It was a guesthouse with 11 rooms, run by the couple who owned it, and there were three apprentices. I earned 177 Deutschmarks [£44 then] a month and was a jack-of-all-trades. I did everything – book-keeping, putting laundry through the mangle, wallpapering, and even staffing the switchboard in reception when a guest wanted to use the telephone – in those days, the units had to be counted. I also cooked; the owner taught me. There were local specialities, such as boiled halibut and steak Esterházy. And when a hunter brought us a deer, we had to skin it. It was a good way of learning, but tough too. I was 16. It wasn’t worth taking the bus home for lunch, so I was there from morning till evening. Sometimes I cursed the place.
“Looking back over my career, I have had 19 jobs since beginning as a trainee. As a sales representative for a hotel in Frankfurt I handed out flowers to managers’ personal assistants to advertise the hotel. And at weddings in another, more traditional guesthouse, I carried trays of beer jugs from 2pm to 7am. The trays weighed 6kg. Then I passed my master certificate and trained young people. They were problem cases; some had language difficulties or had gone off the rails somehow. After stomach surgery I even briefly tried working in reception, to avoid all the carrying. But sitting around is not for me. My passion is serving.
“I’ve given notice a few times without having a job lined up to go to, but I’ve never been out of work for more than two weeks. If I was interested in a job, I used to go to the place incognito for a meal. I would study the people serving and try to catch a glimpse of the kitchen. I always considered: can I learn a bit more here, gain more experience, prove myself? After two or three years somewhere, when I knew everything inside out, I would start looking for another job. Especially if there was someone with a short temper in the team. Guests will often follow you to the new employer, I find. They say, ‘Frau Dietermann is working there now. So that will be a decent place to go.’
“If I had had a big rise every time I changed jobs, I’d be earning very good money now. But money was never the motivating factor. I wouldn’t like to say how much I earn, but without my husband, who is a workshop manager in an engineering firm, we wouldn’t be able to afford our house and go travelling.
“We like going on holiday. We have been to Portugal, Scotland, Kenya, New York and the Seychelles. Wherever we went, there was a buffet breakfast. Except last year at a little family hotel on Mykonos. We had a choice between a vitality breakfast with yoghurt and fruit salad or a hearty meal with scrambled eggs and bacon, accompanied by coffee, water or orange juice, and all served at our table. When I’m the guest, I don’t watch with a critical professional eye to see if the waiters are doing everything right. I just think: it is really very nice to be waited on at times.
“I’ve been doing this work for 40 years. Physically, I don’t feel I’m getting too old for it. I haven’t had any back problems through serving, but then I am pretty short: only 1 metre 53 centimetres tall [5ft], so I don’t have to do much bending. Perhaps that’s an advantage.
“I don’t think we will ever be replaced by robots. Guests need human beings who can empathise. For example, dogs are not allowed in the breakfast room, so I really have nothing to do with dogs. But last week a couple arrived with a sick dog. The car journey had probably not agreed with him. They said that at home they would give him a bit of boiled chicken with carrots if he was ill. So of course, I went straight to the kitchen and soon they had a warm meal to take up to their dog in their room. ‘The service here is even better than in the Adlon hotel in Berlin,’ they said.
“A lot of the guests who come here are not short of money. What is most important them is that you are pleasant and look after them.”