Sep 16, 2014 · 4 minutes

As if recovering from an August full of bad news, social media has finally turned its attention in September back to far more trivial matters -- namely, the pseudo-Italian restaurant chain Olive Garden.

Like with Taco Bell, I'm fascinated by Olive Garden and its viral pull on the social media masses. There's something that speaks to our experience as Americans about a glorified fast food chain selling unlimited amounts of overpriced pasta and breadsticks and calling it "Italian food." Depending on your perspective, it's either capitalism's greatest achievement or proof of its failure. You may recall back in 2012 when an elderly restaurant critic named Marilyn Hagerty wrote a deeply earnest review of her local Olive Garden. For the better part of a week, you couldn't go on Twitter or turn on the television without hearing about Hagerty's accidental masterpiece of New Sincerity. David Foster Wallace would have been proud.

Now Olive Garden is back in the news but under far less happy circumstances. After sales dipped 1.3 percent in the last quarter, a hedge fund called Starboard Value owning 8.8 percent of the company penned an voluminous and brutal 294-slide takedown of the company. Its complaints included everything from not salting the water when cooking pasta to inefficient packaging. But the grievance that most dominated headlines and news cycles was that servers brought out too many breadsticks at a time, leading to waste and deteriorating quality.

The investors chalked this up to a lack of "training and discipline" on the part of the servers, who would rather plunk down a full basket of breadsticks than have to return to the table over and over again with the requisite one-breadstick-per-person. That's a fair point. But something's been lost in the Great Olive Garden Web Content Rush of 2014: Being an Olive Garden server is one of the hardest, most thankless, and least lucrative jobs in the service industry. How do I know? I used to be one.

For a couple months in the summer of 2006, I was a server at an Olive Garden franchise in Columbus, OH. It may not have been the most impressive job for a recent college graduate, but in Ohio serving or bartending is often the best bet for employment with an undergraduate degree in the liberal arts (many of my coworkers had degrees in Political Science, English, and Psychology). Nor was it my first choice of a serving gig. But I needed to pay rent and Olive Garden called me back first.

The first thing new hirees go through is a week-long training period. This is the best. Trainees sit around sampling every item on the menu while learning the proper way to pronounce "Bruschetta" and how to rudimentarily pair wine with dishes. The wine crash course didn't really go beyond "red vs white" and "dry vs sweet," but that's all you need to know to fake it as a sommelier at Olive Garden. Best of all? You actually get paid an hourly wage during this Falstaffian life of leisure.

But after training, things went downhill fast. The most important thing to know about being an Olive Garden server is that, unlike at other restaurants where drinks are usually the only thing that must be refilled, here everything is refillable. Drinks. Breadsticks. Salads. Soups. For a few weeks out of the year even pasta is refillableSo don't call servers untrained and undisciplined just because they want to save a little time and sanity by frontloading on the breadsticks. A shift at Olive Garden is like a marathon game of whack-a-mole that demands you constantly run between stations.

Second, because each table requires so much refilling of everything, servers are only allowed to have three tables at once to ensure that customers are properly attended to. That's a fine policy at a four-star restaurant with exorbitantly high prices. But while Olive Garden's food may cost more than it should, the average bill per person is around $15. And building on the restaurant's motto of "When you're here, you're family," when you're at Olive Garden you camp out there for a while. After all, with all the unlimited food why wouldn't you?

An average section for a server might consist of two, two-person tables (or "two-tops") and one four-top. If each party stays for an hour and tips 15 percent (which is hardly a foregone conclusion) that amounts to $18 an hour -- but that's only if the restaurant is packed. Some hours, particularly during day shifts, a server may only have one or two tables full resulting in a take-home pay as low as $4.50 an hour. Furthermore, tips are also claimed for taxes, which erase the meager $2.13 minimum wage tipped employees receive on top of that. Finally, servers are also (rightly) expected to give some of their tips to bussers at the end of a shift.

At the risk of diving further into the minutia of service industry economics, I found that I made far more money at a small diner than at Olive Garden -- even though the bills and tips were even lower, the guest turnaround was far faster and I might be waiting on up to eight tables at once. It wasn't unusual, even on less busy days, to take home $20 an hour.

Of course no one is forcing anybody to work at Olive Garden. But as often happens when discussing the macro policies of large companies, the voices of the lowest-paid workers is lost. I would like to see a member of Starboard's investor team survive one day working the job of these "undisciplined" workers. The only commentary offered by Business Insider, which has become oddly fixated on the Olive Garden beat these past few days, regarding the waitstaff at an Olive Garden in Manhattan was that they "seemed unaware" of Starboard's takedown.

Of course they were unaware -- they were too busy running around like maniacs delivering customers "slightly overdone but otherwise good" breadsticks for often less than minimum wage.

[photo by Samantha Celera]