Princeton Merchants Association

Our mission is to create a vibrant and sustainable local economy in Princeton by attracting, nurturing, and maintaining a mix of businesses that serve the economic, social and material needs of our community and make Princeton a great place to live and work.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

By John Ryan Fry

On Thursday, July 9, servers from several Princeton restaurants ‒‒ including my own Yankee Doodle Tap Room ‒‒ will put their tray-balancing skills to the test at the Fifth Annual Waiters’ Race, an event organized by the Princeton Merchants Association.

The races kick off at 4 p.m. at the Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North Harrison Street. Waiters and waitresses will race to complete a course while balancing a combination of full glasses and Bai drink bottles on their trays, for the bragging rights as the swiftest and surest-footed server in town, and for some great prizes generously donated by our fellow Princeton businesses. 

If the idea of racing while balancing a tray of drinks sounds easy, think again. Trust me, I’ve run the Waiters’ Race three times and won it twice in a row. It’s not as easy as you’d think. If it were, I would have won it last year as well, when we competed at the races held in Palmer Square.

The Waiters’ Race is a foot race, not an obstacle course, which makes it sound easier to do than it really is. You don’t run around tables ‒‒ though restaurants with outdoor seating areas do make us want to look at diners and say hello ‒‒ you just need to get to the finish line.

But competitors in the Waiters’ Race face two big enemies: overzealousness and momentum. I lost last year’s race because I got a little overzealous. Princeton Shopping Center has all flat ground, but Palmer Square, where we hold the race every other year, has a downhill. That’s what got me into trouble. I lost it in the finals because I tried to go just a little too fast, and, well, you can guess what happened to my drinks.

But racers don’t need a downhill to get into trouble. It’s easy to think you can just whiz past someone. And maybe you can. But your zeal will quickly remind you how momentum works. People will fly past you and then hit that turn, and you just walk past, watching their bottles break.

But at least nobody’s dropping anything on any customers.

The first year I won, 2013, there were a couple servers ahead of me right up to the finish line. I won because they ended up spilling everything. If there’s ever one race for which the old moral of “Slow but steady wins the race” applies, this is it. 

Funny enough, I wasn’t actually going to even enter the race that year, but my boss convinced me I should. And she’s definitely persuasive because she’s still my boss but also now my wife, Virginia, one of the food and beverage managers at Yankee Doodle Tap Room. I won’t be competing this year, though. I still work at the Tap Room, only now I tend bar. But I’ll sure be there, watching. 

Waiters and waitresses have their own separate races. Each restaurant can have up to six entrants, and there is a qualifying round before the finals. The top three finishers in each heat move on until the last nine take the starting line. 

Do we in the Princeton restaurant community take our Waiter’s Race seriously? You bet. Some of us train. Winberie’s Restaurant & Bar has even held tryouts for its servers to go to the race. Maybe there’s no real trash talk at the starting line, but when the horn goes off, we all do want to win. 

It’s all a lot of fun, of course. And it’s a great way for Princeton restaurants to have a little fun with the community. The Princeton Merchants Association sponsors lots of great community events throughout the year that bring residents and visitors to town and into our businesses. 

But the Waiters’ Race is a little different. It’s an event that gets businesses and residents involved with one another in a way that isn’t just visitors coming to town to shop and leave. People who gather to watch the races really do cheer us on, and it’s amazing how many times someone will come into my restaurant and tell me, “I saw you win that race.”

It’s fun for us and it’s fun for our customers to see another side of us. It makes the event more than just customer appreciation, it’s also workers’ appreciation ‒‒ customers letting us know they appreciate that we’re around. 

There’s still time to enter to be in the race, if you’re a server in a Princeton restaurant. Registration is $20. All participants will receive an official Race Day T-shirt and a goodie bag. The fastest racers ‒‒ the ones who don't spill their teetering cargo ‒‒ will take home some awesome prizes, including cold hard cash, a weekend stay at the Nassau Inn and gift cards from local restaurants and businesses.

Just remember: Pace yourself. Slow and steady is the only way to win this race.

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