By John Marshall
On your mark, get set, don’t spill! On July 10, some 60 servers who work at Princeton restaurants will face off against each other in the Princeton Merchants Association’s annual Waiters’ Race around Palmer Square.
The 3:30 to 5 p.m. event, which is conducted annually by the PMA, is an opportunity to celebrate the servers and staff who take care of more than 60,000 guests a week throughout Princeton.
In addition, the purpose of the race is to hold a fun yet highly competitive event for the entire community-one that has a very local flavor. In contrast to events like Communiversity, which is more of a street fair where people come from far and wide to attend, the Waiters’ Race is community-centric in both participants and spectators.
The Waiters’ Race was resurrected by the PMA in 2011 after a 6-year hiatus, and since then participation has grown by about 33 percent each year. Last year, 30 women and 26 men from more than 13 different restaurants competed in the race for another year of bragging rights.
The races are single counter-clockwise laps-beginning at the entrance to Palmer Square near the tiger statue, around the square and ending back at the statue. Each contestant must use a single hand to balance a tray with two open stemmed glasses filled with water, PLUS two full Bai brand beverage bottles.
Prizes will be awarded to the top three finishers in each of the men’s and women’s finals. The men’s and women’s final races will pit the top finishers from each earlier heat.
This year’s first place finishers will receive $250 cash, a weekend overnight stay at the Nassau Inn, a bottle of champagne, a cooler from Ace Hardware, two $25 gift cards to local restaurants, a $50 Hamilton Jewelers gift card and a gift card to La Jolie Salon & Spa.
The second place finishers will win $150 cash, a bottle of champagne, an Ace Hardware cooler and two $25 restaurant gift cards. Those finishing in third will win $75 cash, a bottle of champagne, an Ace Hardware cooler and two $25 restaurant gift cards.
A big thank you goes to the sponsors of this year’s race, which include Triumph Brewing Co., PNC Bank, Agricola, Eno Terra, Elements, Witherspoon Grill, Princeton University Store, Bai, Teresa Caffe, Blue Point Grill, McCaffrey’s, Yankee Doodle Tap Room, Joycards, La Jolie Salon & Spa, Main Street Bistro, Smith’s Ace Hardware, Mediterra, Princeton Printer, Mistral, RoadID and The Alchemist & Barrister.
Although historically the event had been held at Palmer Square, and will be held there again this year, last year the PMA decided to hold it in the courtyard of the Princeton Shopping Center. We did this to expand its scope to include more teams and to highlight the merger between the Borough and the Township.
We felt that there was a side of town that needed to be included, and holding the race in the shopping center helped celebrate the recently unified town. It wound up working out so well that we decided to alternate back and forth between Palmer Square and the shopping center every other year.
Laura Estey, assistant manager of the Witherspoon Grill, who is responsible for recruitment of contestants and helping to coordinate the event, said that participating restaurants approach the race in a variety of ways.
“Different restaurants do different things,” Estey said. “For instance, at Witherspoon Grill, I have tryouts for my staff so they actually have to race and beat each other out. The cash prizes are pretty hefty so it gets pretty competitive. I know some other restaurants have offered to match prizes or other incentives for their servers to be part of it.”
She also talked about the growth she has seen in the race.
“The first year we kind of had to push people to participate,” she said, “but after that was such a blast, people have been signing up with no problem. Last year we had to have a cutoff because we couldn’t fit any more people. It’s really become an event that people want to be a part of because the prizes are awesome, and they like to be competitive with each other.”
More than a test of agility, the race is a test of endurance, she said. “It’s more the balancing for so long of a distance, especially in Palmer Square. That’s a hike itself without a tray. The last leg of the race is always hilarious because people are huffing and puffing, and they’re trying to walk fast, but without breaking or spilling anything.”
In fact, the last leg of the race is one of the most the most fun parts — the uphill portion of the race route up Palmer Square West that’s unofficially dubbed “Heartbreak Hill.” The racers are starting to get a little tired, feeling confident or pressure based on their position in the race, and there are a lot of things tipping right there. As a spectator, that’s the place to be.
The race brings an event into town that celebrates what servers do every day. Whether you’re at the front desk at a hotel, serving tables or even a cashier, it’s the day in and day out stuff that’s hard work. The owners, many of them PMA members, want to recognize the people who work for them. (This event is free and open to the public.)
For more information on Waiters’ Race Princeton, go to the events section of princetonmerchants.org. or go to Facebook and search for “Waiters’ Race Princeton.”
John Marshall is interim president of The Princeton Merchants Association. The Hometown Princeton column is provided monthly by the PMA. On the web: princetonmerchants.org.