This article was originally published in the July 2017 Princeton Echo.
Restaurant servers and staff in Princeton give a lot of themselves in order to make the roughly 60,000 guests we collectively see come to town to eat and enjoy what our small town has to offer every week happy. We always appreciate our hard workers, of course, but once a year we like to make our feelings public.
That’s why every summer the Princeton Merchants Association puts together the Waiters’ Race of Princeton. Its’ a true celebration of the servers and staff, full of cash and prizes (some really good ones, too) donated by Princeton Merchants and organizations.
This year’s race, our eighth annual, is set for Thursday, July 13, at 4 p.m. at the Princeton Shopping Center. The shopping center is home to one of two courses PMA uses for the race. We switch every year between the Shopping Center and Palmer Square, where the course is a little more hilly and physically challenging — and if you think booking your way around Palmer Square with a tray full of drinks you can’t spill is easy, you’ve never run the Waiters’ Race.
The course at Princeton Shopping Center is flatter, but faster, and that creates its own challenges. Ego and speed are the two biggest obstacles racers face, especially at the end of the course when someone else is closing in. Those last-minute bursts to cross the finish line first can cost a racer — and you can believe me because though I’ve never run the race myself, I have been the person to inspect the trays when the race is over, and not all of them make it across the finish line cleanly.
Putting the race together has always been fun and challenging in its own way. I’ve been a part of the annual Waiters’ Race from the beginning, getting my start as part of the restaurant recruiting team that was in charge of getting the servers to sign up for the race. These days I help coordinate the entire event along with other members of PMA, working on marketing, sponsorship, and recruitment.
Recruitment has certainly gotten easier. Our first race saw approximately 40 entrants. Last year we had 82, and this year we’re looking for another 80 to 85 racers. Competitors run over 10 heats (five heats each for men and women), with six to eight racers per heat. Heats are determined alphabetically by racers’ first names.
Each racer will have a tray with two full BAI bottles (no lids), a plastic wine glass filled with water, and a plastic champagne flute filled with water. The two people who pass the finish line quickest and with the most water in their glasses and bottles advance.
One of the things that makes the Waiters’ Race so much fun is that it’s not only about who crosses the line first. It’s also about who finishes most intact. A few years ago, one of our racers finished dead last in his heat, but advanced because the other racers had dropped glasses. Remember when your teacher told you that neatness counts? She might as well have been talking about the Waiters’ Race, because on this course, advancing or not advancing can come down to drops on the tray (which means it’s also a good idea to make sure your tray is super-dry before you start).
Bragging rights are certainly one of the prizes. This is Princeton, after all, where we all know each other and we all love a little friendly competition. But winners get some really cool prizes on top of that pride. First place winners get $350 in cash, an overnight stay at the Nassau Inn, a bottle of champagne, gift cards, and other prizes totaling about $1,100 worth of cash and gifts. Second place finishers receive $200 and gift cards; third place finishers receive $100 and gift cards.
It goes without saying that the races and the prizes couldn’t happen without the generosity of our volunteers and sponsors. A lot of volunteers get involved day-of to help set up, inspect trays, or, as my friend and fellow PMA member Laura Pronesti, a CPA at Lear & Pannepacker LLP, does, keep the finishing area clear of server logjams, because racers tend to pile up once they cross the finish line.
This year, some of our top sponsors include Nassau Inn, Terra Momo, JM Group, Joy Cards, MacLean Agency, Princeton University Store, and Edens (Princeton Shopping Center.) There are also many other generous restaurants and local shops that donate gift cards and prizes to our top winners and to the goodie bags that each racer gets. (The goodie bags are pretty cool bags that include a t-shirt, assorted gift cards, coupons, and snacks!)
Getting restaurants and sponsors to be part of the annual Waiters’ Race is a lot of work, but it’s also getting easier. The more we hold the Waiters Race, the more everyone in Princeton wants to be part of the fun. It’s the same reason our crowds grow every year, too. This is Princeton, after all, which means it’s a fun place to be, and everyone wants to be part of the action. Hope to see you at this years’ Waiters Race! Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in sponsoring.