I Worked Cinco De Mayo In A College Town During Finals And Here's What Happened

It’s 2:40PM and the waitress I’m shadowing barks to me, “we’re already out of frozen margaritas. This is going to be fun.”

Cinco De Mayo. The holiday that’s basically just a reason to drink margaritas all day long.

I’m a student at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia and just like most typical college towns there’s a pretty good collection of Mexican restaurants. But one restaurant reigns supreme above all others as a draw for students looking to quench their margarita thirst. Meet El Jalapeno.

El Jalapeno is known for three things: good chips, cheap food, and happy hour jumbo margaritas from 1 pm to 7 pm. With the weather rising to the sweltering low-90s, students have been flocking to their patio for some tacos and the opportunity to achieve a slight buzz before finals.

While I’m normally one of the students partaking in the beverages instead of serving them, this year, I decided to challenge myself: I wanted to see what it was like to work in a Mexican restaurant on the busiest day of the year.

I traded the outing my friends planned (the Cinco FOMO was strong y’all) and shadowed a waitress during her shift.

Full disclosure, there were some conditions. First, I wasn’t allowed to touch anything. I’m a klutz as it is and I didn’t need to mess up the whole service by burning myself multiple times on some hot plates (which also meant no kitchen access for me). Second, I was directed to stay out of the way because it was going to be a zoo. Both of those were fair.

And so it began.

2:17 – The shift begins. I walk in the door and immediately see people running left and right behind the bar. It’s already decently crowded and there are a bunch of large parties in the back of the restaurant. Cheryl was in the kitchen, so in the meantime I’m introduced to some of the staff and the manager on shift. He tells me that they’ve been planning for Cinco for months and they foresee it being slammed all day long. I’m directed to a spot at the end of the bar to wait for Cheryl.

From where I’m stationed I have a pretty full view of the restaurant and the bar full of students drowning their post-finals stress with nachos and 32 ounce beers.

2:29 – The TL;DR. Cheryl finally gets room to breathe and meets me at the bar to give me a preview of what’s to come. El Jalapeno is known for their Happy Hour jumbo margaritas, but Cheryl tells me they aren’t running any of the Happy Hour specials today. Instead, they’re running a special of discounted margarita pitchers and “bartender’s choice” shots.

“People aren’t happy.”

I can’t say I blame them. When I ask if the change is going to impact the flow of margaritas, she says that even though the hours today are less “happy” students are simply opting for the pitcher instead. Nothing can go wrong there.

It turns out I probably won’t see too many tables tonight. Cheryl is on the “support server” shift so she will just be picking up parties as needed.

2:35 – My first table, it’s time. With “Danza Kuduro” booming in the background, I strut behind Cheryl to our first table. It’s a party of five students, but they’re waiting for more people to join. They order Happy Hour margaritas that sadly don’t exist on Cinco de Mayo and the disappointment displayed on their faces is enough to turn me to stone. Cheryl handles it well and sells the pitchers like Don Draper in a concept meeting. They go for it, opting for strawberry pitchers, which seems to be the trend because as far as I can see, every other table in the restaurant also sports a pink-hued pitcher.

I follow Cheryl like a lost puppy to the bar where she shouts the order to the bartenders who dish out the margaritas in record time. I then head over to a table where servers are rolling silverware to meet the rest of the El Jalapeno squad.

2:40 – Let it go! Cheryl runs up to me at the silverware station and says that we’re already out of frozen margaritas and that it will be a while before the machine is able to freeze up some more. I fear for our safety.

I’m also learn the bartender’s shot for the night: A “Royal Flush” consisting of bourbon, peach schnapps and cranberry juice. Sounds like a recipe for bad choices but I trust the bartenders that this is what the people need.

2:53 – Spotted. I bump into my friend from work. He looks like he’s had a margarita or two—I’m jealous.

He says, “You’d be a great server, Jeff.” Sadly I know I’m too clumsy and short fused for that. I’ll stick to this writing thing for the time being.

2:59 – Cheryl walks by me and with her hands in the air says the frozen margs are back on. #Blessed.

3:14 – Cheryl joins me and two other servers at the silverware station as the restaurant is bustling around us. I ask her how she’s doing.

“I’m dying of thirst and it’s only 3:15.”

Cool.

Not surprisingly, it’s all hands on deck today. I’m told every staff member is required to work Cinco for as long as humanly possible. Cheryl had a final this afternoon, so her shift was trimmed to accommodate, however, the majority of staff have been here since 10:30 am and they haven’t slowed down since then.

It’s so hectic but we love it! God bless America!

While I took the liberty of knocking back a 5-Hour Energy in the parking lot, the servers tell me the power nap is the way to go. I feel like I made a rookie mistake.

3:19 – The owner, Don Luis, walks up to me with a huge smile on his face. He shouts with glee, “It’s so hectic but we love it! God bless America!”

3:25 – Goals have been set. Maria, who is in charge of the “party section” proudly states “I’m going to make $300 tonight.” Considering she’s already made $100, I think the odds are ever in her favor. I asked Cheryl what her goal was, and she sticks to a simple $100.

3:55 – The rush has died down and the restaurant isn’t as packed full of people. However, the diners inside are so loud I can barely hear the mariachi music in the background, which really damages my morale.

The owner’s son tells me that Cinco isn’t even the busiest day of the year for El Jalapeno. On their anniversary, they run some crazy specials and it’s slammed beyond belief.

3:57 – Cheryl gets another table and they order a lime margarita pitcher on the rocks because the frozen machines can’t keep up with the demand of thirsty college students.

4:05 – It’s like Christmas. Cheryl gets another table but informs me she doesn’t think they’re going to be drinking. #JoinTheClub.

As the servers are moving a mile a minute, I catch Maria, who tells me she has $130 in card tips alone. The rush is starting to pick up again, and it’s getting extremely difficult to move around the restaurant. One wrong step and you end up playing chicken with a food runner carrying three boats of queso dip.

4:10 – I bump into a server. After apologizing profusely, I ask him how long he’s been here today. He tells me he’s been working since open and will be on the closing shift tonight. He also tells me he probably won’t have time for a break either because of the upcoming rush of post-work imbibers.

4:15 – I decide to relocate back to my end of the bar so I don’t crash into another server. As soon as I sit down, a student in a sombrero spills his margarita on himself. The bar quietly laughs in unison.

4:28 – I chat with a man sitting next to me who is actually a bartender at another local restaurant. David’s been here for a two hours now and gives me a history lesson on the meaning behind Cinco de Mayo. Basic summary of David’s drunk history recap is that Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexico’s Independence day, but a day commemorating a battle where the US helped beat out the French in occupying Mexico. David tells me that it’s just a bullshit reason to drink margaritas (of which he’s had two jumbo so far).

David then asks me to ask him how many shots he’s taken. When I ask he shouts happily “I don’t fucking know!”

I figured as much.

200 Beers Sold

4:35 – I meet a server named Chuck who has worked a few Cinco de Mayo’s at other restaurants. Chuck tells me, “It’s just running in circles and playing a constant memory game. The biggest struggle is losing your momentum and making sure you always have something in your hand whether it be food or refills on drinks.”

4:42 – A girl at David’s table tells me she has a final in an hour and after that her squad is going to all of the other Mexican restaurants. Talk about rallying.

4:50 – I finally catch Cheryl and she’s stressed out beyond belief. She tells me our first table of five just added eight people to their group. Not only that, a band is setting up in the party section and it’s requiring a little reorganization of the restaurant. They do a soundcheck with “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and the crowd goes wild.

5:08 – A table of female students behind me are yelling for no reason. The bartenders are unphased. Cheryl tells me that a guy left her his phone number instead of a tip. He’s obviously a keeper.

5:22 – The party of 11 orders tequila shots for everybody. Cheryl double-fists their iPhones, snapping photos as the table takes them in unison. This causes me to think, “did it really happen if it isn’t on someone’s Snapchat story??”

After the shots are done, Cheryl tells me that “a group of old bitches ‘sharked’ her table.” She explains that ‘sharked’ is when people skip the line (which is 7 parties deep) and sit down at a table they didn’t earn yet.

As someone who has sharked many a table, I now feel like a major asshole. I make a mental note to never do that again.

6:00 – It’s packed. There’s no room to stand, let alone sit, and there’s a possibility that I’ll have to leave and come back later when the rush dies down. As I’m whining to my editor in a plethora of Slack messages, I spot a single chair in the corner of the restaurant next to the break in the bar where servers run in and out. I claim the single chair as my workstation and embrace my view of the restaurant.

From behind the bar, I can also see that the bartenders are not only running food, but making all of the drinks and handling the rowdy students taking embarrassing Snapchats. These are the real heroes.

Margs

6:17 – I check up with Cheryl to see how she’s doing since she’s now stuck having to roll more silverware. Because there is no space, she makes a station next to the bucket of margaritas.

“I’m going to get high from these tequila fumes.”
Not sure that’s how it works, but I’ve been wrong before.

6:32 – The manager from earlier checks in on me. This restaurant is a madhouse, but the staff is embracing the organized chaos. He goes on to tell me that not only did the restaurant already meet their sales goal, but the waitlist for a table is 20 parties deep.

Representatives from Camarena Tequila are at the hostess desk handing out sombreros and tequila shots to the willing – creating a mob of students in the process. Cheryl puts a shot glass necklace around my neck but I take it off because water shots just aren’t the same.

6:50 –The crowd is lit as the band covers of “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck.” Apparently I’m the only one confused about the country music, but then I remember I am in South Georgia.

Margaritas are being slung left and right by the six people behind the bar. It’s extremely intense and just watching it all unfold heightens my anxiety. The servers are running past me so quickly that their breeze is flipping the pages of my notepad. I see Don Luis handing out more sombreros in the distance. He’s really good at the whole mingling thing.

6:55 – A line of servers is starting to form at the computer behind the bar. Apparently, no credit cards are going through (Cheryl suspects an internet outage). A few minutes later, Cheryl comes up to me and tells me that half of the customers at the bar got up and left because their cards weren’t working. Yikes.

Don Luis has been on the phone for a while trying to get it fixed as soon as possible. Maria tells me she now has $187 in credit tips alone.

7:15 – Overheard: “The only way to Cinco is to drink both flavored margs at once.” Good to know. Cheryl informs me that no matter how much silverware she rolls, they can’t keep up and only have about 12 sets on rotation. This never happens during a normal shift.

7:20 – A man who has obviously had a few too many margs approaches Cheryl and I looking for Chuck. We shake our heads and he gives Cheryl $2 for “doing such a good job rolling that silverware.”

I look up to the POS computer and it looks like cards still don’t work.

7:31 – Cards are back on. The crowd rejoices. A server running behind the bar has a flashing rubber ring on and says that someone at one of her tables proposed to her. How romantic. In classic South Georgia fashion, the once beautiful day is now about to become a downpour. Guests on the patio have to be moved inside to the already crowded restaurant.

Overheard shouting: “I CAN’T GET THE CUP TO WORK.”

7:44 – It’s getting super hot in here. I look up to see a bartender taking a shot as the chaos is getting more and more hectic. The band takes this opportunity to perform “Friends In Low Places” which makes everyone and their mother lose their damn minds. The tequila-induced harmony is a little off but nobody seems to mind. After the song, the band alerts the crowd that anybody who is parked on the adjacent street instead of the parking lot is getting their car towed. A relatively small swarm of people flee the restaurant.

I ask Cheryl how it’s going.
She shouts, “It fucking sucks.”

The mass of people from the porch is breaking the flow of the organized chaos and nobody knows who ordered what food. Cheryl also tells me that tonight is going worse than she expected. Customers are letting the tequila take advantage of them and in turn are acting like complete assholes.

8:07 – Cheryl runs by me. “What time is it?” she asks.

“8:07.”

“Fuck meeeeeeeeee.” She responds in a pitiful pitch. I take the time to reflect and realize a new appreciation for Mexican food.

8:30 – Turns out that Chuck left without telling anybody so his section has been deserted. I’m also told his chances of employment are deserted.

I can see in the faces of the bartenders that there is a ton of stress in the air, but they’re trying to rally. In the distance, I see a group of intoxicated middle-aged women wearing sombreros taking selfies next to their table.

Cheryl informs me that the restaurant will most likely stay open past their 10 pm close time if people are still coming in. I die a little inside as I imagine getting this story to my editor in time. A few feet away, I see a child sleeping at the table. I envy her.

8:42 – The band begins singing a very soulful “Happy Birthday” to Hailey. The bar joins loudly. Happy birthday Hailey.

8:53 – I meet one of the main bartenders who’s been running back and forth since I walked in the door. She’s been working since 10:30 am and she says it’s been so “non stop crazy” that she hasn’t had time to take a break and probably won’t until close.

She tells me that she has 20 years of experience in foodservice and that it’s this hectic everywhere she’s worked, but at this point, she’s ready to go home and see her two kids.

9:02 – Don Luis takes a break from schmoozing up the tables (seriously, he’s really good at it) to check in on me. He tells me he thinks that they’ve sold over 150 pitchers of margaritas alone. The band starts playing “Uptown Funk” and the whole staff across the restaurant sings along and dances with each other. There were many a “booty-bumps” behind the bar.

9:22 – I meet one of the other bartenders who’s only working at the restaurant for six days and loves the Cinco pace.

“I love it because it’s so much fun. I really don’t even feel like I’m working.”

Maria passes by me and tells me she has $208 in credit tips and then shows me the mound of cash from her pocket. “There’s at least another $200 in here.” Looks like she’s going to make her goal and then some.

9:43 – The band is continuing with the country music. I’m losing my mind. I meet another waitress and ask her what it’s like to work on Cinco. She keeps it brief and says “It’s hell.”

9:52 – The restaurant has died down in terms of new parties. The big groups are starting to fade out. One of the drunk middle-aged women approaches a table of college students next to me asking them extremely personal questions. The band starts performing “Purple Rain” and she is distracted. The entire restaurant sings along.

The final tally

10:01 – It looks like the party is still going, but they don’t look like they’re taking any extra tables. For the sake of time, I head over to the manager and he gives me the numbers for margaritas sold. Through some conversions (jumbo, pitchers, margaronas), the restaurant sold approximately 1,469 16 ounce margaritas. That’s over 23,500 fluid ounces of margarita. He also told me they sold over 200 beers.

With that, I fight the urge to get a margarita and head to my car. In reality, my work is just getting started.