Bobby Young, right, hands Kat Kartushevich a plate while expediting food from the kitchen during a busy lunch shift at DiMillo’s On The Water on Friday.

August is to restaurant servers what April is to tax accountants.

The employees who bring you your lobster entrée so you can enjoy the Maine summer in style are working harder than they have all year. Being a conscientious server – and especially toiling away in a Maine restaurant this time of year – is “such a stressful thing,” says Ali Waks Adams, a former server and now chef at the Brunswick Inn. “Everyone who does it has a crazy dream.”

Kitchen Manager Fred Breton lines up food tickets at DiMillo’s.

Yes, talk to most any server, and they will tell you that their nights are punctuated by stress dreams filled with the weirdest details from their most recent shift. We asked servers at local restaurants, from a tiny bistro to a tourist favorite that seats hundreds, to reveal the job-related dreams that come to them after they’ve spent a long day running from table to table. Even people who no longer work as servers still have the dreams years later. We’ve gathered anxiety dreams from eight of them here.

The stress that comes with waiting on tables is its own special kind of hell. Good servers give of themselves to every customer, striving to make sure their guests have a good experience, and adjusting their own behavior accordingly.

“It can be very brutal for someone’s self-worth,” says Kelly Nelson, a server at Piccolo in Portland. “You’re relying on others to tell you how you’re doing at your job several times a night. … And then there’s that table where, no matter what you do, they’re going to hate you.”

Rick Bouchard, a Jungian analyst in South Portland, says stress dreams are very common, especially among subcultures of society – from servers to bikers to bus drivers – that have their own common language. They are messages from the body telling you to deal with your stress, but they are more than that, too. Dreams encourage us to be more self-reflective, and they do that using the imagery we’re familiar with. So it’s not surprising that servers would dream about tables that have suddenly vanished, and plates and utensils piling up.


” ‘Dreams come to us in the service of health and wholeness,’ ” Bouchard said, quoting well-known dream expert Jeremy Taylor. “They come to us to help us learn something about ourselves that we didn’t know. The psyche is trying to get (servers’) attention about something having to do with themselves to help them become more healthy and whole, and it’s using the language they’re familiar with.”

When a dream becomes a recurring dream, Bouchard said, “it’s usually an indication that we aren’t working something out.”

Regardless of the reason for the stress dream, as a customer what you really need to remember is that the operative word is “stress.”

Please tip well this summer.

BOBBY YOUNG, DiMillo’s, Portland

Years in the business: 28, longer if you count working at McDonald’s in high school


Bobby Young gets food moving out of the kitchen during a busy lunch shift at DiMillo’s.

In Bobby Young’s recurring stress dream, it’s 2 a.m. at DiMillo’s in Portland. Diners are still being served, and it doesn’t look as if the floating restaurant will close anytime soon.

“In my dream, (the restaurant is) twice the size, and my book is full of tickets, but none of them are numbered so I don’t know where any of the food goes, and I can’t get into the kitchen to get any food. I’m trying to get into the kitchen and I can’t, and you get that feeling of dread as you feel the clock ticking. There’s a clock in your head when you know the ticket time is going too far, and you know it’s time for that food to come out and it’s not out.”

Young, who has worked at DiMillo’s since 1995, has had this dream so often, she’s actually trained herself to wake up from it.

Young says when she started working at DiMillos, a big place that can seat hundreds of people, the dining room was not as organized as it is today, thus work was much more stressful. “It was so intense and so fast-paced,” she recalled. “I would just go to work and just be sick to my stomach every single day, and I wouldn’t eat. It was just terrifying.”

The atmosphere has since changed. Also, Young has a lot more experience, and she’s shifted some of her responsibilities – she works in the kitchen now, too, helping to move food from the kitchen to the dining room – so she doesn’t have the dream as often. It may resurface after she works a double shift, or when the busy season gets underway and her schedule gets crazy, as it did last month when she worked 11 consecutive days. More likely, she’ll wake at 2 a.m. worried that she forgot to serve a customer the coffee he ordered. When the stress dream does rear its ugly head, Young takes it as a sign that she needs a day off.

“There’s an unattended bottle of wine at home,” waiting for her at the end of her shift, she said. “I’ve got to go.”


KELLY NELSON, Piccolo, Portland

Years in the business: 13

Nelson’s server stress dreams have changed from workplace to workplace.

In one of Kelly Nelson’s stress dreams, “No one is happy. Everyone leaves unsatisfied.”

When she worked at Local 188 in Portland, Nelson’s recurring nightmare was that food would never arrive to her tables. Or there would be a 20-person reservation, and none of the food would be correct. At this point the owner of the place, Jay Villani, would come to her in the dream and say, with Zen-like confidence, “It will come when it comes. You’ll be fine.”

At Yosaku, Nelson says, she worked for a fair but exacting boss who wanted things done his way, with no variations. Normally, as a server, Nelson would develop her own rhythm, figuring out what diners needed and taking care of it in her own way. Yosaku, she said, was a “petri dish of having to do things a certain way, but adjusting it to fit me.”

“My nightmares from there would be me just completely defying all the rules but surviving, so they were like hero nightmare dreams,” she said.


The space at Piccolo is so small that Nelson’s dreams now usually revolve around the entire layout changing. In her stress dream, she said, it’s like looking at the restaurant through a funhouse mirror. The most common dream involves the tiny restaurant turning into “this nightmare cavern.”

“Twenty seats become 200 seats overnight, and nothing is in its right place,” she said. “People never seem to be able to get their food.”

“And then,” she adds, “I wake up and it’s like ‘Oh, I haven’t even gone to work.’ ”

The dreams tend to come when the Piccolo staff is planning for a large party or event, times when Nelson is “so concerned about making sure everything is correct.” But in her dreams these events are the opposite of perfect. When she hears a bell ring in her dream, signaling that the food is ready, “I can never seem to make it to the kitchen.”

“No one is happy,” Nelson said. “Everyone leaves unsatisfied, and that’s literally the opposite of what we do at Piccolo. Our number-one goal is hospitality and making people feel welcome.”

Nelson puts a positive spin on her stress dreams, viewing them as the worst-case scenario and her subsconcious’ way of comforting her.


“Don’t worry about it,” her brain is telling her. “It could be much worse.”

ALI WAKS ADAMS, The Brunswick Inn

Years in the business: Worked as a server for 4-5 years. Has also been a bartender. Now executive chef

Everyone’s had that dream where you show up to class to take a test that’s 50 percent of your final grade, and you suddenly realize you haven’t actually been to class all semester. Or you show up to class, look around, and to your amazement and embarrassment, everyone but you is wearing clothes. Adams started having that dream when she was a kid, and “I would wake up and start getting dressed for school.”

Clearly, her brain was primed from an early age to process stress. In Adams’ server stress dream, she is always forgetting where the table is that she’s supposed to be serving. “I’m walking around trying to figure out who I’m supposed to help,” she said, “and I keep going back to the kitchen, back to bar, wandering around looking for the table.”

She believes the dream has its roots in reality. As a server, Adams often had the experience of leaving a table with all the orders in her head and making a beeline to enter them into the computer. But then someone would say something to her in passing, and the order would vanish from her memory.


In another version, Adams is standing in the dining room holding plates of food, “and my brain becomes totally incapable of knowing where table four is right now.”

Although she last worked as server three or four years ago, Adams occasionally still has these dreams. And now that she’s a chef, she also has a new one. In her chef’s stress dream, she’s standing in the kitchen while an avalanche of orders comes up on the ticket machine. She is unable to move, but can hear the incessant sound of those tickets coming in nonstop: “Chchchchchcch,” she said, imitating the sound.

“It’s like the monster from ‘Lost,’ ” Adams said.

In Joe Ricchio’s stress dream, “Usually, at some point, I ask myself ‘Why is this restaurant so damn big?’ “

JOE RICCHIO, Food editor, Down East, Star of “Food Coma TV,” Account manager at LMR Insurance

Years in the business: Worked 20 years as a server and bartender in 44 restaurants in Chicago, Boston and Portland

“I’m always waiting tables in a place that’s vaguely familiar, but for some reason my section spans a city block,” Ricchio said. “I keep having to go into different buildings trying to find the things that all of my very impatient customers are waiting for. Usually, at some point, I ask myself ‘Why is this restaurant so damn big?’ but still keep going until I wake up, in a cold sweat. It obviously happens less (now) than the days when I worked three doubles in a row, but it’s embedded in my brain forever.”


Interpretation by Jungian analyst Rick Bouchard: “That dream, as soon as I hear it, not knowing the individual, I would venture to say that that dream is also about being pulled in several different directions, about being pressured to do it all and you just can’t meet the mark. The job is much bigger than one is hired for. If we were taking that a step further, symbolically speaking, what’s in that person’s life? Are they taking on too much?” Ricchio says that interpretation is spot on: “It’s very, very true.”

MANDY MOORE, No Coward Soul, Bath

Years in the business: 15 as a server, now a manager

The seed of Moore’s stress dream was planted 13 years ago, but it has recurred many times as her job responsibilities – and stress levels – have grown.

In 2005, Moore was working in a restaurant where the owners decided to refinish the floors. All of the restaurant’s booths were stacked in a back room, one on top of the other, to clear the floors and make way for the refinishing crew. That night, Moore had a dream that the big jumble of booths was her section. Customers, defying all the laws of physics, were somehow sitting in the booths, “but I had no way that I could even get to them,” Moore said. “They’re just sitting there, distraught and waiting for me, and obviously it has been too long, and I have not been there.”

MARTHA HUTCHINS, The Grill Room, Portland


Years in the business: 13

This guy? Martha Hutchins can relate.

Hutchins once read an article that said restaurant servers have more going on in their brains than brain surgeons.

She wasn’t surprised. Her brain is so active after a shift that it’s like a computer dumping information out – into her dreams, using restaurant imagery.

In Hutchins’ dreams, she’s trying to put orders in. She has a hard time finding anything. She suddenly realizes she never brought ketchup to that table. Or there are no tables at all, just a grassy field of green.

Always, obstacles are in the way.

“You’re just trying to catch up, and you just can’t quite get there,” Hutchins said. “That’s been a reoccurring theme.”


Hutchins works 50-60 hours a week during the summer. And the more she works, the more she dreams about work.

“Every time you go to sleep,” she says, “it’s like being back at work. It’s just like a hamster wheel.”

PATRICK MCDONALD, Chaval, Portland

Years in the business: 15, bartender/server

In McDonald’s “panic dreams,” he is either unprepared for work, or he suddenly realizes he’s forgotten to bring a customer something they asked for, such as a glass of wine.

“I’m sure there’s some sort of dream archetype behind it, that shared experience we all have with those common themes of being unprepared,” he said. “Hopefully it’s not indicative of I’m doing a poor job.”


The panic dreams come less often now, unlike the dreams he still has weekly: “Sometimes I just have a monotonous, average conversation in my dreams where I’m talking with people about specials or talking about whiskeys – just normal stuff.”

McDonald says his brain is constantly working when he’s on the job because he spends all his time in front of people, talking to them. When he leaves after a shift, it’s hard to turn off his mind.

“It just keeps going on its own,” he said. “You do your best to unwind and decompress, but it just keeps running.”

DEBBIE GILMOUR, Solo Italiano, Portland

Years in the business: 20-plus

In one of Gilmour’s server nightmares, the restaurant where she works is at the mall in her hometown. It is, in fact, the mall. All of it.


“You can’t run fast enough because your tables are scattered through the entire mall,” she said. If someone asks for something as small as a side of ketchup, she’s got to run from one side of the mall to the other to retrieve it.

Debbie Gilmour, a server at Solo Italiano, sometimes dreams that she works in a mall restaurant where the resturant is, in fact, the mall – all of it.

In another stress dream, the computer that takes in the orders is three flights up. “For me to ring up anything – even a soda – it was three flights up,” Gilmour said. “It was almost like those dreams where you’re running in place and you’re not going anywhere.”

Gilmour rarely has such dreams these days because she has learned how to deal with stress, even when it is ratcheted up.

After waiting tables in California, Florida, New Mexico and North Carolina, Gilmour moved to Maine in 2003, where she’s found working seasonal restaurants more stressful than her other server jobs had been. In other cities, she said, things slowed down in summer; some years she was able to take the entire summer off. That’s not possible in Portland, where she can’t take a vacation between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, and business goes into full gear in July and August. Also, in the summer, newcomers are always walking through the door and, unlike regulars, have lots of questions about the restaurant’s concept and menu.

“You have to be really patient, and you have to be able to answer questions,” she said. “You have to know your menu. You have to really know your wine list.”

Still, Gilmour says living in Maine has helped her handle stress. On rare days off in the summer, she goes to the beach or the mountains to make herself relax. (She was enjoying a beach day when we spoke with her.) Before going home after a shift, she’ll drink a half glass of wine. Once she gets home, she eats, reads and meditates, a practice she follows twice a day.


That “calms me down,” Gilmour said. “I have no trouble sleeping.”

She still dreams about work sometimes, but these dreams put a smile on her face.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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