KAANAPALI - Even at 28, Christina Olayan has been around restaurants and bar food for most of two decades. At six, she bussed tables and gathered up tips at a place where her father - a lifelong bartender - worked. Today, she is a popular server at Leilani's on the Beach.
As a regular over many years at this popular Kaanapali restaurant listening to the increasingly popular JD Rocks Band on Fridays and Saturdays, sipping Duke's blonde ale, dipping into an occasional Hula Pie, recognizing or getting to know visitors who show up year after year the same month, watching the passing scene on an adjoining beach path filled with bikini-clad beauties, newcomers in aloha shirts, snorkelers and muscular guys carrying surfboards, one wonders what it is like to work in a place like this... so we asked.
Once, our favorite server Christina would have been called a waitress. No more. At least at TS Restaurants, operator of the highly successful Kimo's, Leilani's, Hula Grill and Duke's Beach House, both the women and men who greet and take orders are known as servers.
Christina's work at Leilani's downstairs involves many of the same skills servers perform elsewhere but with a couple of differences. Birds are an occupational hazard, and the pace is a lot different than at a typical restaurant, the Maui-born young woman says.
Now and then at the beachfront restaurant, a sparrow will zip in. One once swooped through Christina's tray of drinks to fell all the glasses before they reached thirsty patrons. Most days, things go more smoothly.
Asked if she ever spills drinks, the young woman proclaims, "What are you talking about? I am a professional. I have been doing this for so long, I can carry drinks on a tray and not spill a drop unless somebody grabs a drink off it and puts it out of balance."
Another factor that makes Leilani's different is what she calls "the intensity." Busy as servers at other restaurants are, few are as busy as the ones at Leilani's frequented by both visitors and locals. In a lunchtime shift, a crew of eight servers supported by food runners and people still called busboys cope with orders for 350 meals. That's more than 40 customers per server.
Some of Christina's colleagues have been at Leilani's for more than five years. A majority of the restaurant's 49 servers, some of whom work only shorts shifts, have not been around very long.
With her good looks, the perky server would appear to be a prime target for visiting guys out for a good time.
Christina, who has a boyfriend, will have none of this. Her professionalism, she says, keeps being "hit on" to a minimum. Only three times in six years have guys made passes at her, albeit halfheartedly. Guys sometimes write their phone numbers and names on checks.
The name of the game in serving of course is tips. Not as many tip the standard 15 to 20 percent as you would think. The most generous are young people, especially honeymooners. Christina tries hard to build rapport with her customers and succeeds, as she is greeted with hugs from visitors who return year after year.
"People want memories, and I try to create that," she emphasizes. Christina, however, always ranks high in "power ratings" Leilani's keeps, averaging tips of 18 to 20 percent.
To watch the cheerful, Kahului-born Christina in action, one would never guess that she is a survivor who readily admits she felt abandoned as a child. Her parents divorced when she was two, and she spent very tough teenage years with her three-times married mother in California after a short reconciliation.
In her twenties, she has thrived after two years at a California community college. Returning to Maui in 2005, she waitressed in Wailea, came to Lahaina because a restaurateur admired her enthusiasm and helped start a short-lived restaurant on Front Street called the Blue Moon. Then if was off to Leilani's.
Despite the many challenges (explained in more detail in my new book, "Maui for Millions"), Christina somehow has managed to overcome every obstacle to move on to bigger and better things.
She says she may stay with the idea of moving up into Leilani's management, or someday she just might open her own little caf.
Christina has overcome. Now it is her turn to move onward, and upward, as she surely will.