What's it like to work the overnight shift at Veselka, the 24-hour Ukrainian diner and late-night destination in the East Village? According to overnight manager Peter Szpinecki, things can get pretty crazy?but maybe not as crazy as you'd expect. Szpinecki has been working the overnight shift at the 59-year-old restaurant for the last five years, making the move up to manager about a month-and-a-half ago. And sure, there's the late-night partiers carbo-loading on pierogies, but there's also the workaholics leaving the office at 11 p.m., the bartenders getting off work in the wee hours of the morning, and the early-morning risers getting breakfast at 5 a.m. In the following interview, Szpinecki spills the beans on what an average night is like at Veselka.
What time do you come in, and what's the first thing you do?
We should be here at 11, but I'm always here a little earlier. 10, quarter after 10 maybe. I start taking tables at like 10:30. We do have to do side work before we start, make sure everything's here, everything is order, that we have ketchup, that we have beer, alcohol.
And now that you're a a manager what are you doing on top of that?
It's not just customers, it's everything. Kitchen staff, let's say, the food has to be out on time, customer cannot wait more than 15 minutes. I have to make sure that everything is prepared nice, the proportions are not too small, too big. And I have to watch customers, especially because during the night you never know who you're going to get. It's scary sometimes. A lot of intoxicated people, especially Friday and Saturday nights.
When does it get busiest?
The busiest time of night on the weekends, I would say it's going to be between three o'clock in the morning and five. During the week, midnight to two.
And presumably more drunk people on the weekends than weeknights?
During the week we do get some intoxicated people, but they're not as bad. Weekends, yeah, they're really bad. You'd be surprised.
What are the busiest nights during the week?
For me, it would be Wednesday. But also, you've got to consider the amount of servers we have on the floor. Because if we have two servers, like we have Monday to Wednesday, we're always gonna get busy, we all always have to do something. Thursday, we have three servers, and that changes everything. That's a dramatic change. And Friday, we have five servers, so that also changes things, so you don't have to do as much, you know? So I would say Wednesday is, for me, the busiest.
But it always changes. There was a time when Monday was the busiest. I guess it's seasonal, like in September until the end of December, we're going to be busy basically every night. January, that's when it slows down just about everywhere, not only restaurants. And the summer, everybody goes away and nobody wants to go out because they don't want to go into the heat wave.
What's the craziest thing you've seen customers do here?
I witnessed one time, there were three friends who were intoxicated and started arguing, and the girl took a glass of water and just threw the glass of water at the guy's face. Cut his face open. That was a while ago, though. Other than that, mostly it's people throwing up, either on the table or on the floor. I haven't seen anyone dancing naked on the tables yet. I'm actually waiting for this to happen, to be honest with you.
How often does it get that rowdy?
Every week. Every weekend there's something going on. Some of the situations are worse than the others, but there's always something going on. People are not paying, walking out without paying their bills.
What do you do then, chase them down the street?
I do that. I even did that when I was just a server, because I am not afraid. What are they going to do? But yeah, people leaving, or ordering food and just walking out. You know, the food is ready, and the customer is not there.[Bess Adler]
Do you ever get really strange requests from customers?
Oh yeah. I mean, people ask for pizza all the time. And sushi. I don't know how it is during the day, but during the overnight shifts, yeah, people ask for strange stuff. They request, like, say it's blintzes. It's a crepe filled with cheese inside. They'll ask for that, but they'll say, "I'll have the blintz, but can I have the cheese on the side?" It's already pre-made! Stuff like that. It's little things like that, but you laugh when you hear that. It's never anything really, really crazy.
The cool thing about the overnight shifts is that we also get a lot of customers that are really fun to talk to. You can exchange some stories, some jokes, and that's cool.
Does the overnight shift have some down periods where you actually get to talk to people?
Yeah, and I like doing that. I actually met a lot of people here that now I'm friends with. Well, not friends?regulars.
What are those regulars like?
Usually they're people who work at the bars. I guess that's it. Bar people. Or regulars who go out, go have fun, and just come here to eat.
How does the crowd change through the night?
So, from 11 p.m. until two o'clock in the morning, we still have people who were working and are on their way home and just want to get some dinner. Between 2:30 in the morning and five o'clock in the morning, it's the drunkies. With the bars closing at four o'clock on the morning, that's where we have the most of the drunkies. Between five and seven, we're already getting morning people, waking up, going to work, and before work they want to get a breakfast.
What do most customers order?
Pierogies! Pierogies are number one. And also the combo plates, which come with stuffed cabbage, and three or four pierogies. The deluxe vegetarian plate comes with kasha, the deluxe meat plate comes with kielbasa, so there's always something to choose from. Those are pretty popular because they have a bunch of stuff, and also you can get a soup or a salad.
What are your favorites?
My favorites? There are a couple things on the menu, like bigos. It's sauerkrat mixed with pork and kielbasa. That's one of my favorites, I guess, because in Poland, my country, I had that when I was little all the time. Stuffed cabbage, too. For me it's mostly the traditional stuff
When you're done at seven, then what?
Just go home, do some stuff there, maybe eat a little breakfast, then go to bed. Then I'll sleep until at least four o'clock, wake up and do some stuff, or just relax, and nine o'clock start getting ready for work again!
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