Slow and steady

In the annual Bastille Day Waiters Race on July 14, the winners didn’t cross the finish line first

One of this year’s Bastille Day Waiters’ Race winners, Elijahn Ainsley of Paesanos restaurant.

One of this year’s Bastille Day Waiters’ Race winners, Elijahn Ainsley of Paesanos restaurant.

photo by Patrick Hyun Wilson

Armed with full trays of Perrier sparkling water and outfitted in matching white button-up shirts, waist-high aprons and bow ties in mid-July weather, dozens of servers lined up along L Street. A champagne bottle popped, and contestants began a speed-walk balancing act around the block between a model Eiffel Tower and surrounded by French flags and cheering spectators.

On July 14, the local restaurant workers competed in the 10th annual Bastille Day Waiters’ Race, hosted by the Handle District in partnership with Alliance Française de Sacramento and the Sacramento French Film Festival.

The tradition, which in part celebrates the turning point of the French Revolution, has grown from an event that drew about 50 attendees to a race that packs the street each year. It started with a few business owners who wanted to celebrate their wait staff, loosely based on the long-running Paris Waiters’ Race, said Seann Rooney, the event organizer and executive director of the Handle District association in Midtown.

“We all love food. We all appreciate the jobs that food servers do,” Rooney said. “It’s a chance to honor the French tradition, and make it a little bit our own.”

This year, Rooney worked with Patrick Mulvaney, owner of Mulvaney’s B&L on 19th Street, and introduced “I Got Your Back,” a campaign led by Mulvaney to improve mental health in the hospitality industry.

The winners earn a cash prize, medal and trophy so “it’s a little bit of bragging rights,” he said.

In 10 years, the first person to cross the finish line has never won because in competitive waiting, the cleanliness of their tray is also important, said Aziz Bellarbi-Salah, general manager of Brasserie Capitale on K Street.

“That first year, everyone was running, and glasses were flying everywhere. It was quite a s--t show, actually,” Bellarbi-Salah said. “Each year, it gets refined a little bit.”

Taking this year’s gold were Lisa Blue of Brasserie Capitale and Elijahn Ainsley of Paesanos restaurant.

“Last year I did more preparation, but this year, we’ve just been so busy at [Brasserie], I’ve just been practicing around the restaurant,” Blue said.

The secret to winning, Ainsley said: Focus on yourself, and keep an eye out to see if anyone is passing you with a dry tray.

“I’m actually super hungover right now, but it worked out,” Ainsley said.

When asked if he sees a future for himself in competitive waiting, Ainsley said no. “Maybe competitive speed-walking—a lot of money there,” he said.