“Come on, it’s time to sing ‘Happy Birthday!’” calls Ryan Mountain over his shoulder, as he sweeps by with an impossibly full tray of dishes heaped with spumoni ice cream. He leads a troupe of young male servers to a table of giggling pre-teen girls.

“Just say ‘hey’ at the end of each line!” He catches my blank stare. “Okay, okay, just mouth the words. But come on, this is the fun part!” Finally, the fun part, I think. I might be wearing a crisp white shirt with my very own nametag, but the truth is, the last time I waited tables was more than a decade ago. Even back then, it was painfully obvious to all that I needed a new line of work. But tonight I’m hoping my return to the restaurant biz will be a happier one, considering The Old Spaghetti Factory ranks as one of B.C.’s best companies to work for. Ryan certainly thinks it is; at age 29 he’s already been working here 14 years. A busy Saturday night like this one with lineups out the door doesn’t faze him. His section is full, so it’s show time. “Are you sure you’re ready?” he cautiously asks me. He loads my tray up with bread and, like a parent encouraging a hesitant child, pushes me toward a table of two. “Hi, I’m Liz. I’ll be your server tonight,” I stammer. The couple actually seems to believe me, and they rattle off their orders. The next 20 minutes are a blur of drinks, salads, and spaghetti. It’s all coming back to me: the slightly panicked feeling of being rushed, the constant feeling you’re forgetting something. But not so for Ryan. “I’ve done this enough that when it gets busy like this, it’s controlled. Everything becomes habit, so I don’t come here and kill myself. Plus, my best friends work here.” The sentiment is repeated like a mantra by just about everyone on staff: “It’s the people here that make it so great.” It seems contrived, until Ryan starts talking about his brother. Mike was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago. He’s in recovery now, and despite his decreased ability to work, is still tending bar at the restaurant “I don’t know how many hundreds of hours Mike has worked here where he hasn’t done much. He’s just getting his legs back. To see a business man sacrifice that much money to make sure one of his staff is taken care of...” Ryan’s voice trails away. “It goes miles.” That businessman is Larry Reimer, the joint venture partner of the Old Spaghetti Factory in New Westminster. Like so many of the company’s staff, his tenure here started years ago, in the dish pit. Explaining why no one ever seems to leave, he echoes his employees: “It’s just the staff. They can work anywhere, but they choose to work here.” He adds, “I think that’s because the concept hasn’t changed. A lot of restaurants have new managers coming in and changing things. We don’t have that.” The day-kitchen manager has been with the company for 26 years. The night manager, Paul Floystrup, a mere 17 years. I find Paul in the small galley kitchen with a bandana tied around his head, sporting two elbow tensors to help ease the pain of scooping so much spaghetti. Paul drives from the Fraser Valley into New Westminster, and despite other job offers closer to home, he refuses to leave. “I’m not big on change, and here I always know what to expect,” he explains in between barking food orders and tossing prawns into a flaming pan. “Ryan, food’s up,” he yells. Ryan tosses a couple of toonies on the stainless steel counter as he picks up yet another round of spaghetti. “That’s from your table.” He grins at me. A tip. I’d forgotten about the perk that may help to explain the allure of the restaurant business after all. RELATED ARTICLES: Best companies to work for in B.C. Handle with care No sweat A leg up Jet set