Why Everyone Should Work in a Restaurant
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Everyone should work in a restaurant at least once. Ask any server, bartender, barista, cook, dishwasher, buser, greeter, and they’ll agree. It’s a conversation I often have with other people in the restaurant industry. This conversation is half bitching about customers (sorry not sorry) and half enumerating all the ways that working in a restaurant makes you a better person.
My esteemed broke-ass writer colleague Lachlan Bray already paid homage to the wonders and wrecks of working in a restaurant in his 2014 piece, The Service Industry is Both the Best and Worst Place for Aspiring Artists to Work (which is true). However, not everyone in the industry aspires to be something else. A good part of the restaurant army is composed of people who have made this their career. I would like to take a moment to tip my hat to those ballsy, talented individuals who are career servers and/or who make edible and drinkable art, and who have found their calling, and those shrewd-minded, business oriented entrepreneurs who will probably eventually be my boss.
This, though, is for everyone. This is for the people who can find the fun in serving a bar full of blindly drunk college students or a diner full of stampeding, ravenous families. This is a reminder that, even if you’d rather be off flying hot air balloons instead, there is nothing more valuable than the experience you get in a restaurant. This is for all the busboys, the modern innkeepers, the overworked diner servers, the lunatic cooks, the emotionally abused five-star servers, the bartender-counselors, the diamond-in-the-rough dishwashers, and the sixteen-year-old hostesses who don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. This is for all the people who can carry a conversation and a tray at the same time. This is for everyone who chose a restaurant as their first job and stuck with it. This is for all the travelers who can thank their lucky stars that they work in the industry, so at least, they can always eat. This is for all the people who, like me, vow to never work in restaurants again, and then, once again, find themselves falling down the rabbit hole to fill in weird hours that no-one else wants to work because hell…why not.
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This is a reminder of why we do it, and what we learn from being in the oldest profession in the world. (This is completely unverified, but I like to think people were too lazy to get their own damn sandwich way before they decided to pay for sex).
YOU LEARN HOW TO DANCE
You learn to move fast while weaving in and out among people, be it in the overly crowded small space in the kitchen, behind the bar, or on the floor (i.e. where the tables are). You learn to get to where you need to go while climbing over tables and chairs and customers. This is sometimes (and somewhat annoyingly) called “the dance.” You learn the very basic skill (that you shockingly never learned) of knowing to anticipate where someone is going and pirouetting out of their way. If something falls, you catch it before it breaks, or, if god forbid it falls and breaks in the container of ice you use for drinks (it’s behind the bar), then you’re stuck melting ice in order to fish out all the microscopic shards of glass so you don’t accidentally assassinate your customers and piss off your boss.
YOU LEARN HOW TO TAKE A PHYSICAL BEATING
If the restaurant industry teaches you to be agile, it will also teach you that no matter how coordinated you think you are, you will still fall on your face and/or your butt, usually holding something expensive/hot/that took way too long to prepare. Apart from the occasional whoopsie-daisy, you will learn to endure some pretty terrible injuries, mainly burns (most of which I’ve gotten while working at an ice cream parlour – go figure), bruises, and cuts. After having almost killed yourself with the closest available harmless utensil (see: a spoon, a wall, etc.), you then learn to keep working with a smile. And you’d be surprised at how incredibly character building it can be to make a mojito with even the smallest of paper cuts. I’ve also heard horror stories to make your skin crawl, namely entire arms almost lost to deep fryers and tendons severed while polishing wine glasses. Combine that with the fact that everyone in the restaurant industry is so used to these injuries themselves and seeing them everyday, that you doing anything less than your usual, spectacular job, even while injured, is not seen very well. The servers and cooks who make your food are a battered, bruised, and maimed army, and seeing this first-hand gives you a whole new level of respect for them.
YOU LEARN HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN GOOD MOOD
In a weird way, when you work with customers, you’re on a stage, and in the United States this is especially true, particularly for the front of house people (i.e. those lucky bastards that get to interact with the customers). On this stage, your job is of course to feed people, but to be cool and nice and fun to be around. For tips or for dedication, you learn to charm and flirt with just about anyone who comes your way (at least for a few hours). You can’t be charismatic in a grumpy mood, so you have to just kind of put your bad day aside; luckily, in a high pressure environment, this is easy to do. Then, when you do it long enough, it becomes a habit. It’s a strange turning point in your life when you realize that walking through the doors of the mayhem that is your work – seemingly full of crying babies, drunken adults, or any combination of those four words together (as I’ve said – the restaurant industry is great) – is also full of calm and sanctuary. This isn’t always the case, but sometimes, the stars align: a crazy busy night, the inability to constantly check your phone and the obligation to be even vaguely courteous to people around makes the bad stuff kind of go away.
[HONORABLE MENTION: Similarly, when you leave work, it’s done. You’re out. You feel the cool night air / sun on your face and you know that you can go home and do nothing OR read Broke Ass Stuart for seven hours straight, with nothing else to do.]
YOU LEARN HOW TO TAKE AN EMOTIONAL BEATING
Yes, you learn how to take humiliation with a smile and bow. This may sound bad, and it sometimes is, but it has its merits. You may have just tried out a stupid joke on a table of customers who just stare stonily back, or forgotten an order and had to admit it either to customers who were really friendly to you, or ones who were mean to you (both scenarios are pretty terrible). Or, maybe, you made a tiny mistake at the worst moment, or made a huge mistake that nobody but you knows anything about and the guilt is weighing on you worse than if you secretly voted for Trump. Sometimes, you haven’t done anything wrong at all, and it still ends up being entirely your fault. While it’s completely possible that being yelled at for a small mistake or no mistake at all may cause untold psychological harm, I like to think of it as an exercise in humility. If you learn anything from this, it could be just not to care. Having a complete stranger completely lose it on you never feels that good, but it’s still the perfect example of how everyone is fighting their own battle, and it teaches you to take a step back, breathe, and to remember that it may very well not be about you at all.
YOU LEARN BASIC ADULT VALUES & VIRTUES
You learn things you would have learned in kindergarten had you been paying more attention; for example, the basic system of hard work equals reward, in which you do a good job and, consequently, you get money. Again, this is especially true in the United States, (touching on the debatable system working for tips). In the food industry, you can’t take a break or take it easy with absolutely everyone noticing – you have to give it your all, and when you don’t, you learn very quickly what the consequences are. You also learn to share; you split with other servers, busboys, hostesses, bartenders, dishwashers. And you share everything: tips, cigarettes, blame, customers, aprons, pens, and glory.
YOU LEARN EVERYTHING USEFUL, RANDOM & IMPRESSIVE ABOUT WHAT YOU SERVE
You’re taught the proper way to open a wine bottle, how to cook delicious food, how to present it perfectly. You learn how to make ice cream, smoothies, coffee, juice, cocktails, things you may never use unless you have the proper, insanely expensive equipment at your house. You learn about the history of the things you make, you learn about the proper things to put in your body (although, as I mentioned in the previous point, you may end up disregarding all of them and having a breakfast of whiskey and French fries). In Europe, this may not be so uncommon, but in the States, if everyone knew what goes into half the food they eat…they would think twice about buying junk food.
(In the interest of full disclosure, often times, when you get off of work after a shift that lasted infinity hours factorial, you literally do not care. Bagel bites, get in my mouth).
YOU LEARN HOW TO RUN OFF OF MAGIC AND CAFFEINE INSTEAD OF FOOD
Incidentally, you will also acquire the habit of eating standing up, and finishing before everyone else, or even to endure a full day without eating at all. If it’s one of those days, one of the most valuable things you can have in a restaurant is either a manager or a colleague who will take you by the shoulders, shake you, and tell you ‘SIT EAT AND DRINK WATER’. As with most things, it’s a balance: in the service industry, you are expected to push yourself to the limits, but you will be of no help to anyone if you collapse on the floor halfway through your shift. There are certain times of day, days of week, or months of the year when the endless stream of customers isn’t going anywhere; in that case, what’s best is just to sit, breathe (or smoke), drink some water and eat some food.
YOU LEARN HOW TO TALK TO CRAZY PEOPLE
It may have become clear at this point (and if it hasn’t, I haven’t done my job) that people who work in restaurants are generally a bit cuckoo, and one crayon short of a full banana. This is, logically, not always the easiest group of people to work with (and I am definitely including myself in this). In a restaurant, you will see meltdowns, betrayal, reconciliations, verbal threats and fights. The general atmosphere may sometimes remind you of middle school drama, except that this time there is no wise, concerned teacher to solve the problem, and it’s happening in the middle of a lunch rush, and everyone is actually fighting about a missing piece of toast.
In this environment, you learn to deal with the lunatics you work with, the ex-cons, the cokeheads, the people with egos as vast as all the porn and all the cats (not to mention all the cat porn) on the internet. But guess what? You learn to love them, too.
YOU LEARN THAT, AS IT TURNS OUT, THESE LOONEY TUNES ARE YOUR FAMILY
Yup, this unlikely group of crazy miscreants generally become your closest network. As previously mentioned, much like in a battle field, you learn who your friends and your enemies are – and more often than not, perhaps more for ease than for anything else, the one common enemy are bad customers. Some of the strongest friendships I’ve ever made were born and forged in the sticky, gross heat of a kitchen, where you learn to laugh about your horrifying injury, the customer who insulted your very personality, and your choice of shoes (let it be known that in the service industry, almost no one gets to wear the shoes they want, unless they want to fall flat on their butt and break their tailbone).
Remember that industry people may work hard, but they also play harder than anything that is remotely healthy. We don’t get to hang up an inspirational poster in our cubicles and then fill our coworker’s office with rolls of toilet paper, so we have to think of other (and generally, stupider) ways to lighten the mood. Generally, it’ll be with pranks and penis jokes, or perhaps with an exceedingly decadent night (=morning) out after the shift ends and everyone needs to decompress. This is, of course, not the healthiest way to live your life (in fact, it often borders on downright alcoholism) – but damn, is it fun.
All in all, working in a restaurant can be a traumatic experience; there is an unspoken bond between you and anyone else who works in the industry, and the friends you make at work are your army buddies.
I already mentioned how much people in the restaurant industry like to complain about customers. This may be true, but it’s generally only when a customer takes their bad day out on a server. Trust me – the restaurant industry is tough enough that that one extra smile or understanding can really make a world of difference. I can’t tell you how many times I have earnestly, sincerely, and gratefully thanked someone for simply clearing their own table, piling up their dishes, leaving a slightly more generous tip, or forgiving me for a stupid mistake. After you work in the service industry, you will never be able to not appreciate, or at least recognize, someone’s hard work, and to maybe try to help them out.
On a more practical level, befriending someone in the service industry is stupidly useful. We know all the best and cheapest bars and restaurants, and we’re usually either best friends or arch-enemies (it doesn’t change much, anyway) with the people who work there. Plus, people who work in restaurants generally have pretty good senses of humor: almost all jokes begin with someone walking into a bar, don’t they?