In a lot of ways, working in a restaurant is the hardest job I’ve ever had. My feet never stop aching and a fresh coat of nail polish never survives an entire shift. I’ve lost two pairs of Sperry’s to my summer job at a country club. Causes of death: tomato juice and balsamic vinaigrette. It was miracle if I made through a shift without getting unrecognizable sauces and stains on my shirt. By no means is food service a glamorous industry.
Two years ago I walked into Late Night Kitchen in cutoffs and a grungy Coldplay T-shirt and somehow left with three hostess shifts. It was my first job and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I made a lot of mistakes in those first few days, and I collapsed into bed immediately after each shift. I bought orthopedic inserts my grandma recommended. It got even harder when I began training people when I’d only had four days of experience myself.
As tiring as the hours of serving, cleaning and smiling have been, I don’t regret starting at Late Night by any means. In a lot of ways, I’ve learned to be a better employee and an overall better person.
What may be the best perk of my jobs in food service is gathering stories I get to tell as a result. There’s the time I lost a noticeable amount of hair to a crème brûlée torch. One night, I had a customer curse me out because we ran out of plastic forks. I’ve messed up more orders than I can count. Just last week I fell on a recently mopped floor and am now sporting a sick bruise. It’s rare to leave a shift without a story to share when I get home.
When you work in food service, you meet all kinds of people: those who are also working 10-hour shifts, the favorite customers and the really bad tippers. It’s a great intersection of different people — everyone has to eat, after all.
As much as this industry has its challenges, it also has its rewards. Your co-workers can become some of your best friends, if only because not one of your other friends is working Friday and Saturday nights, too. I’ve said, “I can’t, I’m working” more times than I can count. No one has your back like the people who are also fighting to turn over tables and keep customers happy.
Perhaps most importantly, my jobs in food service have just taught me to be a better person. The Waiter Rule states that the way someone treats service workers (such as waiters) is a reflection of that person’s true character. This is a real thing. It has its own Wikipedia page. While I may not have been the genius to come up with this principle, I completely agree with the sentiment.
Working at different restaurants, I’ve learned that each customer request sparks a chain reaction, especially when that request is atypical. It’s not like I thought the kitchen was some magical place, but it’s a totally different experience to be the one hustling to fulfill that specific request. I’ve become more conscious of what I ask and expect of servers. This is not to say you shouldn’t ask for what you want when you’re out, but that a smile and some compassion can go a long way.
These jobs have also made me a much better tipper. There’s nothing more demoralizing than finding a 20 cent tip on a table. I aim for 20 percent (my math skills aren’t the best), and I never ever leave that tip line blank. Don’t worry. This isn’t some self-serving piece on tipping your server — though if you want it to be, I work at Late Night on Fridays and Sundays.
Most of the time, I like working in restaurants. No two days are the same, and I never know what to expect. I’ve had great bosses and even better co-workers. I enjoy making people’s days a little bit better with a good meal and great service. But you can’t learn the most on the good days. The challenging ones have so much more to teach.
All of this is to say that I think everyone should work in food service for at least six months. No matter who you are, this industry can teach you something. It can teach you to be humble. It can teach you how to work under pressure. It can teach you how to rein in your emotions when all you want to do is yell at that idiot at Table 12.
I’ve worked a dozen or so different jobs over the past two years (usually consecutively — I can hold down a job, I promise), and I’ve learned the most from the ones where I worked directly with customers, either as a hostess or server. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has (probably) been worth it.