The Restaurant Employee: An In-depth, Behind the Scenes Look at the Beleaguered and Underappreciated
What would you do if a person handed you quick, easy money with the stipulation that you will experience pain, heartbreak, anger, remorse, fear, hatred, and love. Would you take it? Fortunately for me, I did.
Over the better part of the last twenty years, I have been a card carrying member of the Food Service Industry. My responsibilities have included everything from a dish washer in a seedy pub, to a General Manager of a large chain restaurant (I can't specify, but the majority are the same in structure and concept). It is through this journey, that I have seen the best and worst of the average American restaurant patron. Fortunately for me, I have also shared in the struggles of those who break their backs for your extra side of fries. This is their story.
For those of you have never worked in a restaurant before, you have missed out on one of life's true learning experiences. The industry and its employees carry the stigma of being a haven for those who lack the ability to do anything else in the workforce. I have seen servers snapped at as if they are dogs, called "servants"(which they are not), and spit on because the guest was unimpressed with the meal. These examples are not fabrications, they have actually happened.
Many of the thousands of employees that I have worked with over the years are warm, loving, highly intelligent people with one thing in common, they fell headfirst into the most difficult industry to escape this side of the Mafia. Now there are the drug addicts, ex-cons, and alcoholics most expect, but what part of the work force doesn't include a fraction of this demographic? The only difference between a gruff line cook and a stuffy CFO of a Fortune 500 company, is that most line cooks feel comfortable in the restaurant environment and tend to hide their past a little less than those in other professions. Honestly, the candor and transparency of those not ashamed of their pasts can be both liberating and refreshing.
Our industry is one that can draw you in and not let go. The money is very good for the most part, and with the late-nights and high energy, it can at times make you feel like a rock star. When the guests are pouring in and the place is jamming, the adrenaline rush is addictive. Unfortunately, after a few years have past you by, and the stress of the speed and expectations gets to you, the initial high can turn into bitter regret and exhaustion. Its usually around year five that most try their hands at the typical worker bee, 9-5 grind. After making the switch, the vast majority of these folks have the epiphany that the regular world and a desk job just will not cut it, and they find themselves crawling back to the chaos. More often then not, restaurant workers tend to become energy junkies who are hopelessly hooked on the insanity and the quick money that follows. Its this factor that ties us all together and brings us closer as one dysfunctional unit.
I have had the pleasure to work with decorated military veterans, future doctors and scientists, devoted mothers and fathers who worked at the restaurant as a second or even third job, and the beautiful woman who would become my wife. These people helped give me prospective on not only myself and the petty issues that caused me fits, but also on the world around me. Each new face that entered my life carried with him/her a gift of knowledge and experience, both good and bad. Who I am today was largely influenced by the men and women who I have had the honor to enlighten and be enlightened by. Our industry doesn't create a work force, it creates families. When you are shoulder to shoulder with someone during a Valentine's Day dinner rush, you become more than just a co-worker. For better or worse, you end up sharing a bond that is hard to replicate in the rest of the business world.
To this day, I still can't remember 90%of the names and faces that I have known. The majority are just fragments of a larger picture that has become faded over the years. This realization should fill me with regret over friendships lost, but where there is a lack of detail, my heart is filled with the stories that will never fade. Through the years I have learned valuable lessons from the indelible memories that will help to mold not only the remainder of my life, but hopefully the lives of my children. Its through our interactions with a diverse and endless well of others, that we can find the truths that show us who we really are.
After reading this I can only hope that the next time you go out to eat, you maybe think about who the person you have entrusted with your food really is. and what their story may be. Before you fly off the handle over slow service or poor food quality, take a breath and put everything into perspective. A bad experience can almost always be rectified as long as there is a constructive dialogue between the guest and the employee or manager. Also try and remember that the server or cook is a normal, fallible human being, and last time I checked there still wasn't a recorded example of a perfect person. Even if you think you are.