Restaurants are fun. They are warm places, with food and drinks and atmosphere. We go out so we don’t have to serve ourselves. We can order from a menu and pretty reliably expect something yummy to consume. Maybe we can catch a buzz at the bar and banter with a friend we haven’t seen in a while.
Restaurants are organized chaos. Camaraderie amongst the staff is common with staff having a shift drink after guests have left. If you’re one of the million or more folks who read “Kitchen Confidential” I’ll tell you what, Anthony Bourdain isn’t far off the mark. He made his life into restaurants, food and atmosphere.
COVID-19 gave us a lot of things — Zoomers, masks, and quiet Friday nights. It also revitalized a burgeoning work-life balance movement. Suddenly, a lot of folks were more productive. It seems you don’t need to suffer through an eight hour work day to complete tasks that only take four to six.
The one industry that has not changed is the very industry most folks cannot wait to return to. While restaurants all over the country have remained closed for a decent portion of this pandemic, most, if not all, restaurants in Jackson have remained open at varying capacities. This is good, for the most part. A huge portion of the working population in Jackson works in the service industry. We need to make money so we can pay our bills, buy groceries, continue to whittle down student loans, and — if we can afford it — treat ourselves to a new pair of jeans every now and then.
While my gripe with the service industry isn’t necessarily a product of COVID-19, it certainly has not been changed by it. A common mantra or phrase I have used in my 10-plus years serving food, making cocktails and cleaning up after people is: “I am a server, not a servant.”
Yes, I am being paid to serve you, the guest, to my best ability. If you ask for an Old Fashioned, I’ll make you a good one. That’s my job. I have no problem with doing my job. I like making cocktails, and I’ve worked hard over the past 10 years to become a bartender.
I read about cocktails and study them. Which kind of bourbon will make this Manhattan more balanced? If I use this tequila, will the vanilla overpower or conflict with the Chartreuse?
In nice restaurants, servers look at menus and study them — they can tell you the difference between chimichurri and salsa verde. They can tell you exactly which cut of steak you will get, how it will be presented, and which wine on the house list goes best with it.
Last summer, a pandemic-inspired meme that made the rounds showed a stainless steel, walk-in fridge door with a sign that read: “Due to social distancing, only one person can cry in the walk-in at a time.”
This meme circulated through almost every restaurant worker I know. A bartender friend of mine from Atlanta, Georgia sent it to me when I first saw it. Servers past and present all laughed at it because, unfortunately, crying in the walk-in is painfully common. It seems that almost everyone who has ever worked in service has done it.
When I was 19 I worked as a cocktail waitress in a busy downtown bar in Burlington, Vermont. I would arrive at work at 11 a.m., slice lemons and limes for an hour in a basement, get coffee for the manager from the local gas station, restock wine and liquor, and occasionally change kegs. This was all for $3.50 an hour because I didn’t start making money until the first guest sat down usually around 1 p.m. My income was almost entirely comprised of tips. This is true in almost all restaurants in America.
To be honest, for the most part, people are kind. But, as with anything, some are very, very unkind.
After finishing my degree at the University of Vermont I moved to Jackson. I started working at a local restaurant. I was serving on a busy night, upwards of 10 tables, each with 2-6 people at them and all with specific meal requirements. I was having a hard time keeping up — in the weeds as we call it. One of my tables asked for another mustard, which I promptly forgot to bring because I was overwhelmed by how many people were counting on me to serve them quickly.
A woman at that table decided that I was a negligent, uneducated and flighty young woman and made a point to tell me that I was an idiot and that she needed her mustard now. I apologized profusely, brought her the mustard, and promptly made my way to the walk-in, where I sobbed for about 30 seconds, and then went back to work. That table tipped me 5% on a $100 tab.
I have never been able to wrap my head around the ability some people have to completely reject empathy or understanding for other hard working people. We are just trying to make a living like the rest of you. A lot of us have student loans, or other goals to finance. Some choose to stay in the industry because it affords them the lifestyle they prefer — free daytime hours that most 9-5ers only dream about.
To be honest, I have been yelled at by strangers more times than I can list. Every single person you know who has ever worked in the service industry probably has at least one story about that time they cried in the walk-in.
What I’m getting at is this: the next time you go to a restaurant, remember that the human who is bringing you food and drink has probably cried in the walk-in before because of guests just like yourself, and that they are servers, not servants. Next time, instead of taking out your frustration on someone at their job (imagine how that would feel if it were you), practice patience. Ask nicely. And sometimes, you can go without the darn mustard.