Table for Two?

Now that XUP Jr.’s part-time, after-school job is finished for the summer, she went and got herself a summer job working in a restaurant. Gak!

I guess it’s a rite of passage for pretty much every female on the planet to do some sort of restaurant work at least once in their young lives. Restaurants have a high turn-over in staff, so jobs are not that difficult to get. And once you have some restaurant experience under your belt, you pretty much never need to worry about being out of work anywhere, ever again. So, in that respect, I guess this was a good move on XUP Jr.’s part. That, and the fact that eventually there is some big money to be made in tips if you’re a good, experienced server.

But for now XUP Jr. is just a hostess – learning the biz from the bottom up. And what a learning curve it been!

She comes home exhausted and smelly. Her feet are killing her and she’s starving because she hasn’t been allowed to stop for her entire 6 hour shift to grab a bite to eat. So far she seems to like it, though. She’s even been getting into the restaurant-workers’ tradition of coming in early or staying late after her shift to hang around and socialize with her coworkers.

Perhaps this is why I never really got the allure of  restaurant work – I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there at the end of my shift. I’ve had many friends though who loved being servers and the whole weird other-worldliness of working in a restaurant. They loved it so much they kept taking evening or weekend shifts even after they got real full-time jobs after university.

To me, restaurants are like some sort of prison or Lord of the Flies island society where normal life stuff doesn’t apply and where crazy, quirky things like labour laws just get in the way of running an efficient dining room.

What is it that makes restaurant work so bizarre?

  1. The Customers: Some people get peculiar when they go out to eat. They figure this is their one big chance in life to be prima donnas or something:
    • They are rude and haughty to restaurant staff;
    • They demand unreasonable things like “turning the music off” or asking why, in a seafood restaurant, there is nothing but fish on the menu because they’re allergic to fish;
    • They quibble over the bill acting all outraged that it’s so high when they could have made the same thing at home for a fraction of the cost; and,
    • A surprising number of people just dine and dash, which gets the server in big shit.
  2. The Tipping: Personally, I think the whole tipping thing is outrageous. Restaurant staff get paid next-to-nothing and have to rely on tips to make a living. If it’s not a busy night or customers choose not to tip, they’re screwed. Then servers have to share out their tips with hostesses, bus staff, dishwashers, bartenders, prep crew, etc. Why can’t we just, across the board, add 15% or 20% to the price of the meal and pay restaurant staff a living wage?
  3. The Work: It’s an incredibly hectic work pace. There’s no time or place for breaks in a restaurant, labour laws be damned. Unless there are no customers and nothing else that needs doing, you’re running non-stop from the beginning to the end of your shift. And if the place does clear out, they just send you home and they save a few hours’ pay.
  4. The Coworkers: You learn pretty quickly that there’s a hierarchy of people you have to suck up to in the restaurant business:
    1. Bartender – he or she is kind of the god of the restaurant. If you don’t do serious, serious kissing up and sharing of tips with your bartender, he will not look upon you with favour and will make your life miserable. (NB: I think when I retire, I might take a bartending course and make that my old-age career. I think being a god might suit me.)
    2. Manager – why are restaurant managers all power-mad cretins? They love to throw their weight around in the most demeaning possible ways. They love to devise bizarre little schemes to pit staff against each other. They love to screw with schedules just to keep people on their toes.
    3. Lifers – there’s usually one person who’s been in the same restaurant, in the same job since the place opened in 1953. The manager is afraid of her and the only person she’s chummy with is the bartender. After you’ve worked there a few years and haven’t screwed anything up too badly, she might say something nice to you.
    4. Cooks – I don’t even know what to say about them. They’re pretty much all psychotic in some way from what I’ve been able to gather. They’re allowed to yell and swear and throw things and reduce staff to tears and no one dares object. They’re all “about to open a place of their own that’s run properly,” so everyone walks on eggshells around them so they don’t walk away in a huff in the middle of the dinner rush.

Well, that’s my take on the industry anyway. I was a terrible restaurant employee, which may somewhat colour my view of the business. But, I would love to hear some of your love/hate stories of working in restaurants — and I know almost all of you have some.

Meanwhile, if you’re dining in an Ottawa restaurant this summer, please be nice to the hostess – she might be XUP Jr.