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.

Attitude Adjustment 101

Every summer our offices get invaded by students on work terms. And just because I use the word “invaded”, I don’t mean to imply that this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s fun having some fresh, young blood around — watching them getting up to their zany student antics. It kind of livens the place up. Yes, it does.

However, (and you knew there had to be an “however”, right?) —  however, I think it would be a good idea if schools (or maybe even parents) in charge of these lovely young people’s education gave them all a brief workshop on office etiquette before they foisted them onto the workplace.

Yes, some of them are brilliant and very efficient and polite and hard-working and business-like. But a hell of a lot of them don’t seem to have a clue. So, I propose a short half-course called Attitude Adjustment 101. It would cover the following:

Module 1:  Dressing for Work. No matter how casual an office might be, it is never a good idea to look like you just stumbled in from a night on the beach. Short shorts, flip-flops and tank tops are really only appropriate if you wish to work in the offices of a surf shop. While many office drones enjoy looking at sexy, firm young flesh, you don’t want to overwhelm them with all of it at once. (There will also be a day-long seminar on why clubbing clothes isn’t what grown-ups mean when they say “dressing up for work”).


Module II: Telling Time: We understand that it’s been a long time since Kindergarten, therefore this module will review and refresh the concept of time and why workplaces are all hung up about it. We will look at your right to party your face off at night vs still having to arriving by 8:00 am to work the next morning. Some questions that will be addressed are: Is it fair? Is it really so wrong to start work in the afternoon? And, if you have to get ready to go camping for Friday night, what’s wrong with leaving work at 2:00?

Module III: Doing as You’re Told: Students in their second year of post-secondary education are, of course, more than ready for upper management positions, so why are they expected to do filing and photocopying on their work terms?  Your heads are filled with all the knowledge and wisdom of the ages and people insist on treating you like hired help. How to cope with this humiliation will be given careful examination.


Module IV: Acting Interested. Naturally, once you graduate with a degree from our esteemed institution of higher learning, you are going to fall into an exciting, well-paid and glamorous career. At that time, you will be perfectly free to sneer at those saps who slave away in a boring old office day after day. How to stop yourself from doing that while you’re actually working with them for a summer will be covered in a workshop by a well-known guest speaker. We will look closely at the urban myth that a year or two after graduation you will come crawling back begging for a job.

Module V: Earning What You’re Worth.  It is indeed, barbaric of work term placements to have to work for only double the current minimum wage while useless old people in the same office as you are earning way more. A comprehensive workbook will be distributed outlining the methodology used by most work places to determine promotions, salary increases and advancement in the organization. The puzzling concepts of full-time permanent employment and extensive experience vs summer jobs will be explored in-depth.

Course Text


I’ll give you something to think about

In Ontario, in order to graduate high school, you have to have logged a minimum of 40 hours of volunteer time. So, one of my projects when we moved to Ottawa was to find some interesting places for my daughter to do some volunteer work.

One thing I found was a community centre near our place that offers an after-school-program for elementary school kids who were looking for volunteers. “Go volunteer,” I tell the kid at the beginning of last year. “Whyyyyyyyyyyyy?” she whines. “I’m only in grade 9 and I don’t need the hours for 4 more years.”

Oh, short-sighted one, I tell her, get the mandatory hours out of the way now because in the next 3 years you’re going to want a part-time job and won’t have that much time to volunteer. Plus you’ll be able to rack up a whole pile of hours here and then have lots of time over the next 3 years to get extra hours. (Also, there’s some sort of scholarship in Grade 12, I understand for kids who have put in a lot of volunteer time and we need all the help we can get to pay for university since Ordinary Joe isn’t pitching in anytime soon). Plus plus it’s good for you.

Plus plus plus,  if you play your cards right, they might hire you next year. It would be a great job. Close by, no weekends or holidays and the possibility of summer work when they run their summer camps.

So, off she trudges to volunteer 3 afternoons a week. Before the year is even over they offer her a part-time job after school. So now she already has tons of volunteer hours, and she’s working there 4 afternoons a week for nine bucks an hour.

This summer I signed her up for a leadership course run by the city. One month, every weekday – the idea is to train up some teenagers to qualify them for summer day camp positions run by the city. They get their CPR certification and some other kid supervision certificate thing. It cost over 500 bucks for 4 weeks, but they got a swell t-shirt, too.

 “Whyyyyyyyy do I have to spend half my summer there?” the kid whines. “Here’s your bus pass. Shut up and go,” I say.

She ended up loving it, making lots of new friends, wishing she could go for another month and everyone cried and hugged and exhanged Facebook names when the camp was over.

So now the people who run the leadership camp are developing some other camps for younger kids and they’ve asked some of the teens from the summer if they’d be interested in working there next summer. They’ve both emailed and sent a letter to my kid.

I’m excited for her. “Did you tell them yes?” I ask. “I told them I’d think about it,” she says blithely, waving me off.


“Well, I’ll probably just stay working where I am now. It’s closer.”

PROBABLY? Has she had a firm offer from them for the summer? No. Does she have any idea how freakin’ lucky she is at barely sixteen to have not one, but TWO very good possibilities for summer employment for jobs that not only pay pretty well but are fun and relatively easy where she doesn’t have to work nights, weekends or holidays?

“What?” She says.

I spent my teenage summers like something out of Grapes of Wrath, with my head up fruit trees. Sticky, hot, humid days outdoors from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm, covered in sour cherry juice, peach fuzz, bugs, twigs and pesticides; climbing up and down ladders, strapped into an itchy harness attached to heaving baskets of fruit.  And I’d get paid by the basket, not by the hour.

Wednesdays and Saturdays I’d get up at 3:00 am to help load a truck and drive two hours to market where I’d stand all day out in the sun hawking fruit. And a few nights a week,  I’d go babysitting for fun. And, I’d come out of the whole summer with enough money to maybe buy a new pair of Earth Shoes for back-to-school.