Why We Wait

Why am I still doing this?  Whether you’re a fifty-something mother of three slingin’ hash or a college kid making some extra money over winter break, it’s a question that if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant you ask yourself everyday.  Sometimes you ask yourself every new table you serve.  Working in the service industry for any extended period of time defies logic.  There shouldn’t be as many people in the world willing to put their pride on the line everyday to administer hospitality but the talent pool is overflowing. The psychological abuse you experience as a result of serving others erodes your mental health and causes you to age prematurely. Yet many of us continue to don the apron year after year refusing to walk away from the lifestyle no matter how much distress it causes us.  So, there must be something we get out of it, right?

In an effort to answer this complicated question, we have compiled a list of what we believe are the most important reasons why smart people seek employment in the service industry and why so many of them become tenured even when much safer career opportunities are readily available.

1) The rent is too damn high – Many college graduates learn quickly after they enter the job market how few entry-level opportunities allow you to make a decent living.  Money isn’t everything but many educated young people move to expensive cities like New York and San Francisco only to find out the hard way that being somebody’s executive assistant in an Ad Agency isn’t going to lead to a very high standard of living.  Following a more linear career path straight out of college is near impossible to afford today without secondary employment or a wealthy sponsor.  Restaurant work–especially fine dining–can pay over five times the salary of many ground-floor office jobs with a far less rigorous schedule.  It’s hard work but, unlike the corporate grunts, you are well-compensated for enduring it. Many people cut their teeth in the business supplementing their incomes working part-time in a restaurants.  After realizing its earning potential compared with their office paychecks they end up phasing out the secure jobs for the financial benefits of full-time restaurant work–even lawyers and PhDs.

2)  Elastic schedule – Not everyone who waits tables is an aspiring actor but many order-takers have alter egos outside of their restaurant jobs.  Historically, restaurant work has always facilitated, and, in some cases, subsidized artistic pursuits, higher education and individual passions.  It is one of the only jobs where someone can tailor a schedule around other commitments without risking job security.  In order to nurture those aspects of ourselves, we need a breadwinning job that will provide the flexibility to change occupational course at a moment’s notice. Whatever it may be–a touring musical, an internship, or a European vacation–you will have an easier time calibrating your restaurant schedule to your specific needs than any other line of work. At least until they fire you for being unreliable.

image3) Membership has its privileges – We are a motley crew, a band apart. We don’t hang with the cool kids. When the managers aren’t looking, we sneak around back behind the building and smoke cigarettes.  We have deep philosophical conversations and think it’s cool to learn about food, wine and culture.  Once you meet your kindred spirits within the walls of a restaurant, you can never go back to a structured job again. A restaurant staff becomes tied to each other through common suffering like soldiers.  As in military life, the rigors of the job are such that you rely on your comrades for survival.  Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant can attest to the durability of these relationships.  They run deeper than conventional friendships. When you go into battle together, you’re always a little scared of losing your shit but you know your platoon has your back. You fight to keep the insurgents at bay and, if you manage to survive, you will raise a glass together to celebrate the end of the shift and to living to fight another day.

4) No strings attached – People who work in restaurants have commitment issues.  We can’t be married to our jobs. Yes, we work for the Man, but on our terms. We live like gypsies, frequently changing jobs and living situations. We thrive on the lack of structure; no two days in a restaurant are ever the same.  Anything more predictable would bore us to death. Restaurants work is interactive and three-dimensional.  You could never keep us confined to a cubicle 9-to-5, but it wouldn’t matter anyway cause there’s no effing way we could get up that early in the first place.  Most restaurant workers need connection and spontaneity, we are social animals.   Of course, the low-level of commitment has its drawbacks.  Our commission-based pay is susceptible to wild fluctuations.  The boom-and-bust cycles of busy nights and dead ones would scare others away but we feed off it.  First we’re broke. Then we work more.  We’re flush with cash.  Then we blow it on frivolous things.  Rinse. Repeat.  We live near term, planning only as far as our next shift. It’s not a recipe for a very secure future, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The King Of Bitters

Take a poll of modern mixologists asking the few essential ingredients a bar cannot live without and you’ll likely find Angostura Bitters at the top of most lists.  Despite evolving trends in cocktail culture, Angostura has endured and its production methods—almost 200 years later—have remained faithful to the original.  The diminutive bottle with the oversized paper label is ubiquitous in every serious cocktail bar and every amateur’s stash at home… but what is it? 

The recipe for Angostura Bitters was developed by a German Doctor, Johann Siegert, who was a Surgeon General in Simon Bolivar’s army in Venezuela.  He created his tincture, “Dr. Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters”, to treat soldiers with upset stomachs.  Siegert originally produced the tonic for sale in 1824 in the town of Angostura where he was based in Venezuela, now known as Ciudad Bolivar.  In 1875, commercial production of Angostura Bitters moved to a plant in Port of Spain, Trinidad not long after Dr. Siegert passed away.  It continues there today.

Why does that label hang over the edge like that?
Why does that label hang over the edge like that?

So, why doesn’t the label fit right?  When Dr. Siegert’s two sons took over the production of their father’s bitters they decided to enter them into a competition.  One brother was responsible for designing the bottle and the other would be responsible for designing the label.  Without consulting each other, the labels and bottles produced were ill-fitting and did not adhere properly.  By the time they realized the mistake, it was too late.  Though they lost in the competition, a judge suggested that the awkward label could make the product more memorable and a useful tool for marketing.

The ingredients that make up Angostura are closely guarded. There are only five people at the plant, called “manufacturers”, who are responsible for preparing the secret ingredients that go into Angostura production.  Many of the ingredients are flown in from England.  It is bottled at 44.7% alcohol by volume diluted with water, brown sugar, and caramel coloring.

The Pisco Sour

Popular classic cocktails that traditionally contain Angostura are The Old Fashioned (whiskey, bitters, muddled orange, and sugar), The Manhattan (rye, sweet vermouth, and bitters), and The Pisco Sour (topped with a few swirled dashes of Angostura).  Though there are many new upstart brands of bitters emerging with boutique ingredients and flavor combinations, Angostura continues to be the most popular brand of bitters in the world.  It’s impossible to imagine any bar without it.

Return To Sender

“How is everything?” the waiter asks you three bites into your over-cooked pork chop. You choose courtesy over honesty, muster a phony smile and continue eating. You’re disappointed in your meal and the staff thinks you’re happy.

Sending food back in a restaurant is considered gauche but it’s not nearly as obnoxious to waitstaff as people think.  Most servers are more irritated by passive-agressive guests who hide their dissatisfaction than those who are forthcoming about it.

Knowing how to properly send food back in a restaurant is a gentle tango. Here are some guidelines that will help make the transaction go more smoothly:

Avoid using language that lays blame on the kitchen or the server:

“Is this supposed to be burnt like this?”

“I wanted it Medium. This is totally raw.”

“I thought you said the sauce was going to be on the side?”

Avoid making broad statements or speaking in hyperbole:

“This is waaaaaay too salty!”

“This is so spicy it’s LITERALLY burning my mouth.”

“Would you eat this??”

Never suggest to the server that he try your food or that the chef taste it to confirm what you perceive to be wrong. We are professionals, you are not. Offering us your half-eaten food is a sure-fire way to send the negotiation into a tailspin.

Try to communicate to the server in simple language what is wrong and what you’d like instead.  Be as specific as possible. Ideally, phrase your concerns in question form.  Making statements can sound presumptuous and will likely be misinterpreted.  Don’t forget that the server is the only advocate for your needs in the kitchen, so it’s unwise to sour this relationship if you want results.

Here are a few examples of more productive ways of returning food:

“I’m sorry but this dish isn’t what I expected.   Would it be possible to order something else?”

“Do you think they could cook this a little longer?  The middle is too rare for me.”

“Would it take long to make another salad? I’m sorry… this one has too much dressing for my taste.” 

No one who works in a restaurant ever wants you to be disappointed with your food.  It makes our lives much easier when you’re satisfied.  As servers, though, we have no control over the quality of what comes out of the kitchen.  Miscommunications will sometimes result in your food coming out incorrectly, but don’t make assumptions.  If something is wrong with your food, the staff can’t correct it unless you speak up.  It’s inconvenient, we know, but at the end of the day it’s just food and it’s not the end of the world if something is wrong with it.