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.

Critics Under Review

Restaurant reviews, like movie reviews, can make or break the commercial ambitions of their subjects.  Highly anticipated openings in the culinary world are usually followed by a parade of media hype and scrutiny.  “Review season”—as we affectionately refer to it—is a stressful time.  Influential food critics arrive with their scorecards the moment we open for business—their mugshots plastered to the kitchen line and wait-stations like wanted criminals.  We understand that major periodicals have a responsibility to their readers who are hungry for the skinny… but why the rush?

Most major news outlets with a commitment to covering culinary arts will file a review within the first three months of a restaurant’s infancy.  Critics risk being perceived as out of touch if they are slow to weigh in.  But new restaurants are like toddlers that need time to shed their baby fat; they must learn to crawl before they can walk or—in the most hyped cases—learn to fly up to their lofty expectations.

The unfortunate result is that many restaurants with real ambition never get a chance to grow into adulthood without judgement already having been passed.  In most cases, if the quality of a new restaurant improves after review season has ended, it will happen without much recognition from the press.  With as many technological advances in mobile communication it’s puzzling that a critic’s views would not evolve over time.  Is it really fair to file one definitive review based on a few early experiences and be done with it? Isn’t this akin to reviewing a piece of theater based on the quality of its dress rehearsals?

Restaurants are complicated ecosystems with a lot of moving parts.  We make it look easy when the machine is well-oiled but the choreography isn’t as easy as it looks.  Like a sports team, it takes time to develop chemistry.  Expecting immediate success in the restaurant’s first year is no more realistic than a winning season in a new franchise’s first year in a pro sport.  It takes time to fine-tune systems, to get individuals with diverse levels of experience to act in concert.  Why do so many new restaurants prefer a “soft opening” where they can assure themselves of greater control of the elements with minimal fanfare?

In sports as in restaurants, assuming that a team that loses its first few games can’t turn things around and win a championship is a mistake.  But most new restaurants don’t have this luxury after their review season has ended.  For the ones that begin to pull things together and start firing on all cylinders, sadly, it may be too late.  The book on them has already been written and closed with very little chance of changing the narrative.

Let it grow, Let it grow...
Let it grow, Let it grow…

The flip side is that many restaurants flourish in the early going, are showered with accolades, then take their eyes off the prize and decline.  After a string of positive reviews, many restaurateurs use the press as a springboard for new projects while the older ones are set to auto-pilot.  But while this occurs, it’s unusual for a critic to risk embarrassment by revoking his stars or periodicals to issue revisions to their earlier praises.

As consumers we have a very short attention span and so we rely on simple metrics for evaluating restaurants.  Perhaps it harkens back to the days of potty training, but we’ve unanimously embraced the star system as the de facto measure of success or failure.  It’s not about a memorable dish or a knowledgable staff, it’s about how many stars you have pinned to your lapel.

Ultimately, the current system ignores the complexity of a restaurant’s development.  It is a living organism and diners should learn to be more forgiving of its formative years.  Over time, should an adolescent restaurant turn into a tempestuous brat or a defiant teenager, it should answer for the quality of its performance and be subject to reassessment.

Perhaps this is why services like Yelp have become so popular—the crowd-sourced feedback loop is much more efficient.  Of course, Yelp has its drawbacks, too, but its success represents a sea change in the way diners get information about restaurants.  The traditional food media should recognize this and stop fumbling over each other to get the scoop and start worrying about serving up a better dish.

Tricks Of The Trade

Restaurant work, though occasionally economically rewarding, is toxic to an individual’s psychological health.  It’s no wonder that so many of us in the service industry become raging alcoholics.  How else can we maintain our sanity?  With daily exposure to people’s eccentricities–like social workers–we intimately deal with the worst human behavior imaginable.  To survive, we’re forced to develop coping mechanisms.  There are stealth ways we can exercise our power to dominate guests who refuse to play by our rules.  Here are a few of our favorite tactics and the affectionate names by which we refer to them:

Five for fighting.
Five for fighting.

The Penalty Box – It is impossible to order your own food in a restaurant that has table service. You don’t know how to use the computer system, so it’s not in your best interest to be overly dismissive of a waiter earnestly trying to take your order.  We are the gatekeepers.  If you give us the dust-off one too many times, we may be forced to put you in “The Penalty Box.”  Your table will now sit on a deserted island until you realize that you will not be fed without our participation. This usually results in your panicking and flailing your arms around until you can get our attention.  We will return to the table when you have had enough time to realize the error of your ways.

The forbidden dance.
The forbidden dance.

The Irish Polka – We desperately need your table back for a later reservation but you insist on nursing the last drops of your bottle of wine.  Eventually, we give up trying to be nice and just drop the check without waiting for you to ask.  Of course you’re still oblivious, yammering on and on to your friends about something you read in The New Yorker.  We know you haven’t submitted a credit card yet but we send a shill over to the table to ask if he can process your card. “You’re not ready yet?? Whoops!”  We call this “The Irish Polka.”  It’s a clumsy dance where somebody’s toes are always getting stepped on. Sorry… but it’s time to go.

Silent but violent.
Silent but violent.

The Cropduster – Drawing the ire of a server can have negative consequences that may be invisible to the naked eye.  One of the ways an angry waiter may seek retribution for your insubordination will be to repeatedly send his comrades by your table to “Cropdust” the area, or, in waiter terms, walk past your table repeatedly passing gas. You better hope we didn’t have chili for family meal.