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.
3) 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.