When I came to New York to pursue theater-related dreams, I actively expected to support myself by waiting tables. I even dared to imagine that this path would be glamorous. The 18-year-old me imagined meeting interesting people, living off under-the-table tips, perhaps even getting discovered by some casting director with a sharp palate and a sharper eye. And I’d of course be following in the footsteps of a thousand other (now-famous) actors, by taking the noble, starving artist route to success. Day jobs be damned!
The reality of service was a little less than glittery. But in the college and post-college years that I’ve spent ascending the stubby ladder from before-the-bistro to behind-the-bar, I’ve gained a lot of unexpected knowledge. I’ve had lessons in humility, patience, and appropriate physical contact between strangers. And despite the numerous humiliations (like swabbing kitchen decks in ill-chosen ballet flats) and the dubious, dubious victories (dating lots and lots of bartenders), I think I’m the better for my hours logged in the industry. So what could we all stand to learn from a stint in an apron?
Lesson 1: A little sugar goes a long way
A lot of people—self-proclaimed ‘good people,’ in fact—show the world their worst selves when they go out to dinner. I’ve seen people walk out on their meals, (often leaving a server to pay for at least part of it). I’ve seen people tip in cents. I’ve seen guests refuse to make a second of eye contact with the people bringing them food. I’ve seen diners make their waitstaff cry. I think the cruelties came from people regarding service staff as somehow sub-human, or sub-class. It’s pretty gross behavior, if you think about it.
Considering the largely low stakes involved in dining out, I took all these horror stories as evidence that basic human kindness can work wonders. For one, a sincere smile and a drop of patience can actively brighten someone’s day in the service industry. And word from the wise? Friendly guests get better service anyways. I’ve learned to check my own impulses to be nasty to strangers, whenever they arise. Everyone has feelings. Everyone’s time is valuable. Be kind, smile, put a little more love into the universe.
See also: tipping.
Lesson 2: IT’S. JUST. BRUNCH.
The thing about restaurants is that—if they’re very lucky—they get super, super busy during some part of the day. If you’re new to this world and have never experienced the pandemonium that is a midtown fusion restaurant during business lunch, well, good luck on your first go round. People ask you to do a billion things at once: you need to run to the kitchen and back for forks, you need to greet your latest table, you need to run a check—all while managers breathe down your neck and busy suits tap their feet. Is this a panic attack coming on?
No. Breathe deep. Exhale.
I learned from service that it’s imperative to keep a cool head. There were often moments when I felt like running into the walk-in box and weeping among the cucumbers, but then I reminded myself that it’s not that big of a deal. No one’s life is in my hands (provided I remember all of my allergy training!) and soon everyone will go home. I apply this lesson now anytime I feel stressed. “How high are the stakes, really?” I ask myself. Usually the answer is “pretty low.”
Lesson 3: For every mean person there’s an equally awesome person
There’s always one or two creeps at the bar. There’s always one mean manager who can’t seem to get off your back. Don’t let these people stay under your skin! Be polite but firm in the face of customer rudeness. Don’t be a pushover. Always let people know if their contact is making you uncomfortable in any way. But don’t let one bad person ruin your shift.
And as often as there are rude, horrible regulars and insufferable staff, there are amazing people to be found among your co-workers and clientele! I’ve made some of my best friends ever thanks to spending hours idling at the hostess stand. I’ve met other artists, musicians—I even met my boyfriend thanks to my bartending gig. I learned to relish the fact that I picked a job that would force me to be around all kinds of people. And I’m the better for trying all of them on—the good and the bad.
Lesson 4: Keep your eye on the prize
Because bartenders and waitstaff all tend to keep odd hours, lifestyle changes can arise. Case in point? Even though your shift ends at 2am, somehow you still want to grab a beer with the team to “blow off steam.” Suddenly it’s the wee hours, and you’re waking up way past noon. It’s not long before it’s a habit.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with partying with your awesome co-workers—AT ALL. But it is important to keep a balanced schedule if you’re one of those doofs attempting to juggle a job that’s separate from your passion. If you’ve been telling yourself your “writing time” is in the morning before work, don’t party hard the night before. (At least, not always.) Learning how to manage my time was, by far, the hardest and most rewarding lesson. Now I attempt to stay mindful of what I want to be doing—not just in the moment, but in the future.
Lesson 5: There’s no shame in dating your co-workers
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Suffice it to say: I wouldn’t be who I am today without having blundered through a few salacious, inter-“office” affairs. Each liaison was complicated, embarrassing, and time-consuming. But I’m not gonna lie, I had a lot of fun. I also learned a lot about myself. Namely, that I’m now too old for this nonsense, and, um, no scrubs.
(Images via Livejournal, Wikia, Imgur, Giphy, Tripod)