In Defense of Working for Food Industry

My time in food service started like many others. I was your typical suburban 16-year-old girl in want of nothing at all except for one really big thing: A car to call my own. In the high school parking lot full of Hondas and Toyotas, I wanted to be different. Something about the square taillights of the 2005 Volkswagen Jettas spoke to me. So, I took my talents to the local sandwich shop where my friend worked in order to start saving up for my very first junker vehicle. Ah, sweet rites of passage.

I stuck with that job through high school and even transferred to a different store of the same franchise when I went away to college. For six years I took thousands of orders, ran thousands of meals out to hungry people, swept floors, washed dishes, threw sandwich after sandwich on the grill and assembled salads with 20+ different ingredients. I brewed tea, restocked food-prep lines, hosed down mats, and baked cookies.

When I walked out of the restaurant after what I knew would be my last shift before heading to my fancy-schmancy editorial internship in Dallas, I was 7 parts thrilled to be done with washing strangers’ dishes forever, and 3 parts really sad about it. Chock that up to my emotional nature (upon moving out, I’ve longingly looked back into every terrible empty apartment I’ve ever lived in like I was leaving behind a living breathing thing, not four gross walls.) But it’s also because I honestly enjoyed working there.

Fast forward four whole years into the cushy cubicle life, and I still fondly reminisce about the days I could make money (albeit terrible money) while having fun with friends, and only using my brain a minimal amount.

The sandwich shop taught me grace, humility, and how to work hard for the first time, ever. Sure, all first jobs shape us in lots of similar ways, but the restaurant industry in particular has a certain grit to it that I feel just can’t be matched by folding jeans at your mall’s American Eagle (no offense, retail people). In no particular order, here are a few of the hard-earned lessons I learned:

The stereotypes about picky and rude restaurant guests are largely untrue.

In the beginning, I’d internally roll my eyes when a customer wanted something out of the ordinary, but nine times out of ten, they were really nice about it. Eventually my perspective changed, and I figured they were paying plenty of money for a very basic service that we should be able to easily provide, and I wanted to go above and beyond to make them feel accommodated. I became that person who sent food back to the kitchen guys if it looked like it had been sloppily slapped on the plate.

My attention to detail translated to regular customers. So regular, in fact, that they turned into lifelong friends who invited me to their wedding and offered me their basement when I was in-between apartment leases. Far and wide, our guests were sweet, easy-to-please people whose day we could make easily by just handing them the refreshing glass of tea they had been looking forward to all day. “These people have it figured out,” I remember thinking. Those who appreciate the little things that much don’t need a lot to be happy.

How to unclog an industrial-sized sink.

But more than that, I learned that I’m not too good to unclog an industrial-sized sink that’s full of other people’s food scraps. Or break a sweat while mopping a huge area. When I first started, I remember helplessly asking a coworker who was in her 50s — I’ll call her Grace — what to do about the clogged sink that was preventing me from finishing the dishes. Grace was high on pain pills much of the time, which us goody college kids resented her for when she couldn’t quite pull her load. But when she wasn’t high, she acted as a mother hen to us all, and we let her.

She laughed at my shocked face as I watched her dip her arm elbow deep in food-water to remove the scraps clogging the drain. I later learned about Grace’s injury that got her hooked on the pills in the first place. I noticed how hard she worked and how hard this work was on her. From then on, I volunteered for the more back-breaking tasks more often. If she could do it with all that was going on in her life, then I certainly could, too.

Just how privileged I am.

Despite our differences, working together at the restaurant put us all on an even playing field, even if just for that shift. That kind of work lends itself to intimate conversations. I developed the biggest crush on an artsy college dropout, who taught me about the world in ways I only thought I knew before. He was the polar opposite of “my type,” and I liked him so much it made me question my entire identity. Who even am I, really, and what do I want for my life? Maybe it’s different than I what I always thought.

I learned that Katie’s dad died when she was 16, why Tommy went to jail last year, that Cat had anxiety about all the student loans she was racking up. I learned about Greg’s baby on the way, Sam’s strong political views, and that Dante, always a ball of joy, was working to help his sick mother pay her bills.

People who grew up completely different from me became instant service-industry family. There’s nothing quite as leveling as slapping bread and meat together for hours on end for someone else to eat. These people showed me with their lives that I was given a pretty good hand, and a few of them even told me, not unkindly, to make sure I used it well.

I pushed myself in my studies so I wouldn’t “end up like them,” but I also recognized that in their own way, they were smarter, stronger, and worked harder than me. And the truth is, because of the privilege I was born into, I’d never end up like a few of them, whether or not I tried to do well in school.

During those years, from age 16 to 22, I lost much of my naivety, largely due to my experiences in the restaurant. My eyes were opened to the way the world truly works. I was taught over and over again that I have something to learn from everyone, even if I might have previously subconsciously thought they were lesser-than for their lack of economic privilege.

Working in food service changed my worldview, taught me the meaning of hard work, and helped me understand the value of a dollar. Every once in awhile, I still miss the distinct camaraderie that came after getting through a three-hour long rush, the pride I felt when my salad presentation was on point, the chance to have intimate conversations with people I never would have even met otherwise, and occasionally, I even miss the sandwiches.