What Food Service Jobs Taught me about People, Life and Work
In 2018, before and after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman elected to the U.S. Congress, some journalists reported that, a year before her election, she served food and drinks in a New York bar.
The journos and pundits played down the fact that, as well as tending bar, Ocasio-Cortez, a Boston University graduate, worked for a nonprofit.
Also, these “former-bartender” reports posed an implied and very classist question: “How can a ‘mere’ bartender unseat a 10-term Democratic incumbent to become an effective, thoughtful U.S. congresswoman?”
Life as a Waitress and Bartender
I was in my 20s when I spent my days and nights serving up food and drinks to strangers or regulars. I worked in settings that ranged from fine-dining Italian to an Irish-American pub, to a counter-service place in a downtown shopping center — where, by the way, I was assigned to the stuffed potato bar “because you’re Irish.”
Among the three countries in which I fed the hungry, the U.S. was by far the best. In the U.K., I was simply a faceless, voiceless creature behind that potato bar or pint of beer. Ditto for my short stint in Dublin, Ireland where the restaurant chef was downright abusive.
As a food server, what I learned about human behavior has served (pun intended) me really well.
As a food server, here are 10 things I learned about work and people:
- Many folks are not as they appear. That guy in the designer suit with the patronizing voice? His credit card is as or more likely to be rejected than the other man at the end of the bar in the plaid shirt with the frayed cuffs. In fact, Mr. Plaid Shirt is fiscally smart enough to pay cash for his consumables, including his cold beer.
- There are no mean drunks. There are just mean people. Former First Lady Michelle Obama said that the U.S. presidency doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are. Ditto for alcohol.
- There are no booze-fueled racists. There are just racists. Period. Same rationale as #2. Also, pack mentality — as seen at certain U.S. political rallies — is an instigator. But peer influence and booze only bring out what’s already in there.
- We build and promote our brand. Most restaurant customers tried to project what they wanted you to believe about them. I’m smart. I’m successful. I’m a good mother, a hard worker, a proud American. We tell ourselves a narrative about ourselves, and we wear that self-made story as our public brand and public shield. Sometimes the brand is even true.
- People are extraordinarily kind — for no personal gain except to help out a waitress who, in fact, had just flubbed their food order. Over and over I learned this, and I have never forgotten the customers who taught it to me, including that guy who abandoned his afternoon beer to rush out and buy me a book that we had been discussing across the bar.
- Women turn “mean girl” on other women. Don’t believe me? Try cutting off a tipsy woman. Or try insisting on seeing a legal, over-21 I.D. Or try doing your job and, in the process, inadvertently upstaging another office colleague. Your accent, your national origin, your bust and waist sizes. These were all fair game.
- We have neither a meritocracy nor a classless society in America. I know. Gasp. And, built into this class divide (between, say, a waitress and a male executive) is the assumption that one person (the executive) can be sketchy and inappropriate with the other (the waitress). For some men, there’s also an unspoken rule: Thou shalt not deliver a withering retort — especially in front of my boy pals. Oops!
- Respect: I’ve worked in office-based settings that perpetuate the culture that, based on rank or title, we treat some folks better than others. But for 30-plus years, I’ve stuck to what I learned behind the bar or the food service counter, which is this: Everybody deserves politeness and respect and empathy. Together, we are a giant anthology of human stories, and your story doesn’t supersede mine.
- Hold onto you: However big the tip or philanthropic donation or yearly bonus or headline story promises to be, never trade in your personal dignity, ethics or sense of self for money. Beware the organization or boss that/who wants you to do this.
- Trust your gut: There’s a saying in my native Ireland: “When it’s grunting and it has a curly tail, it’s usually a pig.” Really. Got a hunch about a new colleague or customer or boss — even when she’s smiling across the corner-office desk or the burger bar at you? Trust. Your. Gut.