A Brief Love Letter to the Hospitality Industry

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It’s four thirty in the morning and I am wide awake. This isn’t a superrare occurrence in my life, but tonight it’s a little baffling. I worked a double shift yesterday from 10 am to midnight, and I was already running on a sleep deficit when I began. I should be exhausted right now. In spite of this (and in spite of another double scheduled for tomorrow) my eyes shot open sometime in the wee hours of the morning, and now my brain simply refuses go back to sleep. So in an attempt to do something useful with this unexpected time, I am writing an update for my poor, neglected blog.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about hospitality work. Whatever I do, I can’t seem to escape it. I don’t think I even want to escape. I have dabbled in corporate/office jobs so many times in the past, but I inevitably end up running back to “the industry”, in some form or another. Why is this?

In the world of restaurants, anything is possible. Not easy, mind you, but possible. It is (with some exceptions) a true meritocracy. In hospitality, you could begin as a dishwasher in December and by March you might be a manager. You might be a sous chef or a bartender or a line cook. If you show ability and initiative, there is hardly a door that is closed to you. You just have to reach for it, and be ready to work like crazy.

The corollary to this is little to no allowance for bullshit. Your skill levels, your character, your coping abilities, all of it will be laid bare– and quickly. After a single night in a busy kitchen, everybody knows exactly what you’re made of. The same goes for servers on the floor and bartenders behind the bar.

This sort of environment has an interesting impact on personal relationships. When you’re regularly in the weeds (or in the mierda, if you like) with someone, you become powerfully bonded in a very short period of time. You absolutely depend on one another. Line cooks, chefs, runners, bussers, servers, bartenders, dishwashers– everyone is critical. If any one of these positions runs into a problem, it ripples throughout the entire restaurant. (And incidentally, when you’re the one who causes that problem, it makes you feel like a total and complete ass). You’re all in the same boat, totally dependent on one another. And when you find a comrade-in-arms that you click with, you very quickly become fast friends. A few weeks ago the sous-chef and I we were reminiscing about the “old days” when I first started at the bar. Then we both stopped and looked at each other– just how long ago was that, exactly?? We did the math, and it had barely been two months. Two months. We both shook our heads in disbelief. It felt like I had already been there for years.

Restaurants attract some of the best personalities out there, in my humble opinion. The majority of them are the type who wear their hearts on their sleeve. As someone who’s more of an introvert, I find this makes it a lot easier to just relax and be myself. Moreover, I feel like restaurant people really live! They burn at both ends. They “suck out all the marrow” of life. They are the type of people that will work a double shift and then go out afterwards to party (even though they swore they’d go right home to sleep). They can’t help but live it up. And then they’ll get up the next day and do it all over again. It may be borderline insanity, but I’m in love with them for it.

It’s not just the people that get me, either- the work itself manages to be eternally interesting. Sure, many of the essential jobs are repetitive, even tedious. But just when you think you’re getting bored, restaurants will always throw a new twist at you. You’re always on your toes. A party of 100 people could suddenly show up on a slow day. Or maybe the exhaust fan just mysteriously breaks one day and now you can’t cook anything that requires the grill. (Solution: just get creative with pan-frying!) Or maybe there’s a (self-proclaimed) VIP group hanging out at the bar late at night, asking if there isn’t any possible way we could go downstairs and re-open the kitchen so they could have some french fries? (Answer: No.)

That last note leads me to the old joke that restaurant work would be great, if it weren’t for the customers. Of course it’s not true- customers are also entirely capable of making your day. Selfish/entitled/generally awful customers are truly the minority. But when they do manifest, they reaaaally leave an impression. I might have to make another post devoted to them someday. But hey, at least they give you good stories.

Finally, there is my own feeling of personal fulfillment. Since I began working in a restaurant again, I just feel good. At the end of a long work day I feel satisfied, like I actually did something. And I sleep like a rock! (Well, most of the time anyway. Today is weird). When I wine and dine on my days off, I feel like I have earned it. This is in contrast to most of my jobs in the corporate/office lifestyle, where I would be mentally tired at the end of the day but hardly ever physically so. It always seemed weird to me that I had to pay a gym for the privilege of going there and lifting heavy objects after my “work” day was over, just so I could feel like I did something real.

Now that my work life and my exercise program are one and the same, I feel invigorated. I do cardio like nobody’s business– I run up and down stars literally hundreds of times per shift. I also haul heavy boxes, kegs and bus bins on a regular basis. Even though I haven’t been to the gym for three months now, my metabolism is burning crazy fast and my appetite is voracious. I feel full of energy and ready to take on anything. People at the bar peg me for early-mid twenties. All in all, I’m feeling pretty good! Thanks, hospitality. You’ll always have a place in my heart.

–As a small aside to all my office friends, of course I don’t intend this to discourage you. I’ve had great times in my office jobs too, and I have definitely learned a ton from them. If that’s where your muse lies, power to you. Own it. Love it. Be proud. Stop by and see me at the restaurant 🙂

2 Comments

  1. Bob Purdon

    When I was your age I served at Vito’s Italian restaraunt, downtown Columbia, tn. – in a historic building that began over 100 years ago as town morgue… Then became stables for the firehouse horses – (or vice versa)… The halos of memory shimmer and crackle there and I’m glad to have added my own . 20 years after and I still remember and love my coworkers and the owners. Brothers (and sisters) in arms to the end… So, yeah I’m with you on this-

  2. Jordan

    Your paragraph about working in the office just to hit the gym to feel alive. So much yes in that. I think Ryan was feeling the same way at his desk job, now he is working in shipping at Rimports (where Sarah’s ex works) and he is loving it! It’s interesting how these more physical jobs are looked down on, and yet they can make you feel the most like you’re truly alive. bell hooks has written some interesting things pertaining to this, you should look up her stuff if you haven’t read it before.

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