Nine Things I Learned from Working in a Restaurant

During college, many of my classmates spent their summers doing internships, research, and other resume-building things. I spent mine waitressing – on purpose. This was in part because the restaurant I worked at was a block from the beach, however, a few weeks into my time there I realized that that experience could potentially be just as vital to my formation as all of the classes I took, books I read, papers I wrote, and sermons I listened to. Here are just a handful of the things I learned from working in a restaurant:

How to use a restaurant. There are plenty of ranty articles and blog posts out there about this topic, so I needn’t add much more. But: restaurant staff are people too – and they have normal lives, needs, desires, etc. Restaurant customers should treat them that way. Banter with your waiter, thank the hostess on your way out, and if something goes wrong, give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt. And don’t be condescending. The world would be a better place if we always treated strangers this way.

How to have normal human interactions. The environment of the place I worked at is pretty far removed from the ivory towers of cushy academia. While I could have really stuck out, but I don’t think I did. I came to really respect my co-workers, boss, and the other members of the community. Furthermore, I was able to laugh with them, rant with them, celebrate with them, and work my butt off with them. This was extremely helpful in helping me transition from my small conservative college to the rest of the world.

Work ethic. I try to live with the philosophy that everything worth doing is worth doing well, and it’s definitely easier when the people I’m working alongside are also super hardworking. During one of my first shifts at the restaurant, it was really slow, and the girl I was working with kept finding things to clean, because instead of standing around, she wanted to actually earn her wage. With that precedent, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to slack off at this job. Restaurant work can be grimy and mundane, and sometimes the hours are a little insane, but all work is worth doing well.

Team work. In academia, your work is largely your own. While you might be learning in a community, your papers and your grades belong exclusively to you (unless you’ve plagiarized, but that’s different). But workplaces almost never function like this. This is especially noticeable in a restaurant. During a rush, everyone has the same goal: to seat as many people as possible and turn over tables quickly, as to increase revenue for everyone. In our most hectic moments, anyone with even a few seconds to spare would ask everyone else if they needed help, and pitch in where needed. We all ended up doing stuff outside of our job descriptions, including many things that wouldn’t directly benefit us. Why? Because it sucks to see your colleagues fail, and when we succeed, we succeed together. It might be easy to forget this in a classroom or office, but when there are people waiting to be seated at your restaurant, you don’t think twice about it.

Work and life are not mutually exclusive. In my experience, restaurant staff don’t care too much about stiff professionalism. This meant that the line between one’s personal life and work life was often blurred. I now know that that’s how a lot of workplaces (even offices) are, and I’ve come to appreciate it. A lot of people stress out about finding a “work-life balance,” and I think that one of the reasons that this is so stressful is that this line is never distinct, and maybe not even necessary.

Loyalty and stability. A lot of families who vacation at the Jersey shore have been doing so for generations. On more than one occasion, I served customers who had been coming to the restaurant and ordering the same meal since before I was born. Likewise, most of the people I worked with had been working there for years, some of them following in the footsteps of older siblings or cousins (or in my case, parents). In our flighty and transient culture, this kind of loyalty to a place and a routine is refreshing.

Justice. My freshman year, I took a class called “Justice and the Common Good,” where we studied what the term “justice” has meant to philosophers throughout the ages, and what it should mean for us now. The definition of justice that I walked away with was this: justice is doing your work well and giving people what they deserve. (That’s adapted from Plato and Aquinas, who phrase it more eloquently). It wasn’t until I started working at the restaurant that I really began to understand what this notion justice means, practically. The basic economic transactions that happen in restaurants (and stores, bars, etc.) is justice in its simplest form, and it’s vital to our society and the common good.

Piety. One of the first things that we read in my Great Books education was the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro. This is when I learned the phrase “filial piety,” which is the practice of being dutiful toward those whom we owe our duty. This generally means parents, but also elders, superiors, etc. In its most basic and practical form, filial piety is respecting your boss, even when what he tells you to do doesn’t make sense. It’s understanding that the most experienced waitress is going to be assigned the best section. It’s fulfilling the ridiculous requests of your most loyal customers (even if they don’t tip very well). It’s doing your duties without question, and I think people in service jobs are some of the best examples of it.

The Good Life. One of my college professors once said (jokingly, I think) that the Good Life is “beer and fireworks.” In the program that I graduated from, we spent a lot of time talking about the “Good Life,” and speculating what it entailed as to go forth and live it. We developed a fairly specific notion of what it means to live a “Good Life,” so during the summers, it was a little confusing for me to spend time with people who were hard working, good, and happy, but not asking big questions or reading old books. Over the course of several years, I came to the conclusion that sometimes, for some people, the good life might just be hard work followed by beer and fireworks – and that’s okay.

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