Thursday, May 9, 2013

Why everyone should work in the restaurant business at least once in their lives

Now that I have hit middle age (gulp), I have noticed that I have a lot of criticism for the 30 and younger set.  It's a rite of passage, those who are a bit older and have more wisdom under their muffin top belt, talk about how the youth of today have no manners, no work ethic and how we are  doomed since these younger generations will take care of us (or not) in our golden years.

So, woo- hoo, I am now one of those kind of people.

I've been thinking a lot about this recently and thinking back to my own youth.  Certainly kids learn manners from their parents and their youthful surroundings, but it goes beyond manners and courtesy.  It's about learning how to think a couple of steps ahead, to avoid difficulty and how to read people.

Sure, I learned a lot of this from my parents and other role models, but mostly I learned this by working in the restaurant business.

I spent a total of 11 years working in some aspect of the restaurant business, I've been a server, bartender, cashier, manager.  It's where I went when I dropped out of college in my junior year and I stayed there until after I finished my Master's Degree.  I stayed because it was a helluva lot of fun.  Seriously the restaurant industry is like no other for the fun, the parties and the kind of people the industry attracts, truly weird-in-the-most-wonderful-sense kind of people of all different types and backgrounds coming together, bonding and brawling over bread baskets, dirty dishes and  the garlic and coffee tinged air.

The restaurant business gave me much more though than just learning how to blow half my tips on shooters fun.  It prepared me for life.  It prepared me to be successful in a corporate career, it taught me how to deal with people, how to treat people and how to deal with stress.

In short, it taught me so many of the skills that I see lacking in our youth today.

Before I go spouting off my list, let me say that when I mean restaurant business, I don't mean European restaurants with your guaranteed salary and benefits and goal of one full seating an evening.  I mean the US restaurant business that makes it's profits by turning tables, where in a typical lunch/dinner sitting you are turning tables 4-6 times a night (sometimes more), where you are working to put actual drinks down your throat food on the table, where hustling is a job requirement.

Here's what the restaurant business teaches you:

1.  How to work hard
You work your a** off.  The simple fact of life in the business is that in order to earn money you have to work.  You work either for tips or an hourly wage and considering the turnover, the amount of people that work part time and the (somewhat) unpredictable nature of the business (getting slammed on a Monday lunch comes to mind), to max out your earnings, you need to be picking up extra shifts or staying for a double. In one restaurant I worked on Saturdays and Sundays they had a shift that was considered a single shift but it was really a double shift.  You started a little later, say 1.00 or 2.00 and worked until the end of the dinner rush which meant you were so freaking tired from running a solid 9 hours without a break, that you'd end up dragging yourself through your clean up and still only get out at 11.00.  But if you want to earn a decent living in the business this is what you have to do.  You think management is the key?  Well they work 70-80 hours without overtime.  They are earning less than a lot of the waiters and bartenders.

2.  How to multitask
In a busy American restaurant, the place might be chugging out up to 200 main courses an hour.  As a cook, you have to be monitoring probably no less than at least 15-20 dishes on your station and also timing it to make sure a complete order comes up at the same time.  So the guy on the grill has to know not only how the steaks should be cooked, but because steak usually takes the longest to cook, he has to know when to signal the guy to drop the pasta or the vegetables which have to go out for the same order and he's doing that for all 15-20 orders he's got going.  As a waiter, you have multiple tables going and you're not just delivering food, you are bringing and refilling drinks, bread, you have to get salads out to another table while someone else wants to pay.  And just for the hell of it you might need to run someone else's hot food to a table (and then bring more iced tea to those chowhounds).  You have to pay people, give them their change and run their credit cards, all the while your other tables are demanding more bread and  you just know that a-hole at table 12 is holding up his glass waiting for you to appear so he can have his 5th iced tea. (note:  free refills does not mean make a pig of yourself).

You learn how to not walk back in the kitchen without full hands or a full tray.  As a bartender on a busy shift, you are making drinks not just for your customers at the bar but also for the waiters to bring to their tables in the restaurant, you have to wash all your glassware try and keep the place reasonably clean and  you may even be coordinating the to-go orders.  You have to make sure you don't run out of ice or booze or those adorable little apple garnishes that go on your idiotic sour apple martini.  Busboys have to clean tables and usually help out the waiters and bartenders by keeping drinks/food areas stocked, but they have to get the dirty tables ready as soon as possible so that the host/hostesses can seat people and keep the waiting time down.  

People that can't master the skill of multitasking don't usually last two weeks in the business, although ironically,  it is usually these very same people who have *zero* self awareness about this and keep trying, it's usually a pretty painful lesson.

3.  How to anticipate
There is no place better to learn than a restaurant how to think a couple of steps ahead.  This one takes a little background info to understand so please bear with me.  It's worth it.

If one thing goes wrong, the place goes down.  Restaurants operate on anticipation, they anticipate how much food they will need at any given shift.  This is determined by business trends, how people tend to order, the time of year.  Restaurants prepare as much of the food as possible in advance and usually just do the final cooking when the food is ordered.  So for instance, take lasagna.  When you order lasagna in a restaurant, chances are they don't go in the back and start making sauce and pasta from scratch.  The more likely scenario is that a determined number of  raw lasagnas are assembled that morning or the night before and stored in the fridge.  The manager determines how much they need for a shift and that number of whole lasagna's is cooked about half way through and cut then brought up to the line and held on a steam table, not to cook it the rest of the way, but to keep it hot enough so that it remains bacteria free.  When you order it, they take out the piece of lasagna, cover it with tomato sauce and cheese and put it in an oven/broiler to cook it the rest of the way.

So, this means that if the restaurant had an unusual run on lasagna, they might run out, which means that they have to assemble more (which takes time and under pressure it takes longer).  This means it takes longer for any order with lasagna to appear, which mean tables that order lasagna wait for their food longer and end up consuming more bread, drinks and whatever else is free (and perhaps become dissatisfied), this means it takes them longer to eat and to leave, all the while the people waiting for a table grows and the wait becomes longer.  Meanwhile all the drinks and bread they are consuming are running out faster and waiters and buspeople have to take attention away from their primary duties to stock up on drinks, make coffee or get ice.  And usually it's the poor bread guy that is stuck making the lasagnas (which isn't his usual job so he/she might not be that good at it), so now you have a wait on bread and servers hanging around the bread to make sure to get it because it's going to go fast when it finally gets out there because you just can't appear again before your tables without something.  So everyone else's service goes down too.

So, yes, a whole restaurant can be taken to its knees just because two ladies decide to share a lasagna.

And you think it's just about food?  Well it's not, any area of the restaurant can bring the whole place down.  Dishwasher calls in sick, you're down a dish guy, that means dishes get washed slower, which means you might run out of clean dishes on the line, which means you have to wait to plate your food, the cooking time goes off, food gets over cooked, customers complain, food has to be recooked, the line gets overwhelmed and there you are again.

You're short a busboy, it takes longer to clear tables and the hostesses then help out, which means that not only are the tables not turnng faster, but your hosting staff is seating people slower, which means the 200 dishes an hour turns into 20 minutes with nothing to do and 40 minutes to chug out the 200, everything backs up.

I think you get it now.  If you don't, forget my advice and don't work in a restaurant, ever.

Now of course a good restaurant manager learns how to keep their eye on the ball and anticipate a problem before it happens to avoid the aforementioned nightmares but as cooks and waiters you have to learn how to do this too, you anticipate what's happening, you see that the food is taking a little longer because it's busy so you put the order in 10 minutes earlier or you see that the ice is half empty and it's busy, you run and get more ice before you run out.  You try to bring drink refills before they are making slurpy noises with their straws.  You just figure out how to think 5 steps ahead of the game.   A restaurant employee worth their salt, whether manager or busboy can recognize and head off these problems before they become problems.  Those who are really gifted in the business (and I like to think I was), can walk into a dining room, a kitchen, bar or the lobby and within 20 seconds know exactly what is happening.  So, it's not only anticipation, but you learn keen powers of observation because nobody is telling you a thing.

4.  You learn how to deal with people
Unfortunately most of the time you learn this lesson because loads of people treat you like shit so you learn what not to do.  People can often be at their worst when they are hungry and most poeple who have never worked at a restaurant are pretty clueless about how things work and make a lot of stupid requests.  Plus, in the US people feel particularly no shame about bossing around a service person.  They will speak to them in ways they never would a colleague at the office.  Sure, you're never going to see this person again and you are getting a divorce, your boss is an a**hat, you're broke and you don't have a date for your 20 year high school reunion.  Yep, take it out on your server.  I won't lie to you, dealing with people on this level on a daily basis is tough, it's really the toughest thing about the business and it jades you.  You can lose all your faith in humanity on a Saturday lunch shift or a holiday which is about the worst time ever to work in a restaurant..  But the flipside of this is that you learn how to not take people so seriously and you learn how to not react to every little thing and let stuff roll off your back.  You also learn how to deal with people, how to keep a jerk happy and how to appreciate those that add value in whatever way they do.

Besides the customers, as I mentioned earlier the restaurant business attracts a cast of characters like you have never seen.  Working mommies, students, drop outs, druggies, ex-cons all under one roof dealing with enormous (but not lasting) pressure.  Plus most people in the business are fairly young and shall we say, morally open minded so there is a lot of hooking up going on and a lot of gossiping about it the next day.  Walks of shame turn into shifts of shame (often next to the cute busboy's girlfriend), you learn real fast how to (1) develop the best poker face EVER and (2) deal with all kinds of people.

Not that I have any personal experience with that whole shifts of shame thing, but I heard about it.

Now, this list isn't to say that if you work in a restaurant you will develop these skills, because let's face it, you can't cure stupid and some people are just too clueless to learn a lesson when it is in their face, but the restaurant business offers a great learning ground which will prepare you well for wherever your life takes you.

I highly recommend it.


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