In the weeds: confessions of a restaurant veteran

For the last 12 years or so, I’ve worked in a very corporate setting. I work at a computer for most of the day, I have meetings with colleagues across the globe, I write a LOT of emails. I say things like “let me circle back with you on that” and “let’s parking lot that one and take it offline” and “I’m working on the deck for the ELT panel at the quarterly global WAM town hall in Boston, do you have the Q2 results?”

I wear blazers, guys.

I can wear nail polish and do my hair however I want. I have a work phone (that I try not to look at too much) and I have learned an incredible amount about life insurance, wealth and asset management and all kinds of other finance-y things that I never, in a million years, imagined that I would ever know. Sometimes I feel like Alice, having fallen through the hole, and I don’t quite belong in this world. And then sometimes, I feel like I am exactly where I am meant to be.

Perhaps what is not well known about me, is that before this chapter in my life, I lived in a wholly different world. I was brought up in the restaurant industry. A monolith of the rule of baptism by fire. It’s not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned.

It’s where I “cut my teeth,” where I became a real person. It’s where I fell in love (a couple of times), fell out of love, got hurt (emotionally and physically – hello concussion!) and worked harder than I ever have in my life. It’s where I learned about classism and racism in real life, how to manage people and time. It’s where I learned how to be a leader, it’s where I tested my math skills daily,it’s where I developed the most impressive memory, and persevered through whatever was going on in my life to still be the exuberant, ray of sunshine that I had built my reputation upon.

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I was in my second year of university and I needed a job – bad. It was just me and OSAP funding my education, and I had rent and bills to pay, tuition to cover and books to buy. So, I applied to the Pizza Hut near my school and was thrilled (and relieved) when I got the job.

This was a full dine-in restaurant. This was exciting to me and I loved it immediately. I started in the kitchen, as all the newbies do. I hated the dorky uniforms, and that I had to wear a hat. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever worn a hat/cap in any other instance in my life. I look ridiculous in hats. And, ugh, and there were hairnets. It wasn’t exactly high fashion.

I became instant friends with a group of guys who were a bit older than me, and definitely the “cool kids.” I spent most of my shifts laughing and joking and quoting movies and making lame pizza jokes. And then we’d all go out for drinks after work. It was awesome.

And then, when management was duly impressed with me, and I was deemed worthy, I got the golden ticket, I got sent up to “the show.” I was going to train to be a server. Everyone wanted to serve. We were a busy location, being near two universities and central in the city, so there was potential to make some major moola. Especially for a starving student like me 😊

As if it was even a question, ( how dare you question my aptitude, lol), of course I was a natural! I remember back when I started, our server uniforms included a short sleeved button-down shirt (white or blue), with a tie. I LOVED wearing that damn tie. I couldn’t tie them though (still don’t have a clue how to do it), so I got my brother to pre-tie a few for me and I just kept them on a hook in my closet and slipped them over my head. I have to say, I was pretty frickin’ adorable.

I’m naturally outgoing, charming, smiley, pleasant, smart and quick on my feet and all the things you need to be to be a good server, so it was like slipping on a glass slipper.

Don’t get me wrong, my patience was tested regularly. The general population (at least the ones who ate at our restaurant) can be pretty awful. I remember my District Manager once told me that the customer is, in fact, not always right, but they are always the customer. That little nugget of advice has stuck with me all these years. I have since incorporated it into every interview, every training session, every employee orientation I’ve ever conducted. Thanks, B.

The best memories of that time for me, were Friday and Saturday nights. I got to see almost everyone, because, of course, it was busy, and all my peeps would be working. I loved when we were really busy, and the whole place was just buzzing. I loved looking at the split for the night, to see which section mine was and getting into the zone.

Everyone was usually a little amped up, ready for the onslaught about to come. We would get in a groove, moving around the floor like fish darting around an aquarium, passing each other at speeds that were just short of running, but never banging into one another, and flashing smiles or winks about inside jokes. We usually had the music going loud, and I was definitely known to sing along as I was working. It’s the occupational hazard of being a singer, I guess?

And, inevitably, one (or more) of us would get in the weeds and our other server buddies or sometimes a manager would jump in, running food, pre-bussing our tables, grabbing refills, and generally helping so that we wouldn’t drown. I loved that feeling of all hands-on deck.

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I hated when I had to change the kegs. They were SO heavy, and I am a tiny person, even more so back then. I always struggled with those damn things, invariably spraying beer all over myself and/or dropping the thing on my foot. I have broken a plate or two, I have slipped and fallen on my ass carrying a tray of something. I have scaled shelves in the server’s area to reach whatever it was that I needed. I have forgotten to ring in an order (that’s a classic), and masterfully covered up my mistake by telling the table some fib or another with my big, square smile and a bat of my eyelashes, offering them free garlic bread. It worked every time.

I have burned myself on hot pizza pans, whacked myself on various corners of various surfaces. And the concussion I mentioned before? That was when a giant colander fell onto my head when I was bent over one of the sinks in the dish pit, with my whole body practically in the sink. I’m telling you, restaurant kitchens are not made for small people.

I loved those shifts when everything was just in a rhythm, we hit all the beats and we were in the trenches together. We had fun, we made money, we helped each other out. I remember some epic laughing fits happening in that server’s area. I met great people, some of them destined to be a flash that I barely remember, and some who have become lifelong friends.

Like I mentioned, I did have a couple of loves during my tenure with the Pizza Slut (as we affectionately called it). Let me break down the pros and cons of working in a restaurant with your boyfriend:

Pros

  • You get to see them a lot
  • You have all the same friends, so it makes making social plans so much more valuable.
  • You have a shorthand when talking about work and your partner knows exactly what you’re talking about when you tell them about your day
  • The long, lingering glances that make everyone jealous
  • The stolen kisses and butt-pinches in the walk-in
  • When you’re on the phone with a customer, and he stands really close behind you and tickles the nape of your neck because he knows it drives you crazy and you must concentrate really hard on what you’re doing, lest you melt into a puddle – exhilarating!

Cons

  • You see them a lot
  • They can be jealous of all the young boys who have crushes on you
  • The moment when you and your guy are standing really close together, flirting so hard, you’ve practically set the place on fire, and you look up to see his girlfriend (who he had assured you he had broken up with) sitting on the bench in the takeout area staring daggers at you, probably plotting your death
  • When you find out your boyfriend of three years who just broke up with you because he felt you “were going in different directions” is actually a cheating, lying liar who has been sleeping with the (opposite of you in every way) girl who you personally interviewed and hired. AND oh by the way, he’s been cheating on you for almost the whole relationship, with other, different women; then he’s a total c-nt to you and you start to question everything about your life, and you have to continue to work with him, which is awful and eventually all your shared friends sort of take sides, and suddenly the little teenage boys who for some reason, have allegiance to your slimy ex, are scratching your name out on the schedule and writing “Bitch” and accusing you of shorting the till $50

Fun times!

But, honestly, painful break-ups aside, those were some of the best years of my life. I was in my twenties, I was young and hot, and had the world at my feet. I look back now at the crazy-long hours I worked, the ridiculous split shifts, the shifts I picked up for people, pushing me into overtime almost every week, the times when I would have naps between my shifts in the back office, curled up on a couple of delivery bags. I think about the aching feet, the sweaty, sweaty summers in a 1000 degree kitchen, the cold winters when the heat wouldn’t work, the difficult customers, the friends coming and going, and even the gossip, and I see it all through a really fond lens. Honestly.

The things I remember with such fondness from those years, in all the various PH locations I worked in, is the people. The laughter. The feeling of belonging and the things I learned about running a restaurant – I eventually moved into salaried management – but also about myself and the world.

Those were my formative years, and my years in the restaurant industry certainly helped form me. I liken it to what summer camp feels like, or, I imagine, a movie or TV set – you know that this experience is for a finite period of time, but you’re in a bubble, and people on the outside have no idea what your collective experience is. It creates a bond only those involved can understand.

During those years, I loved and lost, I got to work with my brother, and as a result, we now have shared memories and that familiar shorthand when we reminisce. I pushed myself to my physical (and sometimes emotional) limits and I internalized what it means to work hard, to be flexible, to perform under pressure, and how to make pizza dough 😊

So, if you’re ever out for dinner with me, and you look at me strangely when I unconsciously start pre-bussing the table for the server, or when I make sure to chit-chat with them and give them a smile that says that I know they’re doing their best at a really difficult job and when I inevitably over-tip, now you know why.

It’s because restaurant vets recognize one another out in the world. We’ve been in the trenches together, even if we haven’t been the same trenches. We have an unspoken understanding of what servers’ days are really like and what’s really going on back there in the kitchen and the server’s area.

And we will do whatever we can to keep them out of the weeds. It’s the least we can do.

Dear survivor

Dear Survivor,

I’m so glad you made it. I’m happy that you found the strength and fortitude to work your way out of the depths. You’re so courageous. Courage, after all, is not the absence of fear, it’s being afraid and doing it anyway. And you’re doing it.

I see that you’ve been suffering for so long. I can see it in the way I catch you staring off into space sometimes with a thoughtful look when you’re with a crowd of laughing people. I can see it in the moments of vulnerability that you only show to me, like when you’re almost asleep, and in your sheepish, child-like voice, ask me to stay, or to sing to you.

I know the pain you’ve been trapped in. And I also know how long you’ve buried that pain and all the years you’ve been pushing it down, and pushing it down, further and further, until it formed a solid, little rock at the very bottom of your heart. I know about the nights when you sit alone on your couch, thinking about the things that have happened to you and the things you’ve done. I see the shame in your eyes when something is said in a conversation, innocuous to most, but it pierces you like an ice cube on an exposed nerve.

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I know the sleeplessness that haunts you when all you want to do is sleep – because when you’re sleeping, you can’t think, you can’t feel, you can’t regret, and you can’t disappoint. I know.

I recognize the self-destructive behavior that you’re carrying out in an attempt to punish yourself. And I know you know intellectually, you didn’t do anything wrong, but somewhere along the way, you lost yourself. You don’t know when exactly it started, but over time, you started to believe the lies your mind had been whispering to you. You internalized the lie about not being worthy…of love, of grace, of good things, of success, of the friends and family you have in your life, of the opportunities you’ve been given.

I know all about the nights you spend drinking by yourself, or starving yourself, or getting high, or harming your body, of setting yourself up for heartbreak or humiliation, of sabotaging yourself in one way or another, because you want your physical body to feel the pain that is debilitating you from the inside.

I’ve seen you looking through old pictures of better times with a sad nostalgia, thinking about who you were then, and wondering if the demons have always been there, but just dormant. You wonder if there was anything you could have done back then to prevent what’s happening now. I know that feeling of wanting to crawl out of your skin and just become someone else, because anything would be better than being you right now.

I too have fantasized about what the world would be like if I wasn’t in it. The moment when you’re driving fast around a bend, and the split second you think, what would happen if I just let go of the wheel and drove off the road into the depths below. The times when you’ve been walking down the street and thought, what if I stepped out in front of that bus, or the nights when you go to bed, and hope that you won’t wake up. I too have let my mind wander and play out the scenario of removing myself from the world – would my loved ones be happier? Would the world be a better place? Or what if I was never in this world in the first place? Would that be better?

But, dear survivor, as lonely and alone as you have felt, I’ve felt it too. And so have many others. And really, don’t you think that maybe every human, to some degree, can relate? I know the that the things that happened to you were dark and insidious, but here you are. You’re still here. That means something.

And now I see you fighting, I see you picking up the baton in the relay race with yourself for this next leg. I can see the bravery and courage that has taken everything in you to muster to get to this point. You are already a survivor – but you want to thrive, and that makes me so happy. Because you will, and you deserve to, and the people who love you want you to. That’s the other thing – people do love you. I know that’s hard to believe right now, but it’s true. Some of them protect their own feelings by being angry with you, or brushing you off, or cutting you out, but the love is still there. Trust me.

Try to look out for the ones who express their love for you without condition though. That’s the energy you need right now. You know that no one can fix you except you, but I can tell you from experience, it sure does make a difference if you surround yourself with people who can love and support you transparently, without strings, without amplifying your shame, and without making you feel like you’re less than. Because you’re not.

Survivor, whatever it is that you have survived, as awful and painful and messed up as it is, it is a part of you, a part of your story. The challenge now, is to make sense of it all, and ultimately, gain strength from it. I know that sounds impossible, but you can do it, I believe in you. You’ve got this.

From one survivor to another, I’ve got you.

I’ve got you, and I’m not letting go.

Love,

Ange