Insights from A Restaurant Career Drop-Out

This year I made the difficult decision to leave the kitchen for good, and unfortunately, I’m not alone. I’ve worked in the service industry for over ten years. Both of my parents are chefs, so food and restaurants have always played a major role in my life. But, the pandemic has encouraged many restaurant jockeys like myself to strive towards different careers that have better security, benefits, and healthier work environments.

Working in the service industry does have many benefits – flexible hours, the opportunity to consort with diverse people, and of course a plethora of free food. Unfortunately, the positives are overshadowed by negatives – low wages, inconsistent work schedules, dealing with complaining clientele, and the danger of developing unhealthy habits. The pandemic forced us all to step back from our restaurant jobs and we collectively reassessed the entire industry.

Despite this reassessment, what we’ve seen clearly over the past year is that there are still those like my parents who find joy and fulfillment in that line of work, regardless of the negative aspects of a career in restaurants. And, let’s face it, we’re always going to need those brave souls who work hard to keep our bellies and glasses full.

So what can be done to improve the quality of life for those who truly enjoy feeding others and distributing libations?

For starters, we need to stop making those working in the industry seem like second-class citizens. Some even choose not to acknowledge their jobs as an actual career, which I feel is helping to fuel the mass exodus out of the industry.

When I worked as a manager, a large portion of my staff viewed their job as just that; a job, not a career. I’ve observed that a majority of that mindset comes from social standards. The idea that working as a chef, bartender, or waiter is a dead end job, or a stepping stone to something better.

People who just eat in restaurants and don’t work in them tend to forget that our jobs require serious skills and a great deal of training. This needs to be acknowledged, and our roles respected as viable career paths.

When I was in college, I worked a variety of restaurant jobs to pay the bills. No one wanted to hire a twenty year old with limited experience pursuing a theatre degree, so I was obligated to take anything I could find. On more than one occasion, I was paid under the table and less than minimum wage. It goes without saying that none of these places had an HR department.

In my hospitality career I’ve been fortunate to also work for corporate restaurant groups that offer health benefits, pay above minimum wage, and offer growth within the company. Unfortunately, it’s common to come across the same toxic work environment that I repeatedly experienced. This isn’t a service industry specific problem, but it does occur a lot more in that community and isn’t called out as often as it should be. Maybe because there is no HR Department?

People starting out in hospitality need to be aware that there are resources available to them to report such abuse, even if there’s no HR. There’s no excuse for anyone in any line of work to accept being treated poorly because they need the money.

I currently reside in Oregon which has a variety of different resources where you can report mistreatment and abuse. The best one that I found is called BOLI (Bureau of Labor and Industries), they cover a variety of workplace violations and get back to you fairly quickly. The abuse of undocumented workers can be especially vile, so I strongly advise also reaching out to OIR (Oregon Immigration Resource).

If you don’t live in Oregon, to find labor resources in your state contact your local Chamber of Commerce. Never be afraid to improve your work environment especially when we live in a society that refuses to pay the vast majority a livable wage.

To quote the poet John Lydgate, “you can please some of the people all the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all the time.” This rings true for most professions, but seems to resonate especially strong in the service realm. I’ve experienced situations from customers yelling about having to bypass an option to tip on a credit card machine, to someone writing a scathing online review because we ran out of black linen napkins and only had white ones.

I get it, you expect a certain level of service when you spend money on food and drinks, but that never gives you the right to treat someone like dirt who’s trying to help you. I don’t know why some people find it necessary to behave in such a manner towards another human being. I wish I had a better solution to this problem than to just ask everyone to treat each other with decency.

There are some basic things that I feel can equate to helping workers in the service industry thrive. Pay employees a liveable wage, acknowledge the legitimacy and the importance of the work, and treat them with respect.

It’s a bittersweet experience for me, saying goodbye to the environment that I was raised in. It’s easy to reflect back on the bad experiences that goaded me into leaving my career in the industry. I’m choosing to use the amazing skills that I learned and apply them to my next venture. I’m taking the sense of community that I acquired working side by side with so many like-minded individuals into my everyday life.

I would like to encourage anyone and everyone who enters a restaurant, bar, coffee shop, etc to keep one thing in mind: respect the people who are working there. They’ve chosen to work in a field which many find undesirable. When I explain what I do for a living I always get the same question: “What do you really want to do?”

What do I really want to do? I want to be happy. I want to make a living. I want to be able to do my job, make money, and not have others look down on me for it. In a broader sense, let’s stop asking that question all together when someone tells you how they put food on the table.

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