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Photo: Cheeses.

Mary Jo Hoffman, Special to the Star Tribune

Don't judge my service industry career

  • Article by: Benjamin Roberts
  • May 20, 2013 - 8:32 PM

We’re in the midst of graduation season in Minnesota. With the metro area’s concentration of world-class universities and colleges, parents from all over the country and the world are attending their children’s graduation ceremonies. Once the relief of not having to fork over one more tuition bill wears off, the dread of “what’s next?” will set in.

This past weekend was Macalester College’s commencement. I run a small cheese shop nearby that caters to the neighborhood as well as to Macalester students and staff. We have an artfully constructed tip jar perched precariously on our register for any customer who feels inclined to drop in a buck. A parent of a recent graduate threw money in this jar, looked at one of my twenty-something employees and said: “For the graduate school fund.”

The presumption made about those in the service industry is that we are in a “real career” waiting room. I’ve had customers remark to me about how much fun I must be having while I figure out what to do next with my life. It is surprising to most customers when I tell them that this is the profession I have chosen.

We have been fortunate enough to employ some of the most energetic, creative and hardworking young adults I have encountered. True, several of our employees have come to us directly out of school because they needed to work and weren’t sure which direction to go next. However, some of these recent graduates have gone on to work in our shops for several years as they accumulated increasing responsibilities.

Before my role as cheesemonger-in-chief of two cheese shops, I was an employee of a hedge fund as well as working at a little company called AIG. In this corporate setting, I worked with some fantastic managers who helped hone my skills. I was surrounded by some brilliant people and some not-so-brilliant people. Some of my coworkers were industrious; others were lazy. Not one of my coworkers at my so-called “real” jobs worked harder than any of the people who work for me in the cheese shop.

And isn’t just about the level of effort. Our employees are instrumental in the success of our business. Take one look at a website like Yelp, and you can see how bad service can sink a business. Customers may not respect those in the service industry, but they do demand constant perfection. There are bad workers in every profession, but it is those in the service industry who are singled out. You can’t go online and write a review of the data processor who forgot to send your check, but you sure can go and rant about the incompetent waitress who brought you Splenda when you clearly asked for Equal.

Many organizations claim that their success depends on their employees, and we know we are no different. The energy and enthusiasm of our employees is a wonder to me — they’re all creative, hospitable and knowledgeable. They’re problem solvers, cheese experts, dishwashers, sandwich makers, heavy lifters, graphic designers, creative copy writers, photographers, artists, child-care fill-ins, and much, much more. We all do everything together, from mopping the floors to tasting $170 bottles of balsamic vinegar. And we do it because we’re passionate about great customer service.

As our economy shifts from manufacturing jobs to service jobs, it would behoove us to pay more attention to those people who make our lattes or serve us our meals. If we place more value on these interactions, then certainly it won’t be long before we stop judging others’ career choices.

Maybe the presumptuous parent was merely projecting personal anxiety onto my employee. Perhaps it was worry that a child wouldn’t find the job of his or her dreams and would end up settling for a job as a cheesemonger. It’s hard to invest so much time, energy and money into something and not have it work out exactly as you imagine. However, it might also be time to imagine other possibilities, other outcomes, stinkier ones.

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Benjamin Roberts is cheesemonger-in-chief at St. Paul Cheese and France 44 Cheese.

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