For 10 years after college, I toiled in restaurants around the Twin Cities and then out East. It is a tale familiar to thousands of Minnesotans scraping together an income (if not a living) in tavern work and dining — one of our economy’s most celebrated if unaccountable employers.
This being a Sunday, many such workers are sleeping late as you read these words, a consolation prize of wet cash on their nightstand but few plans for the day when a new manager might come along to shuffle up the schedule, potentially vaporizing their ability to make rent.
Sore feet, inscrutable bosses and the scramble for tips have been recognized as the standard fare of waiting tables since the start of time, or at least since the creation of Joanna, the Chotchkie’s dinner house waitress, played by Jennifer Aniston, chided for wearing only the minimum amount of flair in the cult classic “Office Space.”
But the lack of worker protections has always been the real downside to the gig. This has finally gained notice, thanks to a movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as well as to the proposed city of Minneapolis “Working Families Agenda” measures.
Many of these measures are now on hold, but among the items that have been/are being considered are mandating sick pay, doing away with end-arounds on overtime law and, in a finely attuned reading of the gig, lessening some of the financial chaos of work in a widely popular industry where schedules are routinely torn up and rewritten from hour to hour.
Supporters of such regulations say these are practices that keep restaurant and other service workers in poverty. They say that if office workers can plan on a schedule and a semblance of income a month or two weeks in advance, servers should be afforded the same respect. Opponents say that restaurant owners require flexibility in staffing to handle the unpredictability of their business and protect thin margins. Some have argued the ordinance would send businesses fleeing (they forget about location, location, location).
It’s hard to say who is right here, other than to note that the restaurant industry has clearly relied on expectations about employees that effectively rule out anyone with a child, better options of any kind or an overhead greater than that of your typical 21-year-old. If restaurants can’t tolerate the same inefficiencies that accompany your typical office job, it might suggest a broken business model all along.
Whatever the outcome of reform efforts, there are other explanations for why servers have toiled under such unserious working conditions and will likely continue to do so — and they go beyond desperation.
Working in food, you come out ahead in ways that almost make up for the lack of sick pay and income security, ways that show up if there is a table to be set at Thanksgiving, a grill to be manned at a barbecue, or should you have awoken early at a stay-over with friends and happened upon a waffle iron. Stay in a restaurant long enough, and it is life on the outside that seems as if it could use a few reforms.
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I think I have earned the right to speak of this world, as I have sent a rocket of horseradish spraying all over the evening gown of a guest wearing black velvet, have poured for bankers who sat blowing cigar smoke in my face, was once asked if I was deaf or was I just stupid by a guest I could have flattened, and am pretty sure I once accidentally told a Gotti to move out of my way.
I learned about famous people. I watched a not-very-famous actor take his meals facing the wall with a scowl, and I stared as a screen legend greeted me by asking my name first, extended his hand and introduced himself as “Tony.” A child of the ’70s, I stood in awe of Tina Louise, the “movie star” who played Ginger on “Gilligan’s Island” and hadn’t aged a day.
I worked as a bartender in fine dining for most my time in the business, before the industry went casual and the job of pouring drinks became the domain of lumbersexuals, inked women, craft brewers and twee mixologists wearing sleeve garters. Bartending offered a front-row seat on a scene that has become the subject of much cultural fascination of late.
Today we lavish attention on chefs, “reality” cooking shows, food sourcing trends and, of course, restaurants. We review them, award them prizes, post selfies of our faces by tall entrees and spend hours in front of cable programming created to showcase people being scolded for messing up the sea bass.
I’m pretty sure my daughter watches a program entirely about cupcakes.
The local cultural calendar has even taken to targeting the Williams-Sonoma shopper. Recently, for instance, the Minnesota Orchestra hosted a concert set to cooking and PBS brought a food show to the Pantages, tickets priced at just $60 to $100 a person. All this time and money could be spent in the produce section at Lunds, of course, or maybe just making sure that Nana has fresh bread for her soup.
The detour that expanded my life began at a St. Paul party bar called Plums, where I carried cases of Stroh’s through crowds dancing to Chaka Khan and Don Henley. Today, your average college student knows better, preferring to work in “a job with a future.” I figured that the work dated to the story of the loaves and the fishes, so a person could hold his head high.
Unlike so many other decisions I would go on to make during my 20s, I now believe that one was wise.
Forget about scheduling: The rough road for servers begins with the transiency of the jobs. Restaurant employment is a game of musical chairs; it’s hard to stay long at any one place without drawing stares. You don’t call a surgical tech with 10 years’ service on the same floor a funny name, but a bartender who works a good job for a decade is by all means a lifer. On the bright side, this doctrine has since spread to all of employment. As the career-development experts will tell you, don’t expect to spend more than four years in any one job.
The distrust of stability led me to flee Plums after just one year, arriving at a Grand Avenue tavern called Dixie’s, where I learned to battle St. Patrick’s Day on Crocus Hill and look busy whenever the owner had arrived. I learned about blanching French fries as well, but mostly about bar awareness, a life skill that is better explained as paying attention, scanning strangers for the need in their eyes rather than waiting to be asked.
How lucky to have been taught such a skill. Not to mention multitasking, the art of talking to strangers (talk about their lives, not yours; stay when you are wanted, leave when you are in the way) and to never cut someone off if you can pretend not to see them.
And, of course, a year after that, it was off to somewhere else, this time to join the gold rush of the Minneapolis Warehouse District, where I got to learn about Spanish reds in a votive-lit bistro called Faegre’s, a fleeting moment in the march of progress for a corner that ended up with gridlock at bar time and lawmen on horses.
Back then we served French fries with béarnaise and played Bill Evans on the speakers. A literary agent kept an office upstairs and took his author lunches by the south window. The highlight of the fall season: the arrival of Nouveau Beaujolais.
During the 1990s, the Wyman Building block and points south felt charmed and bohemian. Today, the corner is occupied by a burger bar moving stadium cups of Bud Light and Day-Glo pitchers of vodka punch. If you like it, there are 19 others in eight states.
So I was lucky to precede the transformation of the Warehouse District into Bourbon Street. But more than that, I was lucky to work in the business when chefs were approachable and kind. Faegre’s marked the beginning of my walking into the kitchen when it was slow and asking the men who ordered all the food what they were doing.
It was a straightforward question, unrelated to the placing of demands, so it usually elicited a straight answer, which is unusual for a chef. The answers taught me how to make pesto, to build a sauce, to sear a breast or filet before roasting, to make oven-dried tomatoes and roasted grapes and to throw sweet against pork medallions and lemon, capers, cream and tarragon into sauce for chicken.
I learned to plate an entrée and prepare risotto — well enough that a certain date began to demand it, forcefully enough that we eventually parted ways. I learned to always use low heat; to use fewer, better ingredients; to smash garlic with the flat side of a knife; that if there was time to lean, there was time to clean, and that following dinner, attacking pans is always wiser than soaking them, which is nothing short of a bluff.
Skills like those are in the bank now. They help me feel resilient and needed and to greet the rise and fall of the latest hot restaurant with less fuss. I also believe it has improved my odds of staying out of the hospital, given the role of prepared foods in all of our ills.
Before leaving the business for good I ended up at the Parthenon of local gastronomic lore, D’Amico Cucina, though entirely by accident.
I now see that this was something like having played for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s — that seemingly every person in back during that time who wore a bandanna on his head and played British rock from the boombox would go on to make his or her mark in the local food scene.
Since I’d rather drop their names than that of the French guy who cooked at Le Benardin, here goes: Tim McKee, Greg Westcott, Isaac Becker, Nancy St. Pierre, Doug Flicker, Lisa Flicker, Stephen Larson, Jay Sparks, J.P. Samuelson, Bill Summerville and Seth Daugherty.
Trust me, right now about 1,000 people with Epicurious on their phones are geeking — or at least nodding their foodie heads in appreciation. They know that any one of these people could host one of those TV shows, except that they know better.
I thought it was a nice bunch of people, mostly, which explains how half a decade flew by in a flash. It also seems like the highest praise a person can offer a restaurant in the current era — one in which praise for food has been inflated beyond all recognition. You ran a nice kitchen. It felt like home.
After five years had passed I began regularly waking up in a state of panic. You are a bartender, I would tell myself in surprise. How did this happen?
It happened because restaurants are the best opportunity for shelter we offer to people who are drawn to help others but who are not ready to sign on for technical training. They know there is always tomorrow for expertise in tools, technology and numbers. Restaurants give you expertise in dinner.
With the passage of time, I now see how working in dining can make for a richer life. It embodies the business end of house and home, and allows a person to live within the one hour of the day that surely does more for human well-being than any other.
It seems like a field in which, if we can find a way to let people live a stable life, we ought to do that.
Paul John Scott is a writer in Rochester.