The Breakfast Bunch
“Hot plate!” someone screams, flawlessly maneuvering past me in a choking cloud of smoke. I wipe a trickle of sweat from the back of my neck and instantly regret having worn a wool turtleneck on this Friday night. The phone rings incessantly, and the hostess next to me looks to me with pleading eyes; “can you get that?”, she implores. I answer the phone but cannot seem to hear what they are saying over the hustle and bustle of the restaurant. A child bawls while a prodding drunk man keeps winking at me from across the room, and there’s still three hours of work to go.
Last year I took a job as a hostess, with only one goal in mind: becoming financially independent. And although that component of working is helpful, I received a lot more than I bargained for; some new qualities better than others. The job is very difficult and requires constant attention, and with the lifestyles of students becoming busier and workloads heavier as the years go by, many don’t have time for jobs outside of their extracurriculars and schoolwork. However, students who do choose to take the time to become employed, specifically in the restaurant business, are doing themselves a bigger favor than simply increasing their bank accounts, because working in the restaurant business gave me much more: an insight into adulthood and a trust in myself.
It’s the fast-paced nature of restaurants combined with the service aspect and something as enjoyable as food that set restaurants apart from other service industry jobs. Things get heated, inside and outside of the kitchen. You need to think on your feet, and you need to smile the entire time. It can be a draining job, but the things you learn and the people you meet are worth your time. And it’s important for people to learn this while they’re still young.
But because they’re young, taking on a new job can be arduous and overwhelming. When I first started, I was terrified: of the blaring phone, the agitated customers, the screaming children whose mothers grabbed their hands out of the mint box and seethed “not before dinner!”, and of my fellow employees, who were completely at ease as they threaded their way through the restaurant. And I was not alone. “In the beginning it was super stressful, it’s hard to be the bottom of the food chain starting out because you want to impress the older and more experienced employees,” said sophomore Natalie Towle, who works as a hostess at Pizza Antica.
What I realized, however, is that adapting to the restaurant environment is like doing anything for the first time, it requires patience and work. “[In the beginning] working was hard. I had never had a job before, and I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. I would forget small things like asking what type of toast a customer wanted. Or one time I dropped a waffle on the floor,” said sophomore Lily Chambers, waitress at Mama’s Royal Cafe. “I was also young so I was constantly afraid that people would point out my age. But soon I realized that the majority of our customers appreciated seeing high schoolers work.” And once I too came to this realization, I could finally pick up the phone, and although the caller on the end of the line couldn’t hear it, there was a lot more courage and growth in that “thank you for calling the Cantina, this is Celeste speaking,” than they would’ve imagined.
Although it is extremely satisfying work, it’s definitely not for everyone. I wouldn’t recommend the restaurant business to anyone who doesn’t have their schoolwork under control, as school comes first at this age, or if they are unable to take criticism or work well under pressure. When you make mistakes on the job they’re high profile and they can have an affect on many besides yourself. You get used to these things, and become very apt to handling them, however if one lacks the maturity to do so, they won’t thrive in the restaurant environment.
Adapting to a set situation is one thing, but everyone knows that it is much tougher to adapt to the unpredictable. And one thing about customers, especially the ones in Marin, is that they are definitely not foreseeable. Whether I was helping the Russian woman who had me on a 25 minute phone call about whether or not our to-go containers were biodegradable, or the man who started to cry because he had bad memories at a specific table of the restaurant, I had to maintain my composure and remain polite. After all, you learn right away that “the customer is always right”.
“It’s difficult in its own way to work in Marin, especially in Strawberry because the demographic is wealthier and sometimes really entitled. The fact that I have to stay polite and calm when dealing with them is hard, but I surprised myself by handling the situations really well,” said Towle. “I learned that there are a lot of difficult people who know what they want and how to get it. There’s a big lack of consideration in this town. I’m now know that I’m going to encounter people like this in and outside of the restaurant business, but working as a hostess has helped me understand how to interact with them in an mild-mannered way.”
Ignorant customers have become a part of my life as a hostess, and a part of anyone’s who works in the restaurant business. What is surprising is not how they act, but how I am able to respond and handle them. And everyone has their own ways of doing so. Senior Allie Simpson, hostess at the Cantina, prefers to handle each customer subjectively. “I’ve always been told to give the customer what they want within reason. I personally don’t deal well with oblivious people and I usually refer them to a more patient hostess,” Simpson said. Senior Grace Towle, hostess at Piattis, has a different approach. “I handle difficult customers by smiling and trying to figure it out,” she said. “I’ve learned not to get too frazzled over tough customers and that everything will work out. Patience is key.”
There are many positives to interacting with these customers. In addition to gaining more patience and mildness, “it’s great for interpersonal connection, builds confidence, self-esteem, you’re multitasking, thinking on your feet, you learn day to day manners; how to treat others and be aware of their needs,” said Jackie Jacobs, manager of the Cantina. “We’ve been hiring high school students since we opened in 1982, because of all of those reasons.”
Developing the skills you need to succeed in an environment that is conductive to the worst in people is not an easy task, but many of the people that you are surrounded by are in the same boat, and when you create foundational relationships with them, it’s a whole lot easier. Restaurant staffs are like siblings, constantly fighting and tinged with drama, but they can also be extremely supportive. Whether they provide some much-needed comic relief or another set of feet on a night on which you wore regrettably high boots, fellow employees and employers are important. “My boss is practically my second mom, a relationship I had never expected to find in an environment as serious as a place of work,” said senior Olivia Kallai, hostess at The Trident in Sausalito.
After working at a restaurant, even for a brief time, you’ll have a newfound respect for your fellow humans. You’ll no longer wonder why the girl at the drive through can’t manage to understand, “no cheese,” and you won’t be irritated when the new cashier doesn’t know how the cash register works. You’ll be patient, and you’ll be respectful for what it takes to learn a job that everyone thinks is no-brainer, but you know is a lot more complicated than imagined.
Just as I was finally able answer that blaring phone, I was able to make connections, make money, and learn new things about myself. “I think teens should work in restaurants because it allows them to experience the “real world” in a way, and it allows them to see that they will not be babied or treated like a kid forever, as while working in a restaurant you are immediately made aware of the fact that people don’t care how old you are, no matter whether you’re an adult or kid they expect the same thing from you,” said junior Jade Cherfils, hostess at Pizza Antica. “It’s a great connection to the community. I believe that everyone, before they go out into the world, should work in the restaurant industry,” said Jacobs.
I not only learned all of these things, but also how I wanted to and how I should be treated. “The customer is always right”, but you also need to maintain a compromise,” said Towle. “I learned that you can’t please everyone,” said Kallai, “And that’s okay.”