The Bad and The Ugly

I once made a post about the downfalls of being sick while working in the service industry. Now I’d like to expand on that and talk about all the little things that can make serving a living hell. I’m aware that every job comes with it’s own set of bullsh*t, headaches, and frustration. But the restaurant business is unique in a lot of ways that I don’t think many people understand.

Finance

Being a server means you’re never going to have a steady income. When you literally rely on the kindness of strangers to make your rent, you’re always going to be a little on edge about your finances. If you find a good place, there are nights when you’re going to go home with upwards of $200 in your pocket. A good week could mean that you can pay all your bills, buy a whole new winter wardrobe, go out to eat several times, buy groceries, and afford all the cigarettes you need.

Conversely, a bad week could find you eating only at work, buying Pall Malls instead of Spirits, and having to borrow money to afford a roof over your head. I won’t even mention medical bills and any loans you might have to pay off. You learn to just expect things will go into collection. And you never know which kind of week you’re going to get. Even if you’re good at saving money (which I wouldn’t pretend to be under threat of death), you might just have to clear out your savings to afford to live.

Social Life

Working in a restaurant means you’re never going to have the same schedule as anyone else. If your friend works a 9-5, the only way you’re going to see them is if they come in for a drink and you serve them. If your parents need help on a certain day, and you haven’t requested it off, chances are you won’t be able to assist them. Vacations? Forget it. Spontaneous roadtrips? Not if you want to keep your job. You forget that weekends are meant for relaxing.

And chances are, even if you manage to make plans with someone, it’s going to be after work. And what do most servers want to do after work? De-stress to the max. For me, this means Netflix, couch, hot tea, and no human contact. After a long day of pretending I like people, I don’t have it in me to actually like anyone. (This might just be my issue as an introvert, but I think others can relate).

This also makes relationships difficult to manage. I’m lucky in that when I met my boyfriend, he and I worked in the same place and had similar schedules. We could see each other at work, we could go home together, and head back in the morning. I think a big part of why so many people in the service industry end up dating the people they work with is because their partners GET IT. Not to mention, you just don’t have time to go out and meet someone else. Yeah, you might be able to head to the bar after your shift but the people you meet there are less than desirable for long-term companionship.

Physical Health

If you’re a server, you’re on your feet all the goddamn time. Sitting happens on the toilet, and it’s usually a rushed experience. So you’ll be hard pressed to meet a server without back problems (or leg, muscle, joint problems). Even I, at my tender young age, feel like I’m 115 years old after a long week.

You’re also constantly at risk of exposure to injury or illness. Sick people come in, and you have to clear their plates and glasses. You might slice a finger. You might be carrying four burning hot plates at once, and plate burn is no joke. I have scars from three years ago all over my arms. And then there’s the heavy lifting. Have you ever tried carrying three ice buckets up a flight of stairs? It’s not easy, and more often than not, it’s painful. This circles back to the back. My spine is probably missing a couple vertebrae at this point.

Mental Health

Serving takes a huge emotional toll.

Coping Methods

And here’s where it gets kind of serious. I’ve found that most people who work in the service industry will have some kind of addiction. Nicotine is most common, and I know I wouldn’t smoke nearly as much as I do if I didn’t have a serving job, but that’s not nearly the worst of it. It can be really easy to start de-stressing with a drink after work, and it can become such a habit that soon you find you can’t do without it. There is a similar story with other depressants. Or you might try a stimulant one day because you’re just so exhausted that you feel like you might die. And do it again the next day, and the next.  (Disclaimer: I am not personally addicted to anything besides cigarettes and coffee, but I know enough and have seen enough to be able to put myself in the shoes of a service industry addict.)

There are benefits to working in a restaurant (look forward to a companion post!), but oftentimes they are overshadowed by the exhaustion of being broke, sick, tired and emotionally drained. It’s not an easy job, and anyone who thinks it is hasn’t done it.

Your Empty Shell of a Blogger,

Arina

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First Watch Cafe: Rockville, Maryland

I was on the road this week, yet another of my family’s frequent trips to Washington D.C, and I figured there was no reason to cease and desist the great blog progress. Manifest destiny, etc. (Disclaimer: this blog does not support the views of Andrew Jackson and his cronies.)  Hence, my first solo review.

A quick Google search led our family to the First Watch Cafe in Rockville, Maryland. This is a chain, which your reviewers generally steer clear of, but I had little choice in the matter. Near as I can tell, the place focuses on breakfast, giant pots of coffee for the table, and a lack of brand consistency (you can take the girl out of graphic design…)

When we arrived, the place was already crackling with the raw terrifying energy of a breakfast rush. No host or “seat yourself” sign greeted us at the door, which has nearly the same effect on a restaurant patron as a concussion. Our internal GPS recalculated several times before the kindly manager came to rescue us. He quickly soothed my bristling server fur with a couple of jokes and a willingness to help us situate ourselves in a way that suited us and our resident four year old.

He left us with a smile and some menus, and that was our last instance of human contact for a good five minutes (i.e. an eternity). When someone finally showed up, it was a frazzled trainee with half a pot of coffee. He mumbled his name, fumbled for his book, and bumbled taking our order. His ignorance of the menu sank my heart into the depths of the Atlantic, and his lack of focus would surely have redirected a ship on auto-pilot into a cliff.

We weren’t off to a good start. A fresh pot of coffee and our other drinks not only took overly long to show up, our server delivered them with all the grace of an untrained beluga. I love being proven wrong, however, and I was not disappointed. Shortly thereafter, our server quickly dropped off a fresh pitcher of water and pre-meditated syrup.

There was a lull in action afterwards, which gave me an opportunity to observe the rest of the restaurant. The place was obviously going through a round of training, I noticed several servers giving pro tips to their trainees regarding pre-bussing and such. As previously mentioned, the place was hopping, but from what I could see not a single server was in the weeds and there were no dissatisfied customers.

Our food arrived within fifteen to twenty minutes, which is  an understandable ticket-time based on the number of people filling the relatively small space. Our server had not yet mastered the art of balancing several plates in his hands, but placed the correct food in front of the correct person. My breakfast took longer to show itself, but was hand-delivered by the manager, with a reassurance that my request to add mushrooms had been fulfilled. He also noticed our empty coffee pot (which I’d strategically moved to the edge of the table) and must have passed on the information to our server, for we received fresh coffee soon thereafter.

The rest of the meal passed relatively uneventfully, with a reasonably timed check-in from our server. He was obviously busy elsewhere, though, for although he grabbed one of the empty plates on our table he ceased showing his face until everyone had been finished for several minutes. He delivered our check promptly upon request, but I’d advise him to keep his checks better organized to avoid rifling through a mess of wrinkled papers for a good minute. A check drop-off must be like our favorite kind of flatulence, silent but deadly. Once again, the manager proved himself my favorite employee, for he was pleasant and humorous while cashing me out at the register.

The experience was not mind-blowing but fairly pleasant. With a little bit of confidence, our frazzled trainee has the makings of a fine server. The management and senior employees obviously care about the comfort of their customers, which is always nice to see. I’d love to see how everyone functions at a slower pace, but there’s no better time to judge a staff than in the middle of a rush.

If you’re ever in Rockville and looking for a good breakfast, First Watch wouldn’t be the worst choice you could make.

AutoGrat 2 : This Time It’s Personal

Guess who’s back…….back again…..Shady isn’t back, but your two favorite service industry bloggers are!
That’s right, folks, we’ve decided it’s time to bring AutoGrat out of hiatus. Not only that, but we’ve brainstormed and come up with all new ways to bring you your weekly dose of server antics.
What does this mean for the future of AutoGrat? Well, for starters, we’re going to be more consistent with output, as well as expanding the scope of our blog.
To get a little more specific, we will be continuing our service reviews, but we’re going to be placing a little less emphasis on those – they get expensive and our schedules don’t always allow for a night out together. To fill the space, we’re going to be offering an inside view into establishments in the area with management and owners that we think are worthy of your financial support. We’ll be gathering information from fellow workers to get the scoop on the best and worst bosses around, as well as businesses that are supportive of both the environment and the local economy. On a similar note, we’ve decided it would be fun to take a deeper look into some of Ann Arbor’s ‘staples’ and explore their stories from past to present.
Among these new ventures we’re exploring, we plan to pepper our blog with content aimed directly at our fellow servers – from job listings in the area to our picks of the best server-related articles and posts we’ve stumbled across. In addition, we’re looking for guest writers to feature on our blog, so if you’re interested get in touch with us about getting involved. Our contact information is available below (as well as on the ‘Contact Us’ page), so feel free to use it to submit your ideas or any opinions, suggestions, etc.
Along with the new service industry related content, we both feel that this blog is an excellent outlet for getting a little more personal with our writing, so look forward to really getting to know your servers!
We hope our return post has whet your appetite, because the meal before you promises to be a filling one.
Recrudescently yours,
Arina & Tucker
autogratblog@gmail.com

What Crepe, Je T’Aime

This past Sunday I lost one of the most important aspects of my life. The restaurant that I worked at closed without warning. The news came at the end of a soul-crushing shift and several months of non-stop work weeks liberally sprinkled with hive inducing stress. Three days later, I’m still in a state of shock and wandering through my days as if through a field of fog.

You’d think that the end of such a mentally and emotionally exhausting experience would come with a sense of relief, be a breath of fresh air, etcetera etcetera. What no one, besides my now ex-coworkers, seems to understand is that I have lost an incredible community, even a family.

There are no words to describe the connection that my coworkers and I had and hopefully continue to have. Back of house, front of house, management, even ownership; we all banded together in a safe, supportive haven. The love that I have for each and every person is monumental.

My manager was (is) my mentor, my role model, even one of my best friends. The number of times that he was there for me, the support he provided to me, the things he’s taught me, the books he’s introduced me to: I can never ever be grateful enough for these things. I have never met a more selfless, ridiculous, adorable person. This is a man who has seen and done so much, has experienced so much hardship in his life; yet continues to be full of cheer and a thirst for knowledge, continues to help everyone he meets, continues to give of himself so much that sometimes I’m concerned he’ll give himself away completely. I am forever thankful that I met him, and I hope against all hope that we will stay friends for the rest of our lives.

All of the servers, hosts and SAs I’ve worked with this past year: you’re all incredible as is the kindness and patience and humour that you’ve all shown me and the company. May you all find your calling, may you all be successful and happy: I wish you only the best for the rest of your lives. You all deserve it. I love you all so dearly and I already miss your daily company.

Although I respect all the owners, I can truly say I love only one. I shan’t name names, but if you see this post you know who you are. You took in so many broken people and gave so much for our comfort and security, I can never be resentful that you left shortly before we closed. Fingers crossed that we’ll work together again someday, and if not, that wherever you find yourself you will be prosperous and satisfied.

All of my kitchen staff. God. I will never have that much fun working with a back of house staff again. Never again will I wander into a kitchen and feel so comfortable. I regret deeply that you seemed to get the short end of the stick so often, the amount of work and effort you put into taking care of us and our customers didn’t ever deserve to be repaid with such disrespect and disregard. We may have had our differences, but at the end of the day you were the engine in the car that we all loved and couldn’t bear to give up. I love you all, thank you for putting up with everything. I’ll miss the group smoke breaks.

The fact that I met my boyfriend at work deserves special mention. The fact that everyone from the top tier to the bottom was so supportive and accepting of our relationship deserves special mention. I don’t recommend shitting where you eat (my father’s wise words) but it worked out pretty well for us, I think. There were some awful times, there were some awkward times, but nothing beats having someone at work who will comfort you in times of stress with a hug and a kiss and a stupid joke.

Despite everything, despite all of the complaining that we did, and all the times we hated each other and hated our job, the people that I’ve met at What Crepe will always hold a special place in my heart. I can’t imagine finding a new job and not working with any of my wonderful staff again. But everything ends. It’s time to move on. Let’s stay in touch kids.

I love you.
Arina.

Just Sick About The Whole Thing

I’ve recently been sick, hence the lack of posts by yours truly. My illness, while exhausting and completely gross, did however make nice subject matter for this post. One of the most frustrating things about working in the service industry is that you have to be physically present to make money. There’s nothing I’m more jealous of than paid sick days and paid vacation time.

When your income relies on daily take-home cash, more than one day out of commission can be incredibly crippling. This is why you’ll often find your server with a case of the sniffles or surreptitiously coughing into their elbow as they bring you your coffee. We don’t like being there when we’re sick, only in very special cases is it rewarding to sneeze in the general vicinity of a customer’s food. Not to mention trying to keep yourself bouncing around from table to table with a smile on your face is a million times more difficult when you feel like your brain is wrapped up in cotton. Unfortunately, your measly 10% tips make up a vast portion of our rent so in we trudge, armed with painkillers and Mu***ex.

I’m lucky enough to work for and with people that are very understanding and would much rather you felt better than showed up to work dripping with snot. But we’ve all heard horror stories of people getting fired for being sick for a couple of days. There’s a surplus of people wanting your job, if you’re not there to perform it why bother keeping you around? And there’s always environments where your coworkers cherish their days off far too much to cover for you.

When I went from being a full-time student to being a full-time server this change in attitude toward being sick was a little disorienting. Never before in my life did I dread getting sick. And of course, as a nice little taunt from fate, never before in my life have I gotten sick so often (although that may have something to do with the fact that I’m young, dumb and full of…well…point is I don’t take care of myself very well yet.) When you’re working on a final project and you need a work day, you can fake being sick. When you’re on the verge of giving up the ghost, you need to go into work because you have to pay the water bill this month.

The other problem is that if you’re a server, your work probably doesn’t offer health insurance. Unless you’re a young ‘un like me and your parents still have you on their plan, chances are you’ll have to pay exorbitant fees for medical services (there’s a can of worms Arina doesn’t need to get into, health insurance and attitudes toward illness in this country.) Which sets you back on your money situation even further.

This is getting a bit repetitive. Suffice to say that illness and working in a restaurant are not the world’s best couple. If you’re a new server and haven’t had to deal with this yet here’s a few quick tips:

  • If you feel yourself getting sick, immediately shut down your social life and go to bed early
  • Fluids are your best friend
  • Make sure you have the phone number of everyone you work with, get your shift covered as far in advance as you can
  • Don’t take pain killers on an empty stomach and switch out your coffee for tea
  • Don’t get sick if possible

Very basic stuff, probably not very helpful, but there it is. Essentially, the job where you’re exposed to a million germs a day is the same one you can’t not go to if those germs start taking over your weak little body. If you have awesome coworkers like I do, they’ll bring you soup and send you nice texts with kissy face emojis. That’s pretty much the only upside to being a sick server.

Thanks for bearing with me,
Arina

A Lesson in Virtue

This isn’t a majorly salty rant. It’s more of a quiet “ugh.”  But this week’s griping is brought to you by the people who just can’t wait. I understand that when you go out to a restaurant, you expect to be served and greeted promptly. And Lord knows, in our reviews we focus on greeting times and serving times to an excess. But sometimes, and this is something Tucker and I both understand, it’s just not possible for a server to get to a table in a timely fashion.

When you go out to eat on a weekday, there’s a good chance that there will be only one server on the floor. This is just a fact of the industry. Weekdays are not generally a busy time and having more than one server on is just a waste of money for the restaurant and cuts down on tips for the servers. Generally, this works out okay for everyone.

Sometimes, however, the gods look down upon us and feel like having a little fun. Those are the days when several tables come in at once, and somehow they’re made up entirely of the most impatient human beings ever to walk this Earth. They all have to get to the airport (which, by the way, is ridiculous. If you have somewhere to be please do not go out to eat at a sit-down restaurant, you’re setting yourself up for failure) or are on a lunch break or are the VIPs of their own minds.

In cases like this, do not doubt that your server has seen you and acknowledged your presence and is trying their damnedest to scoot their poot over to you. But if you take a look around you’ll notice that there are several tables already sitting down, there’s food in the window, and your server is running to the computer with eight books under their arm. Once your server does get over to you, snide comments about how you’ve been waiting for someone to get around to you are only gonna piss them off and the chances of you getting top notch service will drop. Just keep that in mind.

The thing is, even with fantastic supporting staff like hosts and bussers, a server is one human being. Being a server does not give you three extra arms and the ability to move faster than the speed of lighting (roar of thunder). Just as I’m sure you’ve felt overwhelmed when you have three projects dropped in your lap at once, or when all four of your kids need to be taken to separate soccer practices in different parts of town, our brains get overloaded when it’s busy.

Personally, I get really stressed out when I can’t attend to a table on time. I want my customers to have a really good experience no matter the circumstances. And when I apologize profusely for making you wait, I mean it. I take pride in my work and doing it well. But sometimes it’s out of my control, the only way I can make up your wait to you is by saying “I’m sorry”. Please don’t attack me and make me feel like shit about holding you up. I already feel like shit about it.

Quick shout out to the people that understand though. You don’t understand how much of a relief it is when you trot over to a table breathlessly excusing yourself and receive a smile and a quiet “don’t worry, you’re busy, I understand.” Props to those human beings. Karma has your back.

In conclusion, I guess I just want to say patience really is a virtue. When it’s busy I want to be at your table but I just can’t be. Please understand that and don’t take it out on me. I’m a mushy little human with feelings and you’re hurting them and that sucks.

Much love,

Arina

Old Town

For our most recent review we decided to visit Old Town on Liberty. We were glad to finally receive service worthy of the awesome feedback we’ve been waiting to give. So, without further ado, let’s see what it takes to impress a sassy server(Arina insists I take full claim for this term – Tucker).

The sign inside the door said ‘seat yourself,’ which tends to make us cringe. Luckily for us, the server greeted us not only quickly, but casually and cheerfully. Waters weren’t presented right away, but she made sure to ask us what we’d like to drink right off the bat. Information about the soup of the day was delivered with a side of playful banter, and our server made sure to let us know that one of the soups was only available for a limited time. Of course, that piqued Tucker’s interest and he just had to order it.

As we were ordering our meal, our server proved that she knew the menu inside and out. She provided helpful recommendations, and Arina only got bacon on her sandwich because the server mentioned it. Now that’s salesmanship. After ordering, Arina left the table in favor of an attractive male outside, leaving Tucker to ponder the universe. Noticing that he was alone, the server spent a little extra time conversing and joking with him until the bell beckoned her to the kitchen. The food arrived before Arina even had the chance to charm the pants off her anonymous companion. The server made sure to ask if Tucker needed any kind of sauce with his sandwich before leaving him to wait for Arina. In a display of her prowess, the server dropped off another table’s order as she returned with the requested mayonnaise.

Arina returned victorious, and we dug into our food. It was absolutely divine, and although our server made no move to ask us about it she kept a watchful eye on our table. Halfway through our meal she came over, armed with a disarmingly funny comment about Tucker’s phone case. This set off another round of pleasant banter, further cementing our appreciation. As she left we asked for boxes, and it felt less like we were making a request of our server and more like we were confiding in a friend that we were just too full.

Although we hadn’t asked for the check, it arrived with the boxes. In a different situation, this preemptive strike would have disappointed us. Here though, the bill was split and in the company of an urge that there was no rush. Another nice touch was the “Thank you!” written at the top of our bills. Almost giddy with the prospect of writing a good review, we quickly handed her back our payment. She accepted our refusal for change with heartfelt gratitude, and left us with an encouraging ‘see you soon.’

Dining out is a luxury, and as such should be an experience worth the money you’re spending. While that can be filled by any run of the mill server, a great server can do more. Great service can lift your spirit so much, and that’s what we strive to provide as servers and expect to receive as customers. Our experience at Old Town did just that. Our server never once made us feel like a customer, but instead made us feel like a friend. She did her job efficiently and with talent, yet it never looked or felt like she was working. We have already paid them a second visit since our first investigation and we plan on returning. If you haven’t already, stop in and enjoy an amazing time.