Muller Marginalia

Slavery with a Smile: Service Industry Horror Stories

Published: Jan 18, 2023  |  

Writer, editor, performer and self-producer

Ross Chandley’s two-part article series on the shadow world of catering (or the service industry, as we’d say State-side) gave me a case of the cold sweats. As a creative individual, I did my time as a server, lured by the flexible hours and good pay that could buoy up my finances in between auditions and writing/performance gigs. While I left that world behind a handful of years ago, it certainly hasn’t left me. I still stack my plates whenever I eat out, tip at least 20%, and wait without griping when I can tell the kitchen is slammed. Because I’ve been there. And being there fucking sucks.

As a brief acknowledgment, I will say that being front of house (FOH) as a server, hostess, or bartender is vastly different from back of house, which Ross covered. BOH absolutely has it worse—terrible hours that math out to slave wages, grueling conditions with ample opportunities to be scalded, cut, or burned, and of course, rampant emotional abuse by bitchy chefs and managers. Servers, by contrast, get tips, which means their hourly wages can be pretty damn sweet, and shifts are rarely longer than six hours. Of course, there are exceptions, cases where low staffing requires working a double, but even then, it’s nowhere near the marathon hours a chef faces, and you’re getting paid decently for the time.

But as much as you can make good money in a short period of time and serving can be a relatively flexible earning solution, it can also be an absolute horrorshow of a job. Because while the back of house staff has to deal with the stress of a hot kitchen and long hours, the front of house has to deal with a different stressor: the clientele. 

People who haven’t worked as servers often say: “All they’re doing is carrying food, how hard can it be?” This logic is often used by cheapskates looking to dodge the tip. (Such folks need to a.) fuck right off and b.) watch Reservoir Dogs for some important life lessons—no, not on how to torture to a great soundtrack, but why not tipping is so reprehensible that it’s considered bad behavior by criminals who kill people for a living.) 

To shit tippers, I have a few choice pieces of information to share with you. First, most restaurants have a tipping-out policy, where the server tips out on the total of their sales to the food runners, bussers, and bartenders. This is the same whether or not your cheap ass tips them. So when you fail to leave them anything, they are, in essence, paying to serve you. Second, any amount of time your cheap ass sits at a table in a server’s section is money they could have been making on a less crap customer. If you are sitting at a table for a luxuriant amount of time, not rushing to leave, then you should absolutely tip well for reducing their earning opportunities.

Finally, the main reason servers and bartenders get tips is that you are paying them to deal with your shit. Stressful as the back of house may be, they at least have the benefit of freely expressing their emotions. I don’t think I’ve heard more curse words anywhere than in a busy kitchen during the dinner rush.

By contrast, when you’re waiting on customers, your entire inner life needs to be hidden under a veneer of friendly service. They can make the most asinine request, and complain over completely idiotic things, and you have to nod, apologize for the inconvenience, and work on figuring that out immediately. Because the customer is always right—even when they’re absolutely wrong.

Servers are also the first line of defense against maniacs. I know not a single female server who hasn’t been groped in some fashion when working at a restaurant where alcohol is involved. And even without the alcohol, patrons often see the restaurant as an opportunity to exercise some kind of small sovereignty over their individual two-top kingdoms. Lording over their fiefdoms, they’ll make you grab endless tasters of different beers, five different condiments and will send back their burger three times because they’re ignorant—Medium does mean pink in the middle, my friends—but their ego can’t allow them to be wrong.

In another life, our very own contributor Amanda Deibert was once pelted with dinner rolls by an irate customer, who was upset that said rolls were “too hard.” (This was free bread that Amanda was not involved in baking.) Fortunately, Amanda had a good manager who swiftly escorted this person from the restaurant. But is there any other profession where you run the risk of going to work and getting assaulted with carbs? (Beyond the social pressure to eat that office birthday cake, of course.)

I still have nightmares about the pub where I worked, which would get mobbed on holidays. One Father’s Day, we got so slammed the manager had to close our lot’s gates. Our wait time for orders was over two hours, the ticket printouts stretching through the kitchen in a nightmarish daisy chain. I remember the manager running through with a marker, crossing out tickets when people walked out. One St. Patrick’s Day, for whatever insane reason, we had all-you-can-eat and drink specials, which had been promoted in a local publication. We only had the usual amount of servers for a Thursday night, so it was a total shitshow. Several servers had emotional meltdowns—one of my friends says that, in her twenty years of serving, it was her single worst shift. I am pretty sure I was working that day, but I appear to have blocked it out of my memory… too traumatizing. 

I hear you hypothetically retorting: “But it’s just serving food. No one’s life is at stake. Is it really that stressful?” Yes. Yes, it is. I haven’t been a server for years and I still have stress dreams about it. In fact, I know multiple people who still have nightmares about serving decades after leaving their restaurant jobs. You’re not a heart surgeon or a combat medic, but people scream at you with the intensity of a life-or-death situation. Your body reacts to stress, whether or not the stakes are actually high. Letting go of that stress after a shift is not easy, which is why, like Ross’ second article notes, tons of people in the service industry get quite used to drinking a bit too much to cope.

In recent years, the pandemic has shifted the scene somewhat: the abuses people used to heap on servers have been moderately tempered by the fact that we had the equivalent of a unionized strike. FOH workers found new jobs when all restaurants ceased dine-in service, and no one was willing to come back to the uncertain hours, lack of health insurance, and emotional abuse from customers. These days, you’re far less likely to find a waiter who will kiss your ass, and you pretty much have to kiss theirs, because their jobs are still pretty secure. And you know what? Good. If you don’t like it, get takeout and eat in your own house.

It’s my belief that, for the good of humanity, everyone should be required to work in the service industry for at least one year. It should be mandatory at the age of 18, like military service is in Israel. Then we’d all have more empathy, patience, and understanding: and far less dinner roll-throwing. 

Just know: if you’ve never worked in a kitchen or as a server, you haven’t suffered. For those of you who never will hold a restaurant job, thank your lucky stars, and always, always tip well. 

Filed under:

Tags mentioned: