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Chowhounds Have you worked in the food industry? Good or Bad -

I had quit school and feeling really lousy about my prospects - took a part time job as a counter clerk in a butcher shop Granville Island..(Vancouver) .1980 - a customer handed me a $20.00 tip and said "if you want to work in a shop like this..at the very least go back to school and be the butcher - what are you doing?"

I took a break and worked in a wine store helping with wine/scotch tasting events. Those same "suits" that treated me with respect at the law firm - treated me as if I had "deaf,dumb, useless" stamped on my forehead.

Some of the best advice ever was from a chef... "you have to know the difference between Professional and Personal / Friendly and Familiar ... to give good service"

I've a great respect for those who work in the food service industry.. I treat people very well because of my experiences..

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  1. "Food industry" is sort of a broad, amorphous term.

    That said, I have worked extensively in the restaurant industry -- from small mom-and-pop places to large chain type stores.

    The only thing I've learned from my experiences is that it is a tough tough way to make a living. Hours are long, work is generally tedious, and the atmosphere is more "slave labor" than "labor of love".

    I enjoy cooking -- cooking at my leisure, to be exact.

    Knowing how arduous it is, I couldn't cook for a living and actually enjoy it.

    Because of that, I have much much respect for those that do cook for a living, and even more respect and admiration for those who have made a success of themselves doing so.

    2 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      Owning your own restaurant is a completely difference experience from being a worker. My FIL, back when he owned three restaurants, cut back to "part time" meaning he only worked 6 days a week, starting between 10am and 12 pm until 10 pm. Eye opening for me. And, I know restaurants owners who love cooking and ended up selling their restaurants so they could go back to cooking. If you can afford leisurely cooking, that's optimal to them.

      I worked in it long enough to know people can be incredibly rude and I wanted no part of it.

      1. re: chowser

        I worked in my parents' and other restaurants for a number of years, and when I get the notion of starting a retail food business of my own, I remind myself how grueling the hours, how exasperating the regulatory issues, and how very different large scale cooking is to feeding a family or even a small dinner party's worth of guests.

        Doesn't take long for that notion to take a long hike...

    2. Yes, I worked in the food industry, more years ago than I'd like to believe. In college, I worked for a pizza restaurant, both behind the oven and delivery. I waited tables at a Catskill Mountains resort holidays and summers. My first job after college was as the purchasing manager for a large wholesale bakery (thus my moniker). I later was employed in and then owned a catering business.

      That said, I appreciate hard work by those in the food industry, BUT I know that it is possible to do things the correct way and efficiently, so I have little tolerance for bad service and poor management.

      In my day, each of these establishments was closed on Mondays (except the hotel), so I was assured a day off every week, I left the food industry for a retail operation that was open 7 days and nights, so I have little sympathy for those who complain about food industry hours.

      Now in my late 50s, it's law and no nights, weekends or holidays

      1 Reply
      1. re: bagelman01

        I like what you said about the little tolerance for bad service and poor management bagelman. I've been a short order cook and a waitress, a hostess and a cashier and done a little bit of bartending. I learned that I liked being the dishwasher better than any of those jobs. I think it's easy to get burned out dealing with the public. Plus I wasn't very good at any of those jobs.
        The upside for me was that I got a lot of insights into the inner workings of a restaurant. For example some of my friends fail to notice when our server is trying to wait on five different tables at once. They tend to grow impatient while I'm impressed at how well she or he is juggling all those demands.
        The other side of the coin is the little tolerance for bad service and poor management. I'm dealing with this right now and it's making me cringe. My friend fell in love with a small cafe and was spending oodles of time and money there. Usually there is only the owner and one employee there. The employee is doing her level best to drive my friend and his business away by being jarringly unfriendly. For example the other day while my friend was enjoying a nice raw platter she walked up to him, drawing near, and then frowned at him in an almost exaggerated way. It was as if she resented him sitting there in the cafe eating. I guess if all the customers go away she will have less work.
        The owner is a nice man but kind of in his own little world and misses a lot. For example my friend and I had registered in advance to watch a film at the cafe on cancer and diet. There was a table between us and the screen and there was a couple sitting there talking fairly loudly. The owner came over to them soon after and I thought he was going to nicely ask them to let us watch the film. Doh! Turns out it was the owner's daughter and boyfriend and the owner joined in the conversation so I couldn't hear at all. I asked my friend loudly if he could hear, he was standing and straining to listen. I couldn't take it any more and muttered some excuse and sat out in the car until the film was over, almost an hour and a half later. The next day the owner asked my friend if I liked the film. Made me want to bang my head against the wall. My friend started out loving the place and wanting to eat there as much as possible. Now he is not eager to return.
        Most everyone in my neck of the woods gets to be a customer but working in the industry does help you see a lot more. For good or bad.

      2. 20 years. Cook, Sous, KM, Busboy, Dishwasher, Waiter. You name it, except bartender.

        Lots of good times. At 50 years old, I don't think I could work 12 - 14 hours a day in a kitchen anymore. Loved it at the time though.

        2 Replies
        1. re: chileheadmike

          Yes, any food job descriptions I've read have said, "Must be able to lift 50 lbs easily" or something to that effect.

          1. re: chileheadmike

            Ditto: from menu consulting to Ex. Chef all the way to dishwasher in the back; Waiting tables and managing in the front. Although I still work in the food industry, I don't think I have the physical capacity to expedite or run a line anymore, but I love food and it has been a business and a vocation that served up a very good living. It made me a much better customer. I'd go so far as to say it all made me a better, quicker-thinking and more creative individual. It was definitely a great outlet: I could give vent at work because of the craziness of the industry, but I didn't bring the stress home with me. Loved it all.

          2. Ages 18-19, I was an assistant manager at a Hardees.I was kind of a transfer from my hometown Hardees, having worked there part time since 15. It was a nightmare dealing with inconsistent staff, an owner who (it turned out) was laundering money through the place, a manager who was a drunk, and the customer base was mostly college kids.

            I aged more in those 2 years than I have in the 15 since, I think. But, I was making enough money for me at the time. Being independent at that age is worth 60+ hours a week! And the owner was generous with bonuses and easy to get along with.

            In the end, it was stressful and working fast food is in no way fufilling. The only decent memory I have is going in early on Sunday morning and making omelets for those that bothered to show up.

            I got married the next year and my husband landed a great job right out of graduation. I was so exhausted from the whole exprience that I just stopped working altogether for quite a while, haha!

            1. Yes - everything from bartender to bus, dishwasher, server, manager, owner, prep., catering, marketing, sales....

              I had a lifetime of experience, a ton of energy, a boatload of confidence, and actual financial backing. Here's what I learned -

              That no matter how much you do for an owner - how much you think you know. No matter how much day to day responsibility you have - no matter that your numbers are continuously good, reviews are good, the kitchen is happy and costs are contained.

              It ALL changes when your name is on the door. When you are signing the checks. Backbreaking does not begin to describe it. Stressful is an understatement. There were nights I was so bone tired, I'd fall asleep in the car waiting for it to warm up. Exhausting - Just Exhausting. Mentally, physically, emotionally. There were so many times I'd have cheerfully traded it all for a nice, safe, manager's job with a real paycheck! To have just one owner depending on me, instead of fifty employees.

              Then one day, in the midst of chaos, it happened. We were slammed. The phones were going crazy. The servers were weeded. The kitchen had tickets to the floor. There was an accident in the parking lot. Someone was yelling at me because her credit card was declined. And it hit me - I had never been happier in my life. I could do this. I was born to do this. And really - who needs sleep anyway?

              I learned that experience doesn't count until you buy it with your own money.

              2 Replies
              1. I can deal with the hours, the hot kitchens, smelling like grease all day. I am ok with having to babysit the staff way too much of the time. Bosses who are never satisfied or appreciative isnt restricted to the food service industry. It is the customers, 1 out of 500 that are just miserable, condescending, irrational......and they stick with you through the day or even longer. How I would love to be owner and tell them how I really felt!

                1. i waited tables from my late teens to mid-20s, more or less, at coffee-shop-type places, nothing fancier. have a permanent scar on index finger from rubbing on coffee pot handles, and i can still remember the smell of grease, coffee and dirty dishwater on my hands and in my hair for hours and hours. i was that young, and it still beat me up and forced me to take naps when i'd get home (granted, i went in at 5:30 a.m. and being that young, still thought it wise to party until 3 or 4 many a night.) I loved being so busy my head would spin, i loved the customer interaction, most of the time, i loved how every day you got a clean slate to start over again, with a crisp uniform, shiny ketchup bottles, full napkin dispensers, hot fresh food (ok, it wasn't chowish but still), and empty pockets, waiting to bulge with bills and coins - i loved tips! Sure, I make more money now, but i'm bored out of my mind. the biggest reason i stopped, i think, was pride - wasn't going to be a waitress all my life. now, i sometimes seriously think, hey, i really wouldn't mind doing that again....

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: mariacarmen

                    Mc2, that did get to me from time-to-time too, the "not gonna do this all my life" thing. It was helped along by the occasional customer attitude that if we were working in a restaurant, it was certainly because we lacked brains or education. Well, it didn't take long to realize that between earned education and credits and degrees being pursued while working in the biz., the staff prolly had waaaay more education and potential - or at very least as much as- the customers.

                    1. re: mamachef

                      Q: What's the most common phrase uttered by a philosophy doctoral candidate?

                      A: Can I refill that for you?

                      1. re: alanbarnes

                        Ha Ha!! Not a doctoral candidate, but I WAS a philosophy major in college, one of the seven sisters to be exact, and I am still, after 18 years, in the restaurant business. I took three years off to hold a respectable office job, and finally quit that life after my soul had finally been crushed and sucked out of me. I ran back to the restaurant world. The three years away really helped though. I'm FOH, and after coming back to the floor, nothing bothered me any more. Obnoxious people, demeaning people, condescending people, mean people, petty people, demanding people. It all just washes over me now and I can either laugh at them or study them as an anthropologist studies chimpanzees.

                        I think, for some people, restaurant work just gets in their blood, and they can't be happy doing anything else.

                  2. I waitressed for 6 months many years ago when work was tight. Never, ever again. I would rather take on an obnoxious complex trauma case with a chronic case of awful relatives than wait tables. I love food, I love to cook, I love to eat out, I love drinking in bars but I think working it professionally would ruin it for me.

                    1. I worked in an IHOP for over a year when going to college. Even though my job title was "hostess" it included being a bus girl, expediter, drink runner, and when things were bad waitress (that got no tips because I was paid full mininum wage hourly and actually had to hand any tips over to the waitress whose section it was even though I did all the work!) , I was also the cashier and was solely responsible for take away orders. I was also the lead hostess meaning I had to manage mostly incompetent people who kept stealing from my cash register and didn't want to work! Then there was the clientele! I have had enumerable objects thrown at me and yelled at for the stupidest reasons like asking to see their id for an unsigned credit card! Honestly it was a terrible experience, the only shining light was that the manager was a great person and recognized me for the hard work I did, when they moved on and a new manager came in and refused to give me the time off I requested three months in advance and was approved, so I quit, you should have seen how big her eyes got! "but we are coming into our busiest season!" oh well lady , should have not been so unreasonable, now you won't have me at all instead of having to deal with a two week absence.
                      Ugh, never again.

                      1. It was both, good and bad. I had just quit a corporate job in order to go back to school, and wound up working at a coffee shop. It was an easy job, rebounding me from a corporate retail manager, who was not only thrice asked to join the district manager 'program' but vetted by the loss prevention corporation that was hired out for one of those gigs, to a job where I (presumably) did not have to employ my cynical survival skills to such a degree. During slow hours, we were allowed to study. It was a really nice year. I made something for someone, and, most of the time, they were happy. But then the owner started asking me to do more . . . to keep an account of the cash, to fire people, to do the ordering, and make certain that the inventory matched the usage (for a whole two dollars more an hour, WHOOWHEE, I got my hair done up a mere six months later). But I was still happy.

                        And then the shop was bought, and it became a 'cafe'. I was thrilled. I was the only employee left on from the old staff; I helped pick the paint for the walls. I wanted that place to succeed. What I did not anticipate was that the more changes we made, and the more business we received, very little changed in the way of staffing. For too many years, I ran the morning shift either alone, or with coverage coming *after* the morning shift slowed (it was counter service, but we were 'encouraged' to serve on the floor, and there were no dishwashers, or busboys, or cashiers). I had a customer tell me once that watching me was like watching a well-choreographed ballet. I didn't tell him that I went home in the early afternoon and fixed a martini straightaway; I smiled, and thanked him. It was a genuinely nice compliment. You learn to hold onto those in any retail business.

                        It was really difficult, working for someone who was not ready for what they had bought, to have to *sweat* to make the changes in that business without any support of the rest of the staff (the times I did have the camaraderie of such, I relished), and it is difficult not to disclose the kinds of stories that people like to hear about this business, but she was, and is, a friend. Very young, and struggling to be idealistic. It took quite a lot of deep breathing us to maintain our friendship during those years. HOW CAN YOU REPLACE THE FROZEN EGG PATTIES IN THE BREAKFAST SANDWICHES WITH FRESH-COOKED WITHOUT ADDING ADDITIONAL STAFF EVEN JUST AT THE REGISTER, AND THE CLOSERS CAN'T EVEN MAKE THE DAMN HUMMUS? Okay, see, deep breath. I wound up coming in earlier every morning to do what was required, make 'fresh' egg patties, stored in the fridge until their order was up. It takes a good hand to make eggs that won't dry out the second time on the griddle.

                        When it closed a little over a year ago, I was encouraged by my boyfriend to take some time off. He says this has gone to our greater knowledge (he's in the business), because we always said we wanted to do it on our own someday. And I do still want to, which says something about the experience. On the other hand, he says he would be just as willing to open a soup cart, one in which I would prepare and serve my soups the whole livelong day. Uh-uh. If I can't have even one person along for the ride, then it isn't happening. I think staff camaraderie drives the restaurant business as much as concept or atmosphere does. I think that is one boat where you always need a bailer.

                        As for customers . . . people are people no matter where you go or what you do. Just don't take the jerks home with you, even if just in your head.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: onceadaylily

                          "Just don't take the jerks home with you, even if just in your head."

                          Excellent advice. I love reading all this stuff, very insightful!

                        2. As my name implies, one of my jobs after retirement was cheeseguy at a number of shops in a number of countries. Mostly good, a little bad, but noticed that in D&D for example, l was the ONLY employee who lived in Manhattan. All others schlepped in from the various boroughs, cause, very simple, working in the food industry does not pay as well as many other occupations. Was recently listed 40th of 40 in a survey of remuneration for various industries. Liked doing it, but glad did not need the paycheck.

                          1. Worked at a golf club part time on weekends to earn some extra money. Bartended, helped in kitchen, set up fruit/cheese displays, etc. Hard work for low pay. But the worst job was "Bride Wrangler"-helping the bride make sure her every need was taken care of. I have seen enough Bridezillas to last me a lifetime. Plus, the club charged the customer a "sericec fee" which they thought went to the staff, but they were wrong. We never saw a penny of that. I changed over to the club side. For a while, I drove the beer cart. I eventually became weekend manager. I got to know my regulars and what they liked. I started to get to know them and got great tips becaus I knew what they liked and had it ready when they came in. The bridal pat was brutal, but the club part was fun. I hope I never have to work as hard again as I did then, but I sure as heck tip well at weddings and other special events as well as at restaurants becaud I know just how hard the work is.

                            1. My first job out of high school was waiting tables and bartending at a very popular corner bar and grill. I was 18 years old and it was an awesome job. I learned so much, the experience was worth all the hardwork.

                              It was an interesting place. The owners had a bunch of kids who were always in and out with their friends. There were a number of regulars from the Texas-Mexico border who would cook all sorts of different regional specialities on Friday nights. It was my job to keep their pitchers of beer cold. They were great tippers, I could always count on $20 from each of them. Imagine - customers cooking in the kitchen and tipping the waitress for bringing them free beer!

                              Staff was expected to do a bit of everything. If I had a rare moment of standing around, it was expected that I would go in the kitchen and help the cooks. I would do prep work between the lunch and dinner rushes, run errands for the owners, etc.

                              Physically, it was very demanding. I was a skinny thing back then and I have no idea how I carried beer kegs up from the basement. Mentally, it was an interesting entry into the adult world. My bar shift was 4-8pm, a standing room only happy hour. I learned time management, that is for sure and I don't think there is anything like working behind the bar to teach you about human nature.

                              The owners paid me $5 per hour cash (this was 20 some years ago) and after tips, I was making more on any given Friday night then my mom made all week. The regulars drank hard and tipped very well. Because it was such a good job, the staff was on the top of their game, all the time. Ones who weren't up to snuff didn't last the weekend.

                              A few years later I waitressed at a club that had a dinner and dancing crowd that switched to a hopping nightclub after 10pm. I also spent a lot of time in the kitchen there.

                              My past experiences make me, at the same time, a very easy customer and a hard one. I can completely overlook some things while others will send me straight to the manager.

                              1. "I've a great respect for those who work in the food service industry.. I treat people very well because of my experiences.."


                                Agreed wholeheartedly. In my younger days I did some time - anything from working a deli and hot food counter in a little gourmet grocery store to working in an ice cream store to fast food to busing tables. It's incredibly difficult work, for crappy pay, and you always know the people who have never done any time in the business because they so often treat people so rudely.

                                Certainly there are people who have no business being in the service industry, but there's no reason to treat them as poorly as some people do.

                                My most distinct memory - as a 17 year old busser & food runner who'd been at the restaurant a matter of weeks, with no real experience in a restaurant like that, I went to grab a penne dish that had just come out of the salamander (had no idea) because I needed the plate underneath it. I managed to suppress the reflex and got the plate out before setting down the searing hot penne (with half the kitchen watching and waiting for me to drop both). The blisters were instant and large. The owner of the restaurant, with his thick French accent looks at me and says "use a towel."

                                Thanks, monsieur. Next time I grab a hot dish, I will most certainly use a towel.

                                2 Replies
                                  1. re: BelovedofIsis


                                    Oh, it wasn't the last time - that poor left hand should be used to it by now - I still haven't learned to use that darn towel!

                                1. I worked in fastfood for 5 years in highschool and early college, starting at 14 years old as a cashier and ending at 19 as a general manager, including traveling across numerous states to open new stores. For all the long hours, hot oil burns, cuts, arguments with staff twice my age, stress of managing a saturday lunch shift of 26 employees, close-to-open schedules and verbal abuse from customers over a $3 sandwich...we had a blast. That job is responsible for EVERY job I've ever had since- were it not for having a keyholding position on my resume at 19 I would never have gotten my retail management job...then my corporate management job...then my consulting job... And, in all honesty, that job paid for my car in highschool and then my entire college tuition in the form of hourly wages and scholarship money. I would never have been able to afford to go to college were it not for that crappy, uncool, hat-wearing deep-fried job. I attribute any and all professional success I've had in my life to that owner who was willing to take a chance giving the combination to the safe to a 16yr old.

                                  I also waited tables periodically during my corporate life for "extra cash" but truly because I *missed* the service industry. i have now switched back to a (nonfood) service industry job and, while its very different from resting my butt in front of a computer all day...I wouldn't trade back for anything. Some of us are just *made* for this work.

                                  1. "I took a break and worked in a wine store helping with wine/scotch tasting events. Those same "suits" that treated me with respect at the law firm - treated me as if I had "deaf,dumb, useless" stamped on my forehead."

                                    It's amazing how once you are on the other side of the counter/tray/bar/whatever people tend to treat you as if you are uneducated, inferior, needy or all of these. I was at my local hair cut mill recently and idly chatting with the woman cutting my hair. Turns out she is about to graduate from a prestigious engineering school in town with some kind of molecular biology degree (or something like that). Never judge a book...

                                    I owned my own baking business for a few years. I can truly say I NEVER stopped working during those years. Even if I wasn't in the kitchen, delivering orders or consulting with a customer, I was at the restaurant supply store, at my desk balancing the books, etc. Even when it was my day or time "off" my mind was constantly reviewing recipes, designs for cookies and cakes, thinking about the future of the business, etc. It was a satisfying career, but VERY tiring.

                                    1. Worked in a Howard Johnson's near a speedway when I was 16. I opened the counter every day (they served liquor so I had to have the early shift) and loved it! I used to sit on my bed and count my tips. I really hated to see kids my age come in though as they usually didn't tip (mine knew to tip at ten years old!). In later years I got behind on bills and went back to waitressing as a second job. Worked in a diner and my feet really killed me! I learned it is really hard work!

                                      1. Funny how things work out. The OP's experience was the opposite of mine. I quit school at 16, went to work in a retail shop then in a restaurant. Decided I wanted to tdo his for a living later in life so opened an ice cream/sandwich shop after my kids were 12 and 10. Made a lot of money because I worked hard and loved what I was doing. I still preferred the retail industry so moved to California when hubby retired at an early age and I opened 7 retail shops. Each one highly successful. I won't tell you how much I made or how much I retired with but I can tell you that none of my college friends made as much as I did. And I often hired college graduates to work for me. I'm not advocating quitting school, I'm just saying that not all high school dropouts are losers or failures. You either have what it takes or you don't. An education doesn't guarantee you a living. I'm retired and live a very comfortable life without benefit of a pension. Follow a dream, believe in what you do and work to succeed.

                                        2 Replies