My last blog described my first job. Throughout High School and College, my jobs were much different than flinging papers. I worked multiple roles in three different restaurants. A friend recently wrote about his experiences at The Lexington in St. Paul. My best friends, Pat and Jim, worked there and we have many shared experiences. Even there, though, we took slightly different paths. Both of them were slightly more liked by the manager. Actually, there were very few who he really liked, but I think I was lower than most, likely because I lived on Summit Avenue. Later, it was because I started dating a waitress that he clearly favored.
I started as a dishwasher and occasional pot washer. That was truly the ugly side of the restaurant business. We learned terms such as “swamped,” “the bin,” and “the honeypot.” The latter two referred to rotten and discarded food and other scraps. As one might expect, those items occasionally brought us face to face with cockroaches, mice, and other vermin. We also worked side by side with adults, whose work in the kitchen was their full-time occupation. It was definitely an eye-opener and definite encouragement to get through high school and continue our educations. It was hard and sometimes disgusting work that had little upward movement and low pay. I learned great respect for those people. It wasn’t nearly as glamorous as some of the modern chef shows you see on television. In fact, it wasn’t glamorous at all. We had to scour our bodies after each shift just to get the coating of grime and grease off of our bodies, hair, and even ears and eyes.
There was possible upward movement for us teenagers working in the restaurant. Jim and I eventually became busboys, giving us freedom from the kitchen. Some busboys even “graduated” to become waiters. That was where there was actually a bit of money in the job. Busboy, though, was a step up. At the end of our shifts, we were always pretty smelly, but not nearly as skanky as the kitchen help. Pat took a upgrade route into the cooking staff and ultimately as a bartender.
One of the funnier stories I recall from my days as a busboy was when a man reported that another man had passed out in the restroom. Keep in mind that The Lexington was considered a fine dining establishment, not a mere restaurant. The manager grabbed me and another busboy to assist. When we arrived, it was clear that the guy had passed out as he had been doing his business at the urinal. He lay still unconscious on the floor. To my great shock, the manager yelled at me and said, “go over and put his . . . his . . . his thing back into his pants!” Not only was it the horror of having to touch another penis, but the man’s pants were soaked with urine. Fortunately, the other busboy stepped up to assist. It is funny now only because the man turned out to be okay. He had apparently been on some medication that interacted with alcohol.
Once we’d been working at the restaurant for a while, the manager occasionally “invited” one or more of us to work on Sunday afternoon. The restaurant was closed on Sundays, so that was generally when some of the real dirty work was done. We deep cleaned the entire place. The worst of these jobs involved commercial “easy-off” oven cleaning. We used similar products to clean the hoods over each the cooking surfaces. In neither case did we have masks, goggles, or other protective equipment. We earned about triple pay, though, and got a free lunch, so we didn’t think that was too bad of a trade-off. With today’s OSHA rules, that would likely never be allowed.
After a couple of years as a busboy, I was let go from The Lex. Ostensibly, it was due to their “rule” against fraternization, but again, the manager never really liked me. I moved on and took a busboy job at the new Radisson Hotel that had just opened in downtown St. Paul. That lasted only a couple of months until I got accused of participating in some dining room hijinks. Since I had not joined their union, I was the one who was canned. Fortunately, though, I landed on my feet and found a job – this time as a waiter – at the University Club on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. That was a job that I kept until graduating from college. It was a bit of a slower pace than The Lex or the Radisson, but I thoroughly enjoyed my fellow employees, the management, and most of the regular customers who were members of the club.
At the University Club, I got to see another side of the business. I occasional worked as the restaurant host. I worked closely with the catering managers and learned so much about event planning. One of the assistant managers, Carol Erickson, took me under her wing and let me participate in the planing and working of many weddings, private parties, and other upscale events. I was able to see some of the financial side of the business and the slim margins in the business. I had to make decisions on when to send staff home early, thus saving some staff costs of the hourly workers. In most cases, these were younger people, who appreciated leaving early, but occasionally it was someone who really needed the money.
Even though the working conditions were not always the best, I mostly enjoyed the work. I learned that I like working with people. In fact, I found that I liked serving people and trying to make their dining experience a good one. There is satisfaction in providing value to customers. Most of my co-workers felt the same way. Yes, we had our share of irate customer who could never be satisfied, but most were genuinely appreciative of a good job. Even when something went horribly wrong, most customers were quite forgiving.
Through all of the experiences in the restaurant business, I definitely learned the value of hard work. I learned the importance of making the best of a bad situation. Even as a dishwasher, I wanted to be the best dishwasher. The s
ame held true as a busboy and waiter. The latter two jobs provided direct compensation when we provided value to a waiter or a customer. I also learned first hand how important it was for me to continue my education. I worked with a lot of very smart and interesting people, but many of them did not have much hope of increasing their earning capability. Without a college degree, and even some without a high school diploma, they had a tough road ahead.
About tipping: I remain what I consider a high tipper. I suspect this is due to my years as a busboy and waiter. I rarely tip under 20%. Even with wages rising, the tips are the single most important part of a server’s salary. For me, an average job gets you 20%. Superb service should be rewarded. At times, I’ve tipped in excess of 50%. That, though, is nearly as rare as the 10% I leave for poor service. I remember one waiter I worked with who would chase down customers after receiving a poor tip and ask them what was wrong. Some people, though, are just jerks; others are trying to send a message. One of the worst messages for poor service was when some friends left coins in a puddle of syrup on the table. That was many years ago after an early morning breakfast following a night of drinking. Even so, that was downright insulting. A couple of us left some extra bills on the table to help compensate for the slight of our friends.