Served: Restaurant Biz Induced Exhaustion


Hannah Howard has worked in several restaurants, but she's made the switch to the grocery side of the industry. She's now a cheesemonger for a small market chain, and will share her experience here.

20080616-servedbug.jpgThree years ago, in my cheese bar server days, I was working the late shift. How late? From five until we closed at 2 a.m. Or rather, until we finished cleaning up and filling out paperwork, so more like 3 a.m. At least.

I crashed. I had been up all night the evening before, writing an epic anthropology paper for school, and up all night the night before that drinking crazy cocktails with crazy mixologists. I needed my sleep, and I was running on empty. Or running on caffeine and fancy gin and pho from the place on the corner. But none of that adequately substitutes for shuteye.

The night at work was relentless. People kept coming and coming and coming. At 1 a.m., they were still coming full speed ahead, wanting lambrusco and bruléed blue cheese and chocolate cake. Wanting it now.

But sometime around midnight, I lost it. Lost my energy, focus, and ability to function.

When I work, there are the on-nights—when I sail from table to table and pour wine and talk about ramps, and the whole thing is glittery and gratifying and good. And then there are the off-nights, or parts of nights, where this regular is making my skin crawl and I feel like there is not an ounce of niceness in me. I fake it. I take breathers and polish silverware.

This late, busy night was not like that. I transcended grumpy or stressed or groggy. I had hit a wall, and big time.

I had a million tables all at once, and I started to forget stuff, which I pretty much never do. I drop stuff often, but if I say I will bring you some lemon or a glass of pinot blanc, I am good for my word.

That night, I had to take an order for an entire table again, because I forgot. Everything. I popped a champagne cork across the room and hit a tiny woman square between her shoulder blades. My tables asked for checks, which I failed to deliver. They asked for stinky Meadow Creek grayson and crunchy baguette, which I also failed to deliver. My head was swimming with stuff, and simultaneously empty. The room was spinning. I was on the brink of tears.

And then, lo and behold, my tables had their cheese, their wine, their checks. I was falling deep into the shits, and someone had my back.

It was Jaime. Jaime was a very experienced server, a dancer who told the dirtiest of jokes and brought in her mom's pumpkin seed brittle to share with the staff. She saw I was struggling and came to my rescue.

"Jaime, thank you!!" I said.

"No problem," she said, "you look terrible."

I gave Jaime a big hug that night, and stumbled half asleep into a taxi. The cab driver had to wake me up to drop me off at home.

Fast forward three years. Managing is a bit less immediate than serving. My responsibilities are more meta: making sure the guests are happy and the staff is focused. I also make cheese plates. Nobody is relying on me to pepper their salad now.

And still, there is a unique brand of exhausting in the restaurant biz. Different from cramming for a test, organizing a project, marathoning through meetings, or writing into the wee hours.

It's physical, mental, and emotional. After a long day, your feet are sore and back is achy. There is a great deal of distance to cover, and plates to carry, and trips downstairs for wine or gelato.

But it's equally exhausting to be nice and hospitable constantly, especially to the guests who don't reciprocate. All the smiling wears on you. All the patience.

So at the end of the day, sometimes all I want to do is avoid all human contact and read stupid magazines in my PJs. Some time to myself to regroup for another long day with a game face and a good answer for the angry Australian man who is unhappy with the size of his cheese plate, and moved to rage.