Served: Leaving Restaurants for Groceries


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.jpgI spent the summer of my 17th year scooping gelato. At the age of official adulthood, I graduated to hostessing in the fanciest of fancy restaurants. Here I am, five years, one degree, and countless glasses of end-of-shift bubbly later, bidding goodbye to restaurantland.

But I wasn't ready to apply to law school, or teach English in Thailand, or send resumes to consulting firms. I thought about packing a bag and heading off to see the world, but I couldn't quite muster the zeal or financial resources that such a mission requires.

So I thought instead about the path behind me, and where it might lead.

There are many parts of my job I truly loved. Going shopping for gooey, stinky cheeses and light, fresh cheeses never got old. And when big boxes of goat gouda and lemony chevre arrived with my name on it, I felt like I was receiving a birthday present. Talking with guests about food was always great—whether listening to a serious cook talk pickles or witnessing a revelation: "I do like beets!"

I loved solving problems and creating systems. How can we make sure every table gets gougeres at the right time? How to handle big happy hour crowds when we are used to a handful of bar customers? Why do we lose water glasses as fast as we buy them?

Even if I still have plenty to learn, building my team of bartenders, servers, runners, and hosts was amazingly fun and totally rewarding. On the first day, Rich was intimidated. What the hell is a crosne? A roulade? Two weeks later, he is eloquently explaining these things to a captivated table. He is selling big ticket wine bottles and asking the kitchen: "No pommes maxim today?" when he doesn't see the translucent potato rounds on the sea bass.

Then there is the thrill of a jamming service. To build a beautiful machine, and then see that machine in exquisite action. The magical, addictive energy of a busy restaurant. Tables cleared and people sat, champagne popped and glasses filled and refilled, ducks roasting and souffles baking, knives and hands whizzing and whirring, laughter and stories and espressos.

False Starts

What else could I do that was still food and people centric?

A bakery, a cafe? I liked the idea of early morning hours, but these things still smelled of restaurants.

I called some of my favorite cheese suppliers. Yes, they told me, I could work behind a cheese counter. But no, I couldn't make much more than $12 an hour. This was my starting pay in my hostessing days, and I quickly got a raise. I want to be able to support myself, so cheesemongering was out.

That led me to think—I could be a host, a cheesemonger, even a waiter—and spend my non-working hours cultivating my writing career. But I know myself well enough to know it would be hard for me. I'd want more shifts to make some more cash, and my writing time would get squished. I need structure, somewhere to go each day, and I'd feel more like a server than a writer. Also, this scenario wasn't too far from what I was already doing. And I was pining for change.

Hello Groceries!

When you're looking for a job, people advise, "Connections! Networking! Reach out to everyone!"

I thought about who I actually wanted to reach out to. I thought back to some people I've spoken with, and I remembered a great interview I had with a cheese guy / author / grocer. It was conversation that left me smiling and inspired and a bit stirred up. I sent him an email. He wrote back.

A week later, "his people" called as I was on a bus to New York.

I loved the grocery store. If you're a New Yorker and you like cheese, or olive oil, or smoked salmon, you probably like this grocery store, too. It has a staunchly loyal, cultish following.

I've always had a grocery fetish myself. Growing up, it frustrated my poor mom—grocery shopping consumed vast gobs of time when I was involved. Wegmans was the worst. Any aisle—produce, cereals, vitamins, yogurts—and I'd get swept away in the vast array of choices. Flax, bran, oats, and every combination thereof! I happily could examine boxes (or fruits, or cheeses, or ice creams) till the cows came home. I entered into a grocery-induced fugue state, and it required an iron will to pull me out.

Markets are still happy places for me. Farmers' markets make the top of the list, along with food shopping destinations like Essex Street Market in New York or Reading Terminal in Philly. Then come great stores like Wegmans and Whole Foods. My boyfriend and I have spent many a long afternoon joyfully navigating the aisles of Wegmans.

After many interviews, phone calls, rescheduled interviews, rescheduled phone calls, and days nervously waiting, I accepted an offer with this great New York grocery store that I love. I'm excited now, thinking about it. Goosebump excited!

My job title? I don't have one yet!

I'm going to learn the business by spending time in all the departments. I've never worked in the grocery biz, and there are a dizzying amount of things to understand: buying, butchering, pricing, catering, staffing, stocking, receiving, and much, much more.

Then—and this is the cool part—they're going to sculpt a job that fits what they need, what I'm good at, and what I love. It's probably going to involve some writing, some marketing, and some cheese. It's all up in the air.

So here I am, packing boxes and feeling happy and sad, excited and terrified, and very much nostalgic. In a few days time, I will resume my identity as a New Yorker. In a few weeks time, I will try on a new identity of grocer. And I'll be writing about it every step of the way.