Served: A Restaurant Girl Becomes a (Sometimes Lonely) Grocery Girl


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.jpgIt's been three weeks since I left the cocoon of my little restaurant family for a big, bustling grocery machine. It's the size and scale that has me feeling a bit unmoored, but also a change of culture that I'm still figuring out.

I've gotten into a bit of a lunch break routine. I go for a walk, call my boyfriend, and try to clear my mind a bit. As the traffic whirrs by, I start missing family meal.

At the restaurants where I've worked, family meal was kind of a big deal.

As a cook, family meal meant a chance to take a break from feeding faceless strangers and cook for friends and coworkers. They are a hungry, appreciative, and honest cohort. ("The pasta tastes like a carburetor.")

The first staff meal I concocted: tuna burgers, wasabi mayo, leftover buttery buns, and a salad with every veggie I got my hands on. The waiters and cooks loved it, and I felt the glow of validation. I had arrived in the world.

The cooks spend all day and night executing the vision of their chef. Staff meal lets them flex their creative muscles a bit, wow everyone with a fiery curry, a satisfying stew, a crackly-crusted pizza.

But more than a culinary strut, family meal encapsulates restaurant culture. Almost everywhere, it is termed family meal. The restaurant staff is not just a staff, it's a family. And like any good family, they enjoy the most primal and human of rituals together; the daily breaking of bread.

Can you tell I'm nostalgic for family meal? I miss the excitement of risotto bubbling on the stove for us, one cook's insistence on baking coconut cream pies to commemorate every major and minor holidays, salads full of farm greens that tasted of field and sun. I miss gathering on the broken chairs in the back to eat, feeding the birds the leftovers, giggling with my coworkers.

At grocery stores there is no family meal.

There is a mandated 15 minute break and 30 minute lunch, per union rules. The workers head out one at a time, never together; the staggering means there will never be a shortage of staff on the floor. Reasonable, but lonely.

There are no friendly, or nasty, cooks excited to show off their braising skills or recreate the churros of their childhood. Instead, there is a store discount. There are security guards with walky-talkies positioned every which way to ensure you are not slipping quart containers of salmon salad or slabs of sirloin into your purse. The first time they asked to check my bag, I was alarmed.

I miss the camaraderie. Maybe it's because I'm still new at work, and my position still undetermined, and real relationships always take time.

But it's also structural. There is a break room, where employees slurp noodles and chow down on lamb and rice and Snickers bars. But it has the weird smell of many intermingling microwaving foods, and feels like a corporate lunchroom rather than a cozy kitchen.

I know with time I'll feel more at home at work. But it will be a different home. And my cozy, warm meals will have to be enjoyed elsewhere. At least I have ample and discounted access to swaths of beautiful ingredients.