Served: The Epic Groceries versus Restaurants Battle


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 was introduced to the founder of my grocery store a few days ago. We got to chatting and I told him I came from the restaurant world.

"This is more stressful, huh?" he stated, more than asked.

"They're both stressful in different ways," I said, to be political. But it wasn't true. From my limited experience—six years in restaurants and six weeks in groceries—restaurants take the stress-inducing cake.

Starting, growing and owning a small supermarket chain is certainly infinitely more high stakes than working behind the cheese counter. But compared to waiting tables or cooking on the line, my cheese countering has been a sunny walk through the park. Here's why:

The Hours

Store employees are union members and are thus subject to really sane schedules. At my store, they work eight hour shifts, punctuated by two breaks.

Eight hours! Blink of an eye! My restaurant manager days often started at ten or eleven in the morning and ended after midnight. My boyfriend worked even more ridiculous and copious hours. Never-ending hours. And the best I could muster for a break was to dart into the office to scarf some family meal.

I love the non-work parts of life too. Lazy newspaper mornings, cheap Thai feats with girlfriends, neighborhood explorations, movies, adventures. I don't miss sacrificing everything else for work.

Also, I'm a morning girl. Early hours bring me clarity; my mind goes fuzzy with nightfall. I pray to never again cry over sheets of numbers at 3 a.m.. At 3 a.m. I want to be either sleeping or living large. Math should not be involved.

In New York, some food store are open 24/7. Thankfully for me, mine is not one of them. The rush is at 5 p.m., not 10 p.m. This makes for optimal sleeping and living.

The Joys of Customer Service

In groceryworld and restaurantland alike, some customers are amazing and some are awful. Someone can make you laugh; turn your shitty day around. Likewise, a nasty person eager to inflict their nastiness can do serious damage if you're not careful.

The difference is the depth and length of your interaction. The cheese counter is a one-stop shop. You will come to me and query your cheese wishes, and I will try my best to help you out. We will all give out seemingly never-ending samples to people who leave empty-handed. We will teach an impromptu raw versus pasteurized milk lesson. We will deliberate the meltability of various blues for your burgers. You will walk away, cheese in hand.

Restaurant meals are a much more elaborate to-do, especially in the fine dining spots where I worked. You will be visiting your guests every few minutes for an hour at the very least. The meal may stretch out for several hours. If they're a nightmarish table, you're stuck with them.

Time Crunch

Restaurant meals are a dance that gets preformed in real time. From the time you walk into a restaurant, there is a sense of urgency even if you don't feel it. (In a great restaurant, you should never feel it.)

You have to be sat and greeted. Menus, water, drinks, order. The food has to be cooked. The drinks refilled. At my chain restaurant, everything had a schedule. You should be welcomed within two minutes of your butt hitting the chair. Two minutes after that, there should be a drink in front of you. And so on.

Yes, there are hectic grocery moments. Mountains and mountains of parmesan to be cut when the store is jammed with holiday shoppers. But the parmesan will wait for you. And we usually had more than enough staff to accomplish the day's tasks of restocking, organizing, cheese cutting, and manning the counter.

Special Occasion

Restaurants are places for first dates and breaking up. Birthdays and anniversaries and family reunions. They're stages for special moments, important moments, and the stakes are high.

Groceries are for every day. They're for milk in your coffee in the morning and granola bars to pack in your kid's lunch box. They're for weeknight meals and weekend munchies. Yes, they're also for dinner parties and wooing your love with your killer buttery roast chicken.

We're part of routine. The quick stop between work and home for some Langres to smear and a baguette on which to smear it. I like the intimacy of that. I like being the bread and butter (or stinky cheese) of our customers' lives, not just the chocolate sundae.