The Waiting Game: Mains
above: artwork by Sophie Branigan
Main Course (Or Here’s the Beef)
For all the positive experiences I’ve had as a server, there have been plenty that were unsavory. As I mentioned, I have been fired before – I’ve come in late, hung over, exhausted and over it and performed terribly. Although I haven’t been fired since my early 20’s, it’s something that has happened, and I’m willing to admit there were times that I completely deserved it. However, looking back at some of my jobs I’ve been able to note the occasions my performance has been directly linked to my level of interest, and my interest is usually proportionate to the level of respect my employer has for me. So yes, I’ve been late, drunk and unfocused, but I have also been mistreated, under appreciated or outright victimised. When this happens my confidence takes a knock, and thus my work begins to suffer. Here I want to delve into some of the darker experiences I’ve had.
A long time ago I worked for a restaurant on Temple Bar – the ultimate tourist trap, where a bowl of stew was being hawked to tourists for €12. During my tenure I struggled somewhat with not being the strongest team member. I was still adjusting to this kind of high turnover work, but it wasn’t this that got me in trouble. At a certain point, the restaurant was taken under new management, specifically run by a nasty piece of work who also happened to be the head chef. On one of my first evenings working under him, I went to the pass and asked if I could get an extra burger bun. Two Spanish girls were sharing a double burger and wanted to split it. Up until this point, and considering the extortionate prices, something like this wouldn’t have been a problem. Anyway – upon my asking, he looked me dead in the face and more or less screamed: “If they want two fucking burgers they can pay for two fucking burgers!”
So I returned to the table and explained to them that an extra bun, even at a price, was not a possibility. As I turned and walked by the pass again, there, basking in the warm glow of the overhead heat lamp was a single burger bun on a side plate. I took it to the table, but I knew in my heart that the damage had already been done. Needless to say, things deteriorated after that, and in a matter of days I had gone from mid level competent but eager to please, to nervous, reticent and unwilling to put my neck on the line again to make sure the customers had the experience they were looking for. As far as the chef was concerned I was a piece of shit, the main villain on the floor – all for trying to do what I thought my job was, for daring to try and satisfy a customer’s request.
I’ll admit, my self confidence was not what it was now, and I wasn’t as capable of standing up for myself then. Rather than address and move on, I started to come to work in fear. The nervousness made me fuck up. Fucking up made me fuck up again. It was a downward spiral, a snake eating its own tail, and it left me feeling down, depressed and dejected. Needless to say they fired me – though they completely neglected to mention this to me. Of course it’s nothing unusual for a restaurant, especially one that is a hotbed of bad communication and negative emotion, to start leaving someone off of the roster without actually letting them go. I’m not stupid – I knew what was going on and began looking for new job. After giving me time off for exams, I came back in to tell them that I was totally available for full time work and they said they didn’t need me – this week.
I kept this up, coming in for about five weeks to check the roster before finally one of the managers, perplexed at why I was there again, nervously advised me that I no longer worked for them. I put on my best confused expression: “Oh, it’s just… no one actually told me I had been fired… and now I am behind on rent… and I could have looked for another job… AND I’M JUST SO SCARED!” At this point, the manager mostly just wanted me out of his life so he sort of shrugged an apology and disappeared into the kitchen. Which is when my inner Joker rose up from the depths of my mind. I picked up the roster – which I would proceed to burn in a doorway around the corner – and the stack of drinks trays, and walked out thinking “Don’t fuck with a crazy waiter who has nothing to lose motherfucker! I will bring you and this whole torturous shithole to it’s knees!” I may have been somewhat more unpredictable back then than I am now (just a touch).
(As an addendum to this story, I did sneak the trays back in the next day after putting my ex coworkers, some who are still among my good friends, through a hellish Friday night of ferrying drinks to 20 top tables two at a time – I would like to take both this moment and this medium to offer a sincere and long overdue apology to those people, but also to acknowledge that if I was faced with this moment again, the only thing I would change is that I’d have thrown the trays in the Liffey).
This all happened a long time ago, a time when I was young and green enough to be easily fucked with. A time when a negative atmosphere at work was something that would carry a searing echo in my daily life. I’d like to think that my little act of belligerence was the first step in changing my sense of worth in the work place – and in many ways it was – but that doesn’t mean I would suffer no more negative experiences in this kind of work. The indignity that took place in a recent job, even with my confidence and skill at the level it’s at now, rocked me so thoroughly that I think I might still be suffering some kind of mild PTSD. I spent a few years in this restaurant – hired as part of a start up staff for a new restaurant. We were trained by Americans for two weeks before the job started. Having just returned from the States, where I really enjoyed the service style employed in the industry, I felt that it was going to be great to work somewhere that was looking to run under those kind of ideals. The training was great – the staff were advised to be friendly, fun and most importantly, themselves. This felt good, a stroke of luck. It also didn’t last.
The restaurant had a couple of problems – firstly there were ‘too many cooks’. We tried to run it like we had been trained, but between the general manager, the manager, the shift manager and the two supervisor, the idea behind the service broke down. The American service style didn’t work in Dublin so well, and it eventually became a mess of serving styles. It was the kind of place where we were required to be both smart mouthed and polite at the same time. We were supposed to be ourselves as long as ourselves were what they were supposed to be. It was confusing, always changing, but the main problem was how they controlled us. Here I have to mention the recession again. We were controlled by the use of fear, with the subtle sense that we were all expendable, and honestly, most waiters are, however, that doesn’t mean you should feel that way. These employers had ways of controlling everyone and there was not one member of staff I didn’t see cry while I worked there.
Their favourite tactic was when it came to time off:
“Would it be possible to have this Wednesday off?”
“No, we don’t have enough strong staff.”
“Would it be possible to swap a shift with Sarah?”
“No, Sarah is always calling in sick, so you can’t have her cover you, also I make the roster the way I make it because that is when I need you to work.”
“Can I have the first weekend of September off?”
“Please ask closer to the time (because apparently we don’t have calendars).”
“Okay, it’s now July – can I have the first weekend of September off?”
“No, other people have asked for it now, so we need you to work.”
In a word: Rage.
The worst time this happened was when I had booked two weeks in New York from Christmas Eve onwards. Don’t get me wrong, I know that Christmas is a tough time to get cover, but I had offered to work every hour the lord sent until a matter of hours before my flight. The real truth is that after Christmas Eve, restaurants are dead – peoples houses are full of food, and even if you get a rush on New Years Eve and day, after that, January is the most deathly of all months. Anyway, the point wasn’t even that when I had asked for the time off they told me there was absolutely no way they could let me go – I actually understood that, but I laid it out for them anyway: “I’m not requesting time off, I’m informing you that I am unavailable.” And you know what? It worked. They gave me the time off. In fact, it worked so well that they not only gave me the two weeks I had requested off, but also the two weeks prior! Wow – such Christmas generosity! This dick move was designed to break my bank, wreck my holiday and ruin Christmas. No paycheck in December? Right on. I can tell how much you absolutely need me now. So much that you’re not going to use me at all just to spite me. I never felt more blessed to be the only child of a single mother Protestant bank manager, because if it wasn’t for that ability to be good with money, I would have been fucked.
Hours were a problem as well. I am a hard worker and will work almost any time. For two years I worked in this job to fund my way through an HND. By the end of the first year I was exhausted. My classes would end at 4, my shift would start at… 4! And superhuman that I am, I would somehow fit a 40 minute bus ride in between the two. In the summer, when business was quiet, we were reduced to a skeleton staff, so we had even less flexibility. To combat this they went overboard on the split shifts. Come in at 12, go on break at 2, if not earlier, come back at 6, unless we call you to come back at 7. This is all well and good if you live next door, but none of us did. We would often be left, day after day, to wander the town waiting to be called and told we weren’t needed until much later, if at all, after giving up hours of our days. It was frustrating, and it didn’t work. It’s no wonder staff started to rock up drunk for their evening shift.
These are only a couple of examples of what happened there. Aggressive managers, unsympathetic schedules, it came to the point that I was working 6 hours a week while they hired new staff members (“No English OR experience? Perfect! Join us at a lower rate of pay today!”). I decided that if they couldn’t guarantee hours I would go on the part time workers allowance. After being put off by the managers, I went to head office to get my forms signed. They flat out refused, telling me that the A4 form they were required to fill out was “too much work” for the entire personnel department to handle, that if they gave me the benefit of BENEFITS, then everyone would want them. They actively blocked me from both earning and supplementing my earnings, as though they were trying to run me into the ground. I called the Welfare Office, the Citizens Advice Bureau, the National Employment Rights Authority and Department of Social Protection. I called anyone who would listen and they advised me to obtain a letter stating why they refused to help. They refused to write the letter. Soon after that I resigned.
For all that was good about the place (and there were good things), it was continuously outweighed by some inescapable, inexcusable bad. The small ways that they screwed with us were innumerable: Accusing me of stealing tips, the letters of warning, the constant threat of being fired for simple mistakes, the inhumane screaming from the kitchen, no Christmas party (when they finally had one the year I left, not a single member of staff came). It might just be easier to say that this was the ultimate in a bad workplace environment. I may sound somewhat over dramatic, and at times I can be, but the stress that I was put under here was not unique to me. This business turned on its staff one by one, and eventually the drudgery was so suffocating that we in turn, slowly stopped caring about the service.
This was the job that truly broke my faith in the industry. I came away disillusioned. I came away afraid to even apply for something that I didn’t think I would like because I feared that if I got the job I might never leave. I came away more damaged than I’d care to admit, honestly feeling that I had been broken down, that I might in fact be useless. I compared it to escaping an abusive relationship, terrified that it would happen again if I was to work. That was a year ago and I haven’t been able to reconcile that experience, but on the plus side I came away completely unwilling to compromise myself for a job, and that may be the silver lining of the whole mess.
- Words: Andy Apple
- Illustration: Sophie Branigan
The Waiting Game is a three part series written by Andy Apples and illustrated by Sophie Branigan. This is part two, you can find the other parts here. The final installment will be published next week.