What the Service Industry Taught Me About Life
There’s a huge stigma about workers in the restaurant industry. They’re lazy, uneducated and unworthy of decent wages. My five years in the industry taught me how wildly inaccurate that assumption is—and helped me grow as a person; as a woman.
After graduating from high school, I filled out countless applications for restaurant jobs. My first job at a steakhouse was nerve-racking, with so many changes; moving into the dorms at college, starting classes, entering the workforce, not being surrounded by the people I had spent every day of the past four years with. I was terrified, but also eager for the new chapter. I spent the following five years working in the restaurant industry. I never expected it to have such a significant impact on my life. I took the job to pay for college, but what I gained doesn’t come with a dollar sign attached.
1. The benefits of financial independence
Yeah, I took the job to make money, and yeah, I was able to put myself through college. But the tangible financial benefit was was more than that. Everyone knows servers live off of their tips, and those tips helped me understand the value of money. They taught me to budget; I kept track of my earnings from each shift, monitored how much I was spending and put money aside for tuition and other bills. Getting paid after each shift is entirely different from getting a check weekly, biweekly or monthly. Cash-in-hand is trickier than a piece of plastic you can swipe on demand; it's harder, more painful, to spend cash, because you can physically see the income disappearing. When I went on a shopping spree, I thought twice about making a purchase—each $50 was directly related to a shift where I worked hard to earn it. Nowadays, I'm mindful of my income and spending because I spent years surviving on cash tips, which is all about balance and budgeting.
2. Communication skills
I consider myself an extroverted-introvert; I like interacting with people, but it can be draining and I still need time to myself. I grew up shy, and I wasn’t great at starting conversation with new people. After five years of serving, I became fluent in small-talk. Interacting with diverse guests and coworkers taught me how to converse about a variety of topics and make quick friends with strangers. I learned what questions to ask, how to read people and how to resolve conflicts. As a server, you have to speak with confidence and certainty, but also sympathy. If a guest's meal is taking a long time, you're the face that has to explain why. If an order is sent out incorrectly, you have to communicate with the kitchen staff and managers to find a solution, and you have to do it quickly. It’s not an easy industry; it’s stressful and intimidating. I've been cursed out by a guest over cold french fries and I’ve had to call the police to come get an intoxicated guest who urinated on himself and refused to pay his tab. The restaurant industry put me in some weird and uncomfortable situations, but each one taught me how to solve problems, use my words to address issues and communicate effectively with everyone around me.
3. A perspective on diversity
Building relationships with my coworkers and facing the realities of life was the most significant part of working in a restaurant for me. I bonded with people who were vastly different than me, who had such varied upbringings and struggles. It gave me a new perspective to see all these different people and paths in life work together (almost) seamlessly. We talked about real issues, and I learned so much from hearing about others’ experiences. When talking about homelessness one day, and several of my coworkers confessed to having lived on the streets at some point. My privileged-self was shocked, because that's something I've never had to worry about; I gained insight into a concept otherwise foreign to me. Many of my coworkers didn't own a car and took the bus or had to walk several miles. I often gave them rides home, which was the least I could do. I worked with men who had served time in prison and were out on probation; they were some of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met. Over time, these people became my family. I looked to them for advice, I trusted their opinions and I took the time to learn from them and hear their stories.
4. The grit of women
Being a woman in the service industry means dealing with sexual and verbal harassment on the daily. It means using your “customer voice” to appear cheerful, despite whatever personal struggles you’re experiencing. It means putting on red lipstick before a shift because you’ve learned that gets you better tips. There are single moms working multiple jobs, and still making time for family. There are college students putting themselves through nursing school. I had a coworker who was 20 years old, raising her three younger siblings, dancing on the weekends for extra money and doing it all without any real external support. I had another coworker who was a teacher, going to school for her master’s degree, picking up shifts at the restaurant, actively involved in her sorority's alumni chapter and raising a baby. Service industry women are so much stronger than people assume. The service industry gave me an amazing group of women who motivate me to be the best version of myself. They support my goals and act as my personal therapist. We’re a diverse group, but those differences melted away and we blended together, often grabbing drinks together after work to discuss life at great lengths.
The service industry gets looked down on for not being a "real" profession, or slammed for having to tip the workers, or mocked because "how hard is it to get a drink order right?" But serving is a tough job. Service industry workers aren't lazy, or unskilled, or incompetent because they work in a restaurant—they’re stronger because of it. The service industry taught me about life, and diversity, and overcoming obstacles. It taught me about humility, empathy and responsibility. It taught me to be assertive, independent and confident in who I am. I’m a better person because of the service industry, and I will carry everything I’ve learned with me throughout my career—wherever that may be.
Kimmie is a Jacksonville native and caffeine enthusiast. She graduated from UNF with a BA in English and Minor in Mass Communications. She worked in the service industry for the past five years and is currently employed as an office assistant. She aspires to work in publishing and is consistently building her portfolio and trying to land freelance gigs. You can find more of her writing over on her blog, www.coffeeandcarry-ons.com