Ranking All the Food Service Jobs I Had That Made Me Cry

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Ranking All the Food Service Jobs I Had That Made Me Cry

I was never technically a server nor (thank god for my mental health) a line cook. I’ve never had to traipse through fields at dawn, spending hours picking the food that ends up on all of our plates. I commend anyone who does or has done these food service jobs—I know I don’t have the emotional or physical fortitude to last more than a week (or less) in these positions. But blessed as I am to have been able to avoid some of the most stressful, underappreciated jobs in the food industry, I’ve had my share of difficult experiences while making money by helping to feed people.

These jobs were unpleasant enough that I become annoyed—angry, even—when I hear people who have only ever worked desk jobs call the jobs restaurant and food workers do “unskilled labor,” like punching numbers into an Excel spreadsheet requires infinitely more talent than spending 10 hours straight interfacing with difficult customers or slaving away in a hot kitchen six nights out of the week or carefully inspecting row after row of plants to check for the perfect level of ripeness. The job I have now, which has taken me a degree and a half and multiple professional certifications to obtain, is infinitely easier than any of the food service jobs I worked when I was younger, and I’m sure many other former food service workers would say the same.

I share my own experiences with the hope that someone will read this and have a bit more compassion and respect for the food service workers they encounter in their lives… or maybe just to commiserate with anyone who’s ever been in a similar position. Without further ado, these are all the food service jobs I worked that made me cry, ranked.

3. Breakfast buffet catering almost exclusively to the very elderly

I worked as a cashier at this breakfast buffet in suburban Georgia, but I was also responsible for refilling the moldy-smelling sweet tea dispenser, cleaning the buffet, which was often left a mess by the half-blind, shaky-handed patrons, and serving the tables filled with people too elderly to make it up to the buffet with a tray in hand (which was, actually, quite a few of them). Honestly, I preferred these tasks to sitting at the old-timey cash register, alternating between taking $7.50 from guests who never, ever had correct change and just sitting there, barred from looking at my phone or reading a book, constantly watched by the owner who had trained a camera on me that he watched relentlessly from the back room, convinced I was going to try to steal from him.

This was the least-bad job of the bunch, because despite the acute boredom, the constant suspicion and the general air of sexual harassment, it required very little actual physical labor on my part. The worst part of the job, by far, was dealing with the customers. Most of the people who made their way to the register were kind, appreciative, even funny. But the ones who weren’t (mostly men—surprise!) were vile to me. At best, the comments they made were thoughtless and unkind. At worst, they were so deeply misogynistic that I felt the need to take a 20-minute shower after every shift, scrubbing until long after the smell of frozen hashbrowns had left my hair.

2. Gyro stand at music festivals

Scarred as I was from my time at the breakfast buffet, I decided to get a “fun” job. What’s more fun than working at music festivals, serving gyros and greasy fries to open-minded festival goers while getting to enjoy the music in the background? As it turns out, pretty much everything. The hours were long—12- to 14-hour days entirely on your feet were the norm—and the work was hard. Inexplicably, we were required to wear vastly oversized black polo shirts, which made the summer heat, cooking meat and constantly running grills even more unbearable than they already were. At one festival, after experiencing unexplained tingling and heart palpitations for half the day, a coworker discovered that I was being mildly electrocuted whenever I used the metal sink to wash the constantly growing pile of dirty dishes.

This was and is the hardest job I’ve ever had, but to be fair, it wasn’t all bad. Taking the occasional break to go smoke a joint in the porta-potties provided enough physical relief to tackle the wasted, gyro-hungry lines that would appear after the headlining sets, and my coworkers, who remain the hardest-working people I’ve ever met, got me through with their humor, strength and generosity. 

1. Gluten-free bakery

The worst of the bunch was the gluten-free bakery I worked at in college, where I was regularly berated by stay-at-home moms of kids with long lists of their childs’ supposed allergies. It was in a white, wealthy part of town where customers truly seemed to believe that we catered to them and them alone. No offense to the nice gluten-free people out there, but something about catering to the gluten-free crowd seemed to ensure that you’d be dealing with the most demanding, least pleasant people to ever grace a bakery. I would rather serve a psilocybin-afflicted 21-year-old boy fresh off of a Travis Scott set than a 42-year-old blonde mom with a child who has a red dye 40 “allergy” any day of the week. Answering the phone, there was a 50% chance I would be yelled at, which upset me for the first week but soon made me cackle to my fellow coworkers with glee as I put the phone on mute and speaker and we all paused to listen to the ridiculous request that would undoubtedly follow the complaint.

One time, when I was alone at the bakery and in the process of melting some milk chocolate in a double boiler, I had to answer one of these calls, and as I tried to professionally respond to the legal threats being lobbed at me, the water in the double boiler bubbled over. As I grabbed it off the stove, my hand got badly burnt—so badly that I developed obscene blisters on my fingers that made it impossible to do anything with my hands the next day. I couldn’t take off, so one of my coworkers drained the blisters in the back of the kitchen (don’t tell the health department), which allowed me to wash dishes for hours that day and was fine until the fingers got infected and I spent the next week on antibiotics. Not being allowed to take time off was a big thing there; I finally quit when my boss, the owner, said I was purposely trying to sabotage her business after both of my grandmas died and I had to attend the out-of-state funerals on the same weekend my coworker had planned to take off to attend a wakeboarding competition.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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