On a good shift, working in hospitality can be a fun and rewarding experience. On a bad shift, it can be a unique blend of exhausting and stressful. In my experience, nothing you hear about this type of work can properly prepare you for what’s involved. You’re not only communicating with people constantly over the course of 10 hours. You’re also on your feet running around for the entirety of that time on an increasingly empty stomach, all the while trying to make sure that customers have a good time and get what they want (when they want it).
The benefits of such work go well beyond the experience of each individual shift. Up until working at my first hospitality job, I wasn’t that sure of myself: I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finished my degree and I wasn’t confident with talking to strangers, let alone dealing with confrontation. But after a few months working as a waiter, I noticed that certain things about myself and my thoughts began to change.
Such is the nature of hospitality work that there is never enough time to do everything. You’re stuck taking an order from finicky table 15 whilst impatient table 9 is twiddling their thumbs waiting for dessert menus, meanwhile 2 cocktails are sitting on the bar top ready to be taken out (their ice gradually melting) and 3 dirty bowls are sitting on the table beneath them, which you know you need to get down to the kitchen straight away for table 13 who just ordered 8 soups—none of these being things you can deal with until table 15 finally decides which wine would go best with tonight’s smoked haddock. Efficiency is essential.
But in a noisy, warm, demanding social environment, your efficiency won’t exactly achieve lab conditions. What happens is that, eventually and out of necessity, you develop a clarity of thought that can handle urgency and structure sequences of small jobs. And not only do you learn to break things down into chunks in order to create the bigger picture, but you’re thrown into the deep end in order to learn it. Efficiency and clarity of thought are incredibly useful tools.
The work also taught me about the reality of the way some people are. One evening, I took two French 75 cocktails—gin, champagne, lemon juice and sugar, served in a champagne flute—over to a table of two friendly enough men. On seeing the cocktails, the men refused to accept them because they felt the drinks were “not for men” and demanded I get them two new “manly” drinks. The ridiculousness of this reason aside, when I told them that it was not possible as they had under 10 minutes left on their booking, the two men became hostile. They demanded that I went to get the drinks they wanted. “Come on. Stop wasting time, will you? Just get the drinks.” My attention was briefly distracted by another table who was saying thank you on the way out. I turned back to the two men. “You’re talking to me now—not them. Where are the drinks?” one of them said.
I didn’t get the drinks—there simply wasn’t time for them to be made, nor was there enough time for the men to be able to drink four drinks, pay their bill and for us to clean their table for the next booking. The manager weighed in on the situation and calmed the two men down, and, eventually, the two men paid and left. I felt I had been belittled and bullied. But as frustrating as it was, by having to deal with confrontation I began to understand the need to know how to resolve it. I realised that I was learning to rise above these situations and tune my professional approach—something that has helped me deal with a plethora of other issues in other aspects of life, from disputes with landlords to resolving issues at work.
You also learn a certain type of artful communication that leaves customers feeling happy and looked after, even when giving them bad news. The next time I had to more or less tell someone that their time was fast running out and they couldn’t have another drink, I told them “I would love to bring you another drink, but that would leave you 10 minutes to finish them and I don’t want you to have to rush them while you pay your bill.” It was received not as an authoritative “No”, but as good advice. Deliver bad information as bad information and you’ll only create more problems for yourself. Find a way of delivering bad information as good information and everyone wins! (Note: The appropriateness of this varies on a case by case basis.)
Sure enough, by the time I had gone into my final year at university, I took my clearer, more efficient and more confident mind with me. I was more rational with my use of time and had a better sense of how small chunks of time made up the bigger picture of my life.