Friday, April 30, 2010

R.I.P. Deli Coffee Cup Man.

Leslie Buck, designer of the ubiquitous We Are Happy To Serve You blue paper coffee cup passed away yesterday at the age of 87. Check out the NY Times obit for this graphic design pioneer- immigrant, holocaust survivor, shrewd businessman. I bet his design legacy will live for many years to come.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Movie Night For An Icky Sicky Restaurant Worker.

I, like many Gen Yers, find Disney movies deeply comforting. When I am sick (like now with my stuffed sinuses and various allergic reactions to the entire world), there is nothing better than lying in bed, equipped with a mug of tea and a box of tissues, watching some fantastic movie designed for 8 year olds.

It won't surprise anybody that I love Ratatouille. From the basic but oh so satisfying low-status protagonist saves the day and becomes an important figure in the community through-line and the affirmation of the legitimacy of cultural critics to the themes of unabashed love of good food and adventure and just plain being yourself, I love everything about it. I also love how accurate the kitchen is- from the job descriptions to the copper pots, from the various personalities to the layout of the space, Ratatouille is spot-on. This startlingly clear glimpse into fine dining is definitely the product of good research- really, the best. Amazing, national cuisine-changing, "Top Chef" guest judging, French Laundry geniusing Chef Thomas Keller was their consultant. Geek out with me, people!

But why, oh why, would I want to watch a movie about a restaurant kitchen when today was a miserably gruelling day of work and I don't feel good?

My guess is it's good, old-fashioned wish-fulfillment. In this film I see a world I already inhabit. But in this glorious version, I never get yelled at, ignored, burned, bumped, ripped off, or pissed off. And rats can cook.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In Which I Get Sad and Sore. Or, Another (Damned Early) Breakfast Event.

Today I was a one-woman special event show. Arriving at 7:30 AM I swept the space and set up the coffee service. Our clients arrived at 8, at which point I started serving and bussing all by my lonesome. Their guests arrived at 9- I was on till noon. The good news? No tip sharing. The bad news? I am really fucking sore. The "tray" I would hold for 15 minute intervals was not a tray but a wooden butcher board, approximately 10 pounds. Now, I'm no weakling, but you try holding ten pounds of circular wood with bite sized treats on it with one arm for a grand total of four hours and see how your wrists and shoulders feel.

The event was fascinating. A fashion PR firm transformed our event space into a store showcasing the sartorial goodies of their client. Buyers, editors, and stylists came in like an open house to view the clothes and get swag from the firm. Dress code was either cute little dress with black tights and black tall heels or slouchy jeans rolled with wedges and a sensibly feminine men's shirt. The whole scene was very "Kell on Earth."

What really effected me though was how these women (and three gay men) ate. The bites we served were in no way light, just little. Some women literally salivated as I described each item, but couldn't bring themselves to lift their hand to my tray. Some women took one item, and nursed it. Others abstained, claiming huge breakfasts. Some would eat, swoon from the long forgotten taste of carbohydrates and fat, and then talk for at least a minute and a half about how large they were getting this month. Others ate happily, and to them I say, Cheers! You need to eat to live so you might as well enjoy it once in a while.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

An Open Letter To Monday Night Customers.

Dear People I Served Last Night,

I'd like to acknowledge certain etiquette rules. Don't talk to me while you are chewing. I'm happy to make a self-deprecating joke about my bad timing so you can chew and swallow before talking to me. Also, it is inappropriate to touch people you don't know. When I am walking by, try "Excuse me" or "Miss" or "Can we place a drink order?" before even thinking about touching me. Grab my arm at your own peril. I had to fight my every instinct not to shove your arm off me, and the fact that I even managed to smile at you was a triumph of costumer service that you did not deserve.

To the two gay gentleman ordering food and dirty martinis: I love you. You were lovely to talk to, you kept the drink orders coming, you tipped generously, and you let me know that you were having a great time. Thanks.

To the gentleman squatter: The reason I kept asking you if you need anything is because you had been sitting since 2:30 in the afternoon, it was 8:30 and all you had ordered was a single glass of orange juice while typing away at your computer. Now, you are in the lobby of a hotel so I get that it's not a proper restaurant/bar. Still. Think for two seconds, OJ Stingeson, and you'll realize my point. When other costumers see you not ordering and not getting kicked out, or even the dirty eye, they might follow suit. My humble suggestion for people really settling into their spot : For every 2 hours at least, buy something. A soda, a snack, and if you're feeling generous, an alcoholic beverage. Me coming over to refresh your water glass every time you wave at me is time spent not paying attention to costumers who are actually going to help me make money. Screw you and your fresh squeezed juice.

To the couple drinking gimlets as I was ending my shift: Thanks for the extra tip. I later learned that after transferring your check to my coworker I still got a cut of his tip pool. Those extra 5 bucks you slipped me were unnecessary, it turns out. But your generosity of spirit will not go unnoticed by the world.

Finally, to everyone who bumped into me, especially the large gentleman with the rolling suitcase : Places where food and drinks are being brought to people by people demand an awareness of spacial relations. When you rammed into me with your luggage, I almost fell onto the couple whose order I was taking. If I had been carrying a tray, all three of us would have worn its contents. You didn't even look back and apologize. You knocked the wind out of me and my costumers noticed that I was in pain. You suck, sir.



Monday, April 26, 2010

Playing With Food Can Be An Art. But Don't Get Touchy If Your Busser Spits On You.

Artist Kevin Van Aelst makes fingerprints from food- sugar packets, macaroni and the like. But if I had to clean this up, I'd be real mad. And bussers deal with enough- people's nasty used napkins, dirty silverware and lipstick stained wine glasses. Why give them more work? Why?

Here's the article about Kevin on boingboing.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Private Party and Public Boredom. Or, Working Coat Check In The Spring.

Last night, I worked for the special events crew doing coat check. The event was an after-party for a film screening. There was promise of celebrity sightings. I arrived at 10:30 pm, left at 2:30 AM and made about $70 bucks in those 4 hours. Not bad at all.

But what did I actually do? What is the life of a coat check attendant?

10:30 pm : Arrive. As guests won't be showing up till 11:30 at the earliest, go to the barista station and make an iced americano. Need caffeine to be charming and perky. Give young barista semi-solicited college advice- major in whatever you want! get a job where you can do your homework while getting paid!

10:50 : Go to the coat check stand downstairs. Write out the tickets; hang tickets on hangers. Wait. Read awesome book.

11:30 : Once the guests arrive, I trade them tickets for coats and bags. I direct guests to the bathroom. Some generous guests tip when I take their coats. Some don't. Since it's mid-April there aren't that many coat wearers anyway.

OverlyThoughtOutfitLady : Can I check my bag?
Underemployed : Of course.
OverlyThoughtOutfitLady :You'll be here the whole time?
Underemployed : I'll be sitting here for the entire event. You're stuff will be safe.
OverlyThoughtOutfitLady : You won't get distracted and walk away?
Underemployed(perhaps too bitterly) : No, I have this awesome book to keep me occupied.

Read my awesome book. Text friends on West Coast since East Coast friends are either drunk or in bed. Instruct people without wristbands to go upstairs and get one if their name is on the list. Read awesome book. Look alive.

Overheard :

30something woman #1 : I have no business here.
30something woman #2 : I know. There's a lot of people who shouldn't be here. I'm really annoyed.

2:00 am: As guests leave, trade the coats and bags for ticktes. Smile a lot so as to entice them to put cash in the tip jar. Chat about the book I'm reading. Chat about the party. Deal with drunk men.

Drunk 20something (in no way ashamed of blatantly staring at Underemployed's chest): You' huge.
Underemployed: Uh huh.
Drunk 20-something : Pretty.
Underemployed: Thanks. Can I have your ticket?
Drunk 20something: It's really...big. Can I touch it?
Underemployed: Here's your coat. Goodnight.

2:30 : Hail a cab.

And that's all it was. Some nice people, some rude people, a lot of drunk people. I assume coat check is more challenging when it's actually cold out and everyone has heavy coats to shed, but it's not rocket science. And you can read.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

I Talk To You And Give You Food Because That's How I Get Paid. Get Over Yourself.

Like so many men, emerging country singer and former pizza delivery guy Jonathan Byrd knows the simple pleasures of having a woman around. And though he seems to be kidding, his song does hit an anti-feminist nerve. Why is he in love with his waitress? Because she is a pretty woman who calls him sir, because she smiles at him, checks in to see how he's doing, because she listens, and because she will "come back till [he's] had enough."

An Afterthought : Here are some pet names costumers have called me at work. I bet they would never use these inappropriate diminutives with the male servers.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

You Never Forget Your First. Or, A Lightweight's First Shot Of Recession Rejection.

Nearing the end of my time in Seattle, Spring '09, I gave myself a sort of ultimatum. If I couldn't get a new job in the remaining month of my lease, I'd move home. I mean literally. To my Dad's house.

Prompted by my first taste of total unemployment, I did my first Craigslist Job Search. (And little did I know then that this would become a serious habit.) I wound up interviewing with and getting accepted by a small temp agency. I won them over with my pedigree and "bubbly personality."

When I met with them after being accepted, I told them the ultimatum. Either I start making money, or I pack it in and go back east. My "talent coordinator," let's call him Joe, seemed both concerned and excited.

Joe: One month. That's not a lot of time.
Underemployed: It's as long as I have. I won't renew my lease without a job. My Dad said I could live rent free for a while back east.
Joe: Great. That's great. Well, I love a challenge and I'm going to do my best to do get you to as many interviews as I can. We'll place you. Seattle wants you.
Underemployed: Well, thanks.

The first interview they sent me on was to do cold calling to raise money for a charity supporting MD research. "Just be your bright, bubbly self," Joe told me before the interview. As I walked up Aurora, I felt great about my prospects. Here I was, Miss Never-Met-An-Application-That-Didn't-Like-Me, schlepping up Aurora for a temp job in my perfect purple tweed ballet flats, denim pencil skirt and cardigan. I was a slam dunk and I didn't even have to meet the other candidates to know it. (For those of you who don't know, Aurora Avenue is a small highway. Like, fast cars and billboards but you have to walk it if you want to reach this dive of an office without taking a cab. )

I followed the signs through the office to the interview. There were so many people. Forget enough seating, there wasn't enough room in the company's office space, so we wrapped around in a line in the hallway outside their door. Looking around me, I got my first real taste of what it means to be facing serious national unemployment. Sure there were a couple of people younger than me, but there were middle aged people too. So many men and women of various walks of life all united in collective misery- here we were, resumes in hands hoping for the chance to cold call for a couple months.

We were given name tags- first name, staffing agency. In groups of 10 we shepherded into a small conference room. Everyone was tense. We went around and introduced ourselves. Do we have any outstanding interest in MD? Stories of nieces, nephews, children of friends of friends. Any sales experience? Stories of traveling salesmen, real estate agents, Avon ladies. Any significant phone experience? My turn to shine. After spending a year telling actors (or their agents) they didn't get the part, I had developed some reprehensibly smooth ways with a telephone.

We each recited a monologue that we had to adapt from the script they gave us. I would have been embarrassed but for the fact that everyone else sucked at re-writing and sucked even worse at selling it. Without giving away too much, all I will reveal is that I had to say, out loud, in front of other human beings, such phrases as "paddy wagon" and "dance till you drop." But the kicker, of course, was repeating the words "muscular dystrophy" approximately 5 times in 2 minutes. Everyone got tongue tied. Except for me, who studied diction in acting class and in a class on public speaking.

After the monologue humiliation, one on one interviews. The young woman interviewing me seemed no brighter than a thumb tack, but she was really sweet and wore non-threatening frosted lipstick. I left assuming I had a shot, but I knew my chances were low. There were just so many people.

A phone call.
Joe: Well, I heard from the MD people.
Underemployed: Oh?
Joe: They loved you. They said you were warm, and positive and have great speaking skills. But they're going with another candidate. However, their liaison told me they might be hiring again soon, and she said you're at the top of that list.
Unemployed: Well, that's nice. Do you have any other leads? I've got three weeks to figure this out.
Joe: Don't you worry, Underemployed. I'm working on it for you.

That was the last I heard from Joe. I sent him an email, just giving him the heads up I was leaving town, and he never wrote me back. But I owe him a lot. I mean, if a talent coordinating professional like Joe couldn't place me in a month, I knew I was going to have to work doubly hard to find work when I got back east. Not getting that job was exactly the wake up call I needed. The job market isn't just tough, I realized. It's a damned formidable backstop that demands strength and endurance from those who wish to get to the other side.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

If Only Being A Waiter Were As Easy.

Check out this drawing lesson from long time cartooning teacher Bruce Blitz.

Another way to draw a waiter? Give him food halfway through dinner service when he's busy and starving and he'll follow you to the ends of the earth.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Guess What! I'd Really Rather Work At The Restaurant.

My daily does of Craigslist has had two satisfying results today. Result 1 : Learning one of my favorite music venues is hiring servers. Hello, second job, is that you? Result 2 : Yet again, I'm reminded why working at the restaurant is positively luxurious.

Disgusting Job Of The Week? Nauseating Clinical Trials!

The job itself is to participate in a research survey testing the efficacy of a topical ointment to treat toe nail fungus. The catch? In order to be a paid participant you have to have been diagnosed by a real physician with toe nail fungus. That's compensation up to $600 I'm proud to kiss good bye.

But even worse? Not the job opening, but for all those patients whose nasty toes are in this trial, there's got to be some poor soul dipping q-tips in ointment and being near people's yucky toes. And then filling out sheets and sheets of questionnaires about...toe fungus and ointment. Gross.

Salt For Your Wounds. Or, Tasty Little Buzz-Kills.

Did you know April is National Stress Awareness month? I only found out this morning and deeply regret the missed opportunities to wear a ribbon, do a telethon, ask strangers how they're doing, or tell strangers how stressed out I am about not having A Career.

Although I've been suffering from acute Stress Awareness since May '09, I guess it's fitting that the month that begins with practical jokes lurking behind any corner and peaks with filing your taxes is also the month that encourages you to speak your stress and tame that beast.

How to cope?

A recent study from Penn State suggests that a diet that includes pistachios can reduce the body's responses to the stresses of everyday life. While in my personal pistachio eating experience I haven't found this to be the case, who knows how bad off I'd be without that little bit of green.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Restaurants Are Trendy. Or, Econ 101 For The Food Set.

I read an interesting article in the New York Times a couple days ago that suggested restaurants are bellwethers of the economy. This is great news for me and everyone else in the essentially commission-based restaurant industry. It feels great to be a trend setter.

Here are some other bellwethers:

Bank of America

Sienna Miller

JP Morgan and Intel

Bellwether Hard Cider

Kate Moss

Aptly comparing restaurants and retail, the New York Times article finds hope in the slowing rate of decline in New York City's food industry. While this article focused on consumer optimism as manifested by a desire to spend on entertainment, I'm thinking there might be some cooler reasons that restaurants are good economic trend forecasters.

Restaurants don't only service one-off walk-in costumers. As we know from my own special event work, restaurants are hosts to business functions, both on site and catered. There is business entertaining, client lunches, networking dinners. An upswing in the balance of corporate expense accounts will quickly register in the restaurant industry, making eateries a good place to track business health.

Restaurants themselves are big buyers. From the alcohol at the bar and the glassware its served in, to the raw ingredients and the cooks that transform them, any given restaurant is already pumping money into its related economies and is directly impacted by the trends that govern them. If a given restaurant can afford to stay open, there are a slew of other businesses and economies benefiting from its existence. A robust restaurant scene theoretically suggests robust affiliated economies- better times for food purveyors, kitchen appliance retailers and manufacturers, beverage companies and the like.

Looking at restaurants as an aggregate, there's got to be a ripple effect. I've certainly noticed it in the New York City labor market. So many of the jobs on Craigslist are at restaurants. I myself am a testament to the power of restaurant hiring. The only steady employment I've had in past year has been in the restaurant industry- and the only other long-term job offer I've gotten from the scads of random interviews? To work at another restaurant.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

V.I.P. Reflection Effect

Many restaurant kitchens jump through hoops to give a VIP exactly what he wants. Like Yosemite Sam cooking in the king's kitchen.

But just because someone is powerful doesn't mean they know about food. VIPs out there- stick to the menu. Or, since money is no object for you and yet some of your meal will be comped so you feel good and come back, tell the kitchen they can send you whatever they want and they'll love you for letting them show off their finest dishes. Live a little.

Of course, those of us front of house deal with strange requests as well. Bizarre VIP request story of the week: The son of a beloved American actor known for playing a kind of slow but remarkably zeitgeist-y southerner and various generic romantic leads came into the restaurant with friends several months ago. His request? That we put his Americano in a different, larger cup that was "easier to hold." Seeing as we only stock one size of coffee cup, we had to run around like crazy looking for a different mug. But we find one we did. And I hope he found the mug suitably easy on his delicate fingers.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

David Lynch is a Server's Auteur.

Agent Cooper, serving you would be a dream. You're so polite, your order is simple, and you tip like a high roller at a Vegas Black Jack table. Cherry pie and black coffee so hot it makes any a la mode action melt. A blazer and trench coat in a room of flannel and windbreakers.

Happy 20th Anniversary.

The sleeve above, complete with a slice and a mug, is by Mez Love working at Tattoo Boogaloo in San Francisco, CA.

Descants, Desks, And Derrieres. A Craigslist Ballad.

During a burst of proactivity in February, inspired by a desire for more money and a misguided belief that if I had any kind of Desk Job I'd be closer to A Career, I focused my Craigslist searching on part-time admin jobs I could take while still working at the restaurant.

I found a promising post that advertised a part time client services position (read: lunch fetcher) at a small but successful video post production company. I eagerly sent them my materials and within a day had my interview scheduled. I was one step closer to sitting and internet browsing at work.

Battling through epic amounts of slush, I headed to their office on Broadway, in a neighborhood that is called NoHo by real estate people only. The night before had been one of the torrential snows of the season, and I worried that the office would be closed.

I entered the lobby and introduced myself to the receptionist, noting the front desk area, my potential future workspace. The ergonomic chair was singing to me and my achey self of better times, and I noted the paused Hulu video on the computer with envy and excitement. After sitting in the office's lobby, watching videos of the firm's editing work on the massive flatscreens, I met the woman who would interview me. We sat facing each other in rolling desk chairs in her office, which was equipped with the largest, sexiest Mac screen I've ever seen in real life. She had my resume in front of her.

Boss Lady: Basically the job has two main aspects. Manning the front desk- you know, answering phones, sorting mail. The other part is client services. When we have clients, we might need you to pick up lunch, coffee, stuff like that.
Underemployed: Great. I have reception experience, and I'm pretty comfortable taking food orders.
Boss Lady laughs.
Boss Lady: Well, you went to Ivy League, so I think you can handle this.
Underemployed, to herself: Don't sound arrogant. Talk about work, not school.
Underemployed: Well, my office and reception experiences have given me good training, and I'm a people person. I'm great on the phone and I enjoy this sort of work.
Boss Lady: I mean. Ivy League is a really great school. Creative people there.
Underemployed: I had a great time and learned a lot.
Boss Lady: I bet. You can do the job. I mean, you went to Ivy League. It's just a matter of us figuring out scheduling, you know, since we're hiring to replace CurrentPartTimer. We're interviewing people this week.
Underemployed: Well, I'm not working many shifts at the restaurant these days, and when you let me know what days you need me, I'll move my restaurant schedule around. This would take priority.

The interview was great. Boss Lady was interested in my thoughts about Ivy League; how New York compared to Seattle; how I felt about the restaurant industry; my art career. I even managed to make a few nerdy FinalCut jokes while praising her firm's beautiful editing projects. (I didn't even have to lie about it. They have an impressive portfolio of happy clients) We finished up our conversation on New York City snow navigation and strategies, bonded over our mutual anxiety about the elevated portion of the F train and said our goodbyes. I left feeling that I did my best, which was pretty good.

"It would be sweet to have a second job where I don't have to ask permission to go to the bathroom!" I thought to myself as I shivered down Broadway.

Her insistence on Ivy League and my over-qualification didn't sit well with me as hours and then days passed. I sensed it was a bad sign and the death knell of the interview, replaying her comments in my head over and over again to the the main Psycho theme. About a week later, I got the rejection email, which told me the firm decided to go with a candidate better suited to the work. And you know what? I wasn't surprised or disappointed. I think Boss Lady wanted to talk with me about art and city life because she thought I was interesting and on some subconscious level knew she wasn't going to hire me. Maybe she found a career receptionist, or maybe a young film student who wants to follow in her footsteps. Or maybe she didn't believe I was willing to take orders from her. Now that would be funny.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Full Sleeves Under White Sleeves.

Our staff, both front and back of house, is heavily inked. Servers with script on their forearms and Celtic style knots on their backs. Bartenders with full Japanese style sleeves of koi fish in water. But the back of house staff? By far the coolest tattoos in the restaurant.

There are dishwashers in snap-front, short-sleeved whites that expose the Virgin Marys, crosses and praying hands on their arms and necks. One particularly handsome dishwasher has a teardrop below his right eye. (I kind of avoid him, occasionally smiling if we make direct eye contact.)

And then there are the line cooks. When they roll up those pristine white sleeves, our cooking crew is anything but bare-skinned. Our Grill Goddess has sleeves that include pin up girls cooking, Lichtenstein-style portraits and cartoon-colored raw steaks. The Sautee Guy (one of the kindest souls off the line and one of the busiest on) has a beautiful, accurately rendered horseshoe above his elbow. One of the hot/cold swings has a cleaver on his forearm. This isn't unique to our kitchen at all. The New York Times ran a slide show of chefly tats that fills my heart with glee.

I'll leave you with this video clip, the stuff that (my) fantasies are made of. I'm not sure who to be more jealous of: Anthony Bourdain, for yet another amazing experience, this time getting a custom piece by rock star tattooer Chris Garver OR Chris Garver, for getting covetable one-on-one time with culinary hero Anthony Bourdain without fearing a battle of ego or epicure.

The beautiful pig tattoo at the top of this post is by Brooklyn's own John Reardon, from Saved Tattoo in Williamsburg.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I Bet This Waitress Wants To Kill You Too, Tori Amos.

Tori Amos, you have sold over 12 million albums. So you didn't win the Grammys you were nominated for. Tough luck. The waitress you so badly want to kill didn't win any Grammys either. But unlike you, she doesn't have two homes, millions of fans, record deals, or comic books based on her songs. So, Tori, maybe you should suck it up, remember this bitch of a waitress is just trying to do her job, and get over it. Oh wait, I get it! Tori is singing about wanting to kill a co-worker! Well, good thing all her co-workers are now her subordinates. Because she's a rockstar.

I'd Rather Give You Fresh Silverware Than a Fresh TPS Report Cover.

A few days ago, I worked for the special events team at a breakfast meeting that occurred in the cavernous event space below the restaurant. Although I only earned half of the $200 that was hinted at, the work was so easy and the shift so short (a mere 4 hours) that I really can't complain.

My duties:
Before Guests Arrive:
-Set up a full coffee and tea service on the buffet table
-Bring glassware downstairs from the bar and silverware from the restaurant
(Side-note: Carrying 30 glasses is hard and heavy. By far the most challenging part of the day. Barbacks and porters, I have a newfound respect.)
-Using a trolley, load up the eats assembled by the pastry team and then set them up on the buffet table

Once Guests Arrive:
-Stay out of the way
-Every 15 minutes, walk through the room, bus dirty plates, throw away any trash left lying around, make buffet look pretty
-Refill coffee, restock coffee cups as needed
-When not bussing, sit at the coat check desk folding napkins and making roll-ups to replenish the restaurant's stock which we pilfered to do this event

The event itself was some sort of media branding thing. At the head of the long meeting table was a woman with a laptop controlling the never-ending series of flow-charts up on the projection screen at the front of the room. The guests didn't know each other, as they introduced themselves with painfully awkward anecdotes. For example,

Suit #5: I'm Bob, and I got kicked out of Penn. Find me afterward for that story.
Twitters of laughter from the crowd.

I still have no idea what the meeting was really about or what it aimed to accomplish. Neither did some of its guests apparently, as there were people staring off into space, mindlessly picking at their fresh croissants and getting crumbs everywhere. I did overhear some tasty morsels of corporate hot air, the likes of which I've never encountered from someone not quoting Office Space.

Suit #18: I am wondering if Empathy could be a viable model.
Leader Woman : I mean, it depends on how you structure it. But yes, I think it could.
Underemployed tries not to laugh out loud as she restocks coffee cups in perfect rows.

About 2 hours later, while making another pass through the room, I was fortunate to hear yet another insightful, incisive bit of business magic.

Suit #30: Well, when we were working, we were really focused on the How. Passionate about it. But when we went to the clients, what they really cared about was the Why. And we didn't have an answer. And that taught me something.
Underemployed tries not to laugh out loud as she carries an armful of dirty plates out of the room.

Suit #30, it taught me something too. I'd rather be on my side of the meeting table. Hands down, I'd rather work at the restaurant.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Underemployed People Fight For Their Rights!

Brooklyn, NY.
Underemployedees of South Slope coffee hotspot Gorilla Coffee walked out en masse, forcing the cafe to close it's doors. (Here are links to the stories as told by Eater and Diner's Journal) This isn't a strike. These baristas quit for good, taking the whole business down with them in a smokeless blaze of glory.

Despite their claims that this isn't political, these incensed caffeine slingers have fundamentally challenged restaurant management as it functions today. Given the bs that everyone who works in the industry puts up with on a daily basis, I can't imagine how bad it must have been in order for the employees to stop showing up. Restaurants notoriously care far more about health code than fair labor practices. You want your legally required 20 minute lunch break? As if it would occur to you to ask. Breaks every couple of hours? If you can take that many breaks, make yourself look busy so you don't get cut. The restaurant industry works its employees hard because that's how the flow of service customers so dearly care about remains smooth and steady. It isn't right, it isn't legal, but it is industry standard. Seriously, working there must have really sucked. But if it could happen at a beloved, money-making neighborhood institution, it could most certainly happen elsewhere.

To walk away from any job right now is more of a gamble than ever. Going rate for highly skilled baristas like me and the ones at Gorilla Coffee is hovering around $7.75-$9.00 an hour plus tips. Not a lot, but more than a guaranteed nothing from not showing up to work. But there's hope for these trained and newly unemployed workers: My compulsive Craigslist searching revealed that there is already a demand for ex-gorillas at a new East Village coffee shop.

I sincerely believe these baristas are fighting the good fight. Restaurateurs, take note and beware.

One does not make revolutions by halves.
-Louis de Saint-Just, The French Revolution's "Archangel of Terror"

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Not Much Has Changed Since Lucy's Day.

There is so much to learn about restaurant behavior from this all time great scene from "I Love Lucy."

Attempt 1 : Really? Clearly no server could take orders when carrying what looks like a massively heavy tray.

Attempt 2 : Server should have acknowledged Lucy, maybe with a "I'll be right with you," before dropping the checks he is holding in his hands on the appropriate tables.

Attempt 3: First time the server really flubbed.

Order Taking Attempt 1: No manager should call a server off the floor mid-order.

Switching Tables: I hate when costumers do this. It gums up the works and confuses people (like the poor server). If there are any runners in this kitchen, they're going to get very confused if the server doesn't properly communicate the seat change. The host must also be informed, lest she try to seat a party at a table that is no longer available.

Order Taking Attempt 2: I know it's sexy when servers don't write down the order, but I like writing it down and I like when other servers write it down. Props to this server for knowing the limits of short term memory.

Special request: Although the server's quip about bringing the chops out for Lucy to choose is rude, his point resonates deeply in my heart.

I'd Rather Work At The Restaurant. Part I.

A couple days back, in the first of what promises to be many odes to Craigslist, I posted what struck me as an absurd and disgusting ad that I retitled Remove Lice from the Heads of Small Children!

The actual post read as follows:

Title: Head lice removal technician- $30 per hour (in and around NYC & Westchester)

A head lice removal service is now searching for more technicians. This job is contractor based only. You will be paid only for hours worked. This is not a part time job or full time job with benefits. This is only a great way to supplement existing income or earn money on the side. Students welcome to apply.

All candidates must be highly presentable, clean, drug-free, organized, intelligent, patient, discreet, and able to travel around the NYC area with ease and be familiar with the public transportation system.

We are looking for people who enjoy working with people and children and who are willing to put in that extra effort to ensure excellent customer service. Candidates must be able to stand for long periods of time on their feet and have the ability to pay great attention to detail and be on time to all appointments.

You must be flexible and willing to be on call as we never know when calls will come in until the day of. Day, evening, and weekend hours a possibility. All candidates will be background checked.

Send your resume with contact information along with a brief description about yourself and your availability.

Experience with hair a plus but not a requirement. We are willing to train. Training time is not paid. Send resume and contact info and a brief description about yourself.

Apparently, there is an untapped market of parents too squeamish to go to the pharmacy, buy combs and anti-lice goo and de-lice their icky kids themselves. Check out this New York Times article about Sylvia Trejo, lice killer extraordinaire. Who knows, fellow job seekers, maybe this Craigslist post is really the golden ticket!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Waking Up For Breakfast. Shifts, That is.

When I work breakfast shifts, I know I'm in for a grueling morning. When I work as a barista, I know that even if the restaurant isn't busy, every single costumer we get will order something that I make. Tea, coffee, and the fanciest espresso drinks I can muster. But the hardest part isn't the constant inflow of tickets, the nervous waiters who have to go back and tell there tables that their half-caf cortado isn't ready yet, or the fact that the barista who worked the night before didn't suitably clean the station for me. The hardest part of the job will always be getting there on time.

This morning, as ever on the hunt for quick easy money, I'm working a private breakfast event on the promise of $200. That seems strangely high for bussing tables, restocking fresh coffee, carrying trays of freshly baked pastry, and staying out of customers' way until they need me to pick up their dirty fork. But Monday morning breakfast event, here I come! Only 4 hours of work stand between me and my glorious 2 day end-of-week. No work for me till Thursday at 9 AM.

I need to be cheerful this fine morning, and I'm due in at 7:30 AM. Even this is a half hour later than when I used to come in to do opening morning shifts as a barista. Positively civil. But, as always, the single hardest part is waking up and getting out the door.

Here's how it's done.

Night before: Set alarm. Brush teeth. Double check alarm is set. Lights off. Play some soothing music, maybe a nice audiobook. Lie down. Sit up. Triple check alarm is set. Do your best to fall asleep as soon as possible because...

5:30 AM : BEEP BEEP BEEP. Turn off alarm. Make sure to hit snooze in case you don't really wake up. Let your eyes acknowledge it's still dark out.
5:45 AM : SHIT! Run to the bathroom, wash your face, make yourself look like you slept for days.
(I recommend blush, concealer, mascara and a little highlighter under the brow bone, ladies. No time? Do it on the subway. But get that done and your co-workers will think you're a "morning person.")
5:55 AM : OK. Breathe. There is time to make a turkey sandwich, since you won't be getting any sort of lunch break or meal until shift is over at 4, and turkey sandwiches are easy to stash and munch. Grab yogurt from fridge, which you should force yourself to eat on the subway ride.
6:00 AM: Must. Move. Faster. Get dressed. Look the part.
6:15 AM: You should be on the subway platform by now. Because the trains to get you out of Brooklyn are erratic this early and if you miss the 6:22 you are guaranteed to be late.
7:00 AM: You've clocked in, so make yourself a latte to nurse as you set up your station and get to work.

Wake up accidentally at 7:30? Text the supervisor ASAP. Train delayed? Get off as soon as you are in Manhattan and get in a cab and suck it up. And text the supervisor. Late without a good excuse? Make one up, and then make the supervisor the most delicious fully fatted triple shot mocha he has ever had. And make something nice for Chef too. Just in case.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What Are Underemployed Young People Up To This Week?

Seattle, WA.
Although I'm an east coaster through and through, I miss my days in the Pacific Northwest when I watch this.

Why I Can't Change The Menu. Even If The Bride Wants Me To.

Friday and Saturday evening shifts are a notorious crapshoot in room service land. There are drunken room parties, where the room service department functions as the party's personal bottle service provider. There are solo diners and solo drinkers, frequently pajama clad or in various stages of undress. Sometimes there are cranky, spoiled, cooped up children. There are guaranteed to be cranky, spoiled, cooped up adults.

One such weekend night around 6 I got a call from one of the more expensive suites. It went something like this:

Guest: Can I order the oatmeal from the breakfast menu?
Underemployed: We stop serving breakfast at noon.
Guest: Do you have a fruit plate?
Underemployed: No we don't.
Guest: No fruit at all. Not a single strawberry?
Underemployed: No. Our menu items are as written.
Guest (poorly attempting to direct her mouth away from the microphone of her room telephone) : No fruit. You want a grilled cheese?
Guest (to Underemployed): It's for the Bride, she really wants oatmeal. I mean, you have it, right? It's for the Bride.
Underemployed: I understand, but we stop serving breakfast at noon. The kitchen is no longer prepared to serve breakfast. But I will ask the chef.

Underemployed puts the guest on hold, and looks at her co-worker. Rolls her eyes. Waits another 20 seconds. "No way I'm going to Chef with this," she whispers. With that, she presses the red blinking extension on her telephone.

Underemployed: I'm sorry. The kitchen is unable to serve the oatmeal at this time.
Guest: I know you have oatmeal in the kitchen. Just put some in a bowl with hot water, a side of skim and a sliced banana.
Underemployed: We don't serve instant oatmeal. Our oatmeal takes hours to prepare and is only available till noon. Is there anything from the dinner menu you would like to order?

You know we have oatmeal? Guest, you don't know shit about what we have in the kitchen.

What we do have in the kitchen:

-More eggs than I've ever seen in my life.
-An entire wall of a walk-in fridge dedicated to different cheeses, each labelled by date and weight.
-Lots of olive oil, kept in squeeze bottles on the line.
-A skin-tingly cold freezer with shelves of batters, doughs, and various experiments from the pastry team.
-Presumably illegal Ecuadorian and Mexican prep cooks, currently cleaning out large pig faces for head cheese, crumbling day old filone bread for bread crumbs, and slicing an intimidatingly large mountain of leeks.
-The Sous Chef of the restaurant upstairs, a serious-minded and wildly direct man who has fired room service employees despite the fact he doesn't regularly work with them.
- Line cooks who are busy setting up their mise en place for the dinner rush.
-Crates of lemons- to be squeezed for the fresh lemon juice used at the bars in the lobby and restaurant, as well as recipes in the kitchen. Crates of oranges- to be squeezed. Crates of grapefruit- to be squeezed and for various desert recipes. These are regularly inventoried.
-Rules. I am really not allowed to sell off menu items.

What we don't have in the kitchen:

-Crappy, you-can-buy-this-at-the-Duane-Reade-down-the-block instant oatmeal.
-Time to personalize every order, creating off menu items from ingredients we don't have at the ready.
-A secret stash of food that is off the menu but available to costumers who know the password.

This doesn't mean when at a restaurant, you shouldn't ask. You should, however, accept the answer. Any time a customer asks for extra ingredients or off menu items, I have to ask a chef (usually the Sous Chef) if it is doable and, if his answer is yes, how much he would like to charge. If he says no, that's where the buck stops. I can't go on the line and cook anything myself, friend of The Bride.

Room Service. Can I take your order?

I work very occasional shifts as a Room Service Operator, Runner and Expeditor at a trendy hotel with a great chef behind its room service program. The Room Service office is a small one, squeezed across from the large walk-in fridges in the massive prep kitchen. It's really cold. Equipped with a telephone and a Micros computer to input orders the office has a spartan efficiency. When the shifts are slow, I shoot the breeze with the pastry chefs, the prep cooks, and the line cooks. Anything to pass the time. My fellow room service workers have managed to squeeze 2 chairs and a milk crate into the office so when things are really slow we can all enjoy a sit.

What is an Expeditor?

Think Gordon Ramsey calling orders on "Hell's Kitchen," minus the Michelin stars, the authority and the accent. When a ticket ordered from the lobby or room service prints to the kitchen (the kitchen pass is all of 5 feet from the room service office), the Expeditor calls it out to the kitchen. And then she sets up plates on the pass so that the cooks can plate the food as quickly as possible. The Expeditor is familiar with every dish, how it is plated, and what the cooks need to make it happen. I like expediting. In the land of lobby and room service, the pace is steady enough that I never get overwhelmed. Expediting in a slammed kitchen is as much a skill as cooking in one. Tickets coming in faster than you can put them on the board and call them is multitasking at its sweaty best.

What is a Room Service Operator?

Underemployed: Room Service, Underemployed speaking, how can I help you?
Guest (drunk, tired, or confused by the telephone): uuuuh
Underemployed: How many people will be dining today?

If it's the morning, and the guest is European:
Guest: Eh, yes. I will have a tea.
Underemployed lists the 7 available teas and asks about milk and sugar preferences.
Guest: Earl Grey. Milk. One croissant.

If it's the morning, and the guest is American:
Guest: Yeah, I need coffee.
Underemployed: Would you like a small or a large pot?
Guest: Large. And the two eggs fried, with bacon, and wheat toast.

Room service operators get hung up on a lot. Since we answer the phone with a clear greeting defining which hotel service the guest has reached, if a guest were looking for housekeeping he'd know immediately that he hadn't reached it. And then he'd hang up on me. Or, he'd get so far as to ask me to fix the television in his room, at which point I would tell him that this is room service, but by the time I get to the part where I suggest who he should contact he's already hung up on me. Don't sweat it, travelers. Rudeness of this order is really no big deal.

What is a Room Service Runner?

2 sturdy knocks are heard from without.
Underemployed: Room Service.
Hotel Guest opens the door.
Underemployed: May I come in?
Hotel Guest nods, unable to speak for lack of caffeine or sobriety.
Underemployed: How about I set the tray up on this desk? All I need is your signature.
Underemployed hands them the bill, Hotel Guest signs, Underemployed exits the room, extremely quickly and closes the door behind her remarkably quietly. It's almost as if she despises being in strangers' hotel rooms.

Room Service runners must be trustworthy. If there are any cash tips left, it is an honor system of sharing the tips with your fellow runners and operator. I always share my cash. What goes around comes around. For real. There is nothing better than when another runner comes back down to the office and slips a couple dollars into your backpocket while you're taking an order over the phone.

Truth be told, Room Service sometimes can feel like the B team. I returned to the Room Service station after a 4 month hiatus, looking for some quick easy money. "You don't fit in down here," a friendly line cook told me between orders, "You seem to have a clue."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Craigslist. An Ode.

I spend a lot of time on New York City's Craigslist. An inordinate percentage of my waking hours is spent combing over the posts on the Craigslist job boards, hoping that one of these posts is my ticket to a full-time job or to a second part time job. I'm young enough not to know how the restaurant industry found front of house staff without it. And I've got enough time on my hands to take pleasure in reading about jobs I'll never get/want/know existed.

When encountering the sheer number of posts on Craigslist, it is more important for the job-seeking underemployed soul to fathom how many more readers there are than posters. Based on a promising post, I applied to work part time at the front desk of a mommy-and-me toddler music program on the Upper East Side (where else?). The job mainly consisted of answering telephones, and hanging up people's coats. A job where I could sit down at work!

It seemed perfect. Until I got to the group interview- with 10 other candidates. And the employer told us they were doing 2 group interviews a day. For 3 days. 10 x 2 x 3 = 60; or 59 reasons the job probably will go to someone else. I actually enjoyed the interview, despite being painfully aware of how badly they were wasting my time. In the main playroom, I sat in a semi-circle of nervous underemployed people, all of us with our shoes off. We talked about our favorite cereals- I bonded with "Frankenberry, when you can find it." as I am "BooBerry, when you can get it." (If you don't know the joys of the General Mills monster cereals, please seek it out. ) We talked about our experiences with kids, our problem solving skills, our connection to music. I think I did pretty well. I was comfortably the most articulate speaker in my group. Of 10. Out of the 60 they interviewed.

But it taught me a valuable Craigslist lesson: There are far more readers than posters. I left knowing I'd never hear from or think about them again. Until I came across a posting of theirs on Craigslist this morning. They're expanding to Dubai and are looking for an intrepid early education developer.

I will leave you all with some of my favorite job posts from Craigslist from recent weeks. If you find any amazing posts, send them my way or post in the comment section.

Shed Your Eggs for a Quick 8 Grand!

Score an Alien Documentary!

They'll Pay to Play...With Your Toes!

Remove Lice from The Heads of Small Children!

Big Plus if You Have a Big Bust!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Underemployment. A definition.

Me: 24 year old Ivy-League grad, working in the New York City restaurant industry.

My status: Underemployed. Single. White. Female.

The Gallup pole classifies the respondent as underemployed if she is "unemployed or working part time but wanting full time work." According to Gallup, we're up to a 20.3% rate of underemployment.

Looking at the employment histories of my fellow alumnae from the illustrious Class of 2008, this 20.3% rate seems low. I have few fully employed peers. I have even fewer who have full-time employment in an industry they would want to stay in.

And there's me. Like other young people pursuing a career in the arts, I am for all intents and purposes pursuing a career in the hospitality industry. 2-4 shifts a week. But I like the restaurant industry. I am hungry for more shifts. I want to be running the place by the time I leave for the amazing arts job of my dreams. If I leave at all. On the plus side, I've got a lot of free time to enjoy the fruits of my labor and explore what it means to be underemployed in one of the greatest cities in the world.

And now, I'm off to Friday night dinner service. On behalf of everyone that is working to make your Friday night awesome, I humbly encourage you to tip well tonight, readers.