Working in the Restaurant Industry Teaches Empathy and Responsibility

Bella Simonte (’23) writes about how the lessons learned from a job in the service industry go far beyond simply dealing with difficult customers. Things that, “if everyone learned, we’d live in a much more harmonious and compassionate world.”

I have been fortunate enough to grow up in the bubble that is Ann Arbor. Aside from Detroit, Ann Arbor is one of the more diverse cities in Michigan in terms of culture, race, economics, and political beliefs. Being a college town, Ann Arbor has access to many different ideologies and people who come from all over the world to indulge in the University of Michigan’s facilities; they come to grow their perception of the world. Though Ann Arbor is more diverse than other areas in Michigan, I still grew up in a predominantly white, middle class neighborhood going to predominantly white, middle-upper class schools, developing an inherent ignorance of the world’s atrocities. That is, until I started working in the service industry. 

I’m currently a hostess at Mani Osteria, a fine dining Italian restaurant in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor. As my first job, I didn’t know what to expect going into it. I thought I’d simply be walking people to their tables and dealing with the occasional irritated guest. I didn’t expect to learn how to read people by a simple shift in their body or assert an authority I didn’t know I had. Even just working for a year and a half has taught me a lot. Things that I think if everyone learned, we’d live in a much more harmonious and compassionate world. 

Understanding the divide between wealthy and customer service workers: Coming from an upper middle class family, I didn’t expect any kind of divide between me and the guests I was serving. I assumed we were equals, only I was welcoming them into the restaurant and they were the ones partaking. I still don’t know if it was naive or optimistic to think. Nevertheless, I quickly understood that even if I didn’t see it, guests definitely saw a giant wall separating me and them; they were there to enjoy time with family or friends, and I was the one to service them. I’ve been bribed and guilted into giving guests what they want. They assume money is the only thing that matters to a person making minimum wage, therefore being an effective tool to manipulate them with. I could smile, joke, or empathize with a guest all I want, but the only way they think to get my attention is by paying for it. 

I’ve always been an introverted, independent worker. I believe if I want something done right, I have to do it myself. I intended for hosting to be an outlet of control for me, being the only person at the stand who dictates who gets sat where and to which server, the entire balance of the restaurant resting in my hands. I was sorely mistaken when I had to communicate five birthdays, two shellfish allergies, and a wheel chair lift to four different servers and managers on my first day. I was in for a rude awakening that working in a restaurant is a collaborative effort. However, I chose to ignore it, sticking to my firm beliefs that I can handle whatever problem I get myself into. When I went over on a guest, I would barricade them by the door so there was little chance of my managers finding out how unhappy they were. It wasn’t until I went thirty minutes over on a guest, sitting two employees before them, did they yell at me in front of my manager and I was forced into changing my ways. It took some getting used to and new skills in future telling, but I learned to not be afraid to admit when I mess up and ask for help. The more hands on a problem the more chances there are of fixing it, and the more burden to be spread evenly rather than just on me. 

As Anthony Bourdain once said, “You can always tell when a person has worked in a restaurant. There’s an empathy that can only be cultivated by those who’ve stood between a hungry mouth and a $28 pork chop, a special understanding of the way a bunch of motley misfits can be a family.”

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