My mother opened up a bar and grill 10 years ago. She continues to work there to this day; I always said that I was never going to work there after high school.
I turned 24 this year. I’m still there. Surprise, surprise.
The truth is that the restaurant industry is a great place to get back on your feet after a setback. It’s a great place for college students struggling to balance work and school. It’s a great place to work when you’re just straight up not a morning person. Don’t get me wrong: there can be the same reasons to quit as there are in any other job, but waitressing, in particular, has some great perks.
But the truth is that working in the restaurant industry is the ultimate trap for twentysomethings. Here’s why:
There is no other job that can beat the hours of a restaurant, provided that you like to stay up late and eat breakfast at noon, like a lot of young people. If you’re constantly struggling to focus at your 9-5 and can’t fall asleep at 10 PM, no matter how tired you are, restaurant hours are awfully tempting.
Yeah, sometimes you’re working Friday and Saturday nights when your friends want to go out, but you’re also not complaining on Tuesdays that you have to get up the next morning. In fact, you’ll often get a few weekdays off each month. You never have to carve time out of work to go to a doctor’s appointment, the DMV, post office, bank, or whatever else that only operates on a Monday-through-Friday schedule. And if it really comes down to it, you can ask someone to switch shifts with you. Not many jobs have that level of flexibility.
This one is tricky because it can take a lot of experimentation. You’ve got to find just the right location to maximize your tips. Are most of your customers well-off, or are they scrounging for every paycheck? How long does it usually take for one table to finish their meal and for a new table to get seated? How much are you expected to tip out cooks, bartenders, or busboys? Since your paychecks aren’t going to be much, it might take a while for you to find a place where all those factors come together.
But when you do, it’s very hard to walk away from. You never have to wait a few weeks for the money to make rent or pay for unexpected expenses. You walk out with cash, and that’s a big perk that other jobs don’t offer.
It’s tough to quantify how much servers really make. Part of that is because of the variability in shifts – working a Saturday night typically yields more than a Wednesday morning, for example – but tips tend to balance out over time. You may have a few really bad nights, then recoup the next weekend when everyone tips 25 percent. If you’ve got the right regulars, a “fake genuine” smile, and master upselling, you can stay in the black.
And that rush of money for a small slice of your time is very hard to walk away from.
Just like any other job, you tend to make friends at it. Unlike other jobs, you all finish a shift at midnight with a wad of cash. What to do…?
Look, not everyone wants to talk about this, but the fact is that the restaurant industry is a trap for alcoholism. Late hours, young coworkers, and access to alcohol (probably at a discount) can make for a toxic combination. It gets the worst of people. The temptation is too much, especially when you don’t have to get up early the next morning. And alcoholism isn’t just a drain on your wallet. It increases the risk of cancer, GERD, and automobile accidents, just to name a few. It’s no coincidence that a lot of the people whom I see daily, coworkers and customers alike, seem to suffer health and social problems.
But regardless, the temptation is too strong. No matter what horrible consequences come out of it, the revolving door of the restaurant industry continues. We work. We drink. We leave. We come back, because of the hours, the money, and the memories of all those good times. It’s too much. It’s hard for twenty-somethings to say “no” to making good money for 5 hours of work and getting drunk at the end.
The problem is, where do they go once they become thirty-somethings? Forty-somethings? Fifty-somethings? Once they have a family, a mortgage, a dog and a husband in tow? Because restaurant jobs don’t come with health insurance or 401ks, and even carry the risk of you being held liable for customers’ DUIs. There are a lot of downsides too. But those are downsides for the future. For the now, for twentysomethings, waitressing represents too much opportunity – but it’s not to grow. It’s an opportunity of stagnation, but it’s still oh-so-tempting.
Featured Image via screengrab from 2 Broke Girls.