As a teenager, I bussed tables at a coffeehouse in the small coastal town where I grew up. I can still picture the greasy floors and sticky red booths that had been there for generations. When the front doors opened, men in stained baseball caps and dirty plaid jackets put down their cups and stopped talking. They craned their necks and stared. They’d been doing that forever. Every morning, they ate the same oil-slicked, eggs-over-hard with ketchup and bacon and toast and little packets of grape jelly that they’d peel back with fingers grown blunt from holding a chain saw or running a piece of equipment at the mill or pulling a net filled with quivering, scaly fish bodies into a boat. The same weak Farmer Brothers coffee was served from glass pots, and the same waitresses—with hair cemented in place by Aqua Net—poured with terrifying accuracy into the men’s waiting white cups. Refills were free. Smoking was allowed.
Although some conditions have changed for the better, working in a restaurant—whether you’re in front serving the public, or in back preparing food or washing dishes—is challenging. A lot of jobs went away when restaurants were forced to shut down last year. To counteract staffing shortages, restaurants are offering hiring bonuses, but that’s probably not enough.
Is it surprising that many former restaurant workers have moved on?
I’ve had a few successful careers and more than a few jobs since my busser days. A partial list would include preschool teacher’s aide, purchasing agent for a gourmet food distributor, aerobics instructor (my uniform was a sports bra, leggings and a thong), community theater producer, administrative assistant and jill-of-all-trades for a nonprofit cancer resource center, journalist and paralegal. Every once in a while, I’d return to restaurant work. The tips were decent, and limited nighttime shifts gave me more time to spend with my then-young daughters. But I got tired of burn marks on my arms, my clothing and hair smelling like stale food, and rude customers. I thought my restaurant days were behind me.
While earning three college degrees, I worked for other people and corporations. Six years ago, I opened my own writing and editing business. So why did I start working at Cacio—a restaurant located in the Pocket—in April?
A CT scan revealed a mass in the space behind my sternum in 2018. The radiologist tiptoed around calling it a tumor. The mass was treatable: Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation were possibilities. It turned out to be a thymoma. The name sounds comical and creates confusion when I try to explain it. No one knows what causes these rare masses. They are usually slow growers, which is their best feature. The surgeon estimated the thymoma had developed in my teens (maybe about the time I worked at that coffeehouse in my hometown). Because the mass was fairly large, I needed a median sternotomy, the same initial incision made during heart surgery—entry to the body is gained via the breastbone. I imagined a team of surgeons slicing me open and peeling back my ribs. Don’t Google that.
I was afraid and angry. Would I have a Frankenstein-sized scar on my chest? What if it came back? (Thymomas sometimes recur.) What if I died? Could I work? Could I run? Why me?
The good news? My surgeon removed the thymoma without nicking any vital organs, and I didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation. I hated plodding up the stairs in our house, holding onto the rail; I sounded like I needed an oxygen tank. I slept on the couch downstairs, propped up on pillows. I couldn’t lift anything over five pounds.
After a year, my surgeon was satisfied with my physical progress, but I wasn’t. Then the pandemic and lockdown came along. Instead of a profit, my business could generate a loss for the first time. I even took a job as a technical writer and sat through hundreds of rarely useful Microsoft Teams meetings. Like everyone else, I felt isolated.
Which brings me back to Cacio.
Cacio has always felt like “Cheers,” a sitcom from the 1980s about a neighborhood bar. My husband and I were Cacio regulars before my surgery. We’d text Katie Kinner-Kerksieck (she co-owns Cacio with her husband, Jonathan Kerksieck), she’d reserve our spots, usually at the end of the counter, and we’d be in our chairs in 10 minutes. Katie was kind and personable, and she often knew what I wanted before I did. “Hi,” she’d say. “Are you having bubbles?”
Before Cacio opened back up this year, Katie asked if I’d like to work with her. She knew there would be a staffing shortage. “You’re a natural,” she said. “It will be fun.” I had had so little fun in the past few years; I was tempted. And it had been too long since I’d felt like a natural at anything. But doubts crept in: At 61, could I handle being on my feet after so many desk jobs? How would the other regulars, our friends, treat me when I was on the other side of the counter? Would everyone think I was desperate for money? (I wasn’t, really, but the impacts from COVID-19 had severely reduced my business income.) Was I crazy?
During my first front-of-house shift, I realized that even though I’ve researched and written numerous articles about food, I’m a decent home cook, and I’ve worked in restaurants in the past, there was so much I needed to learn. When Katie asked me whether I had “marked” a table, I looked at her blankly. What does “marked” mean? Answer: provide flatware and other items before they’re needed—think spoons, serving plates for bread, sharp knives for steak. I developed a blister on my left foot midway through the night from my new Dansko clogs, which made me walk like a toddler. I worried excessively about germs (hello, COVID) while scraping plates. I washed my hands a zillion times. I couldn’t remember the table numbers or which wine went in which glass.
The following night, I tried to serve sauvignon blanc in a red-wine glass and I broke a champagne flute in the dishwasher. My tap-beer technique produced foam and very little beer. I probably logged more than 15,000 steps. (My Apple Watch quit, so I didn’t get an exact count.) During my shift, a customer asked, “Are you essential workers?” My answer: “No, but we should be.”
We weren’t required to wear masks when I started working at Cacio. A short while later, we had to put them back on. I’m OK with that. What’s difficult is dealing with customers who don’t want to wear masks when they enter or exit the restaurant. Or customers who do not understand that, in a mask, it’s difficult to pour water, let alone wine, and deliver hot food with accuracy. Or customers who reserve a table and then don’t show up. Or customers who leave gnawed prawn tails and empty Sweet’N Low packets stuffed in their napkins. Or customers who phone and ask what’s on the menu (it’s available online) in the middle of a busy dinner service. Or customers who want the exact meal they saw in an old Yelp posting.
Those people are, fortunately, the exceptions.
Most people are happy to be dining inside again or outside at a patio table. They’re happy to be enjoying a meal with their friends and family. They’re excited when they snag a seat at the counter (and I don’t accidently leave them on hold for 45 minutes when they call to reserve a spot). They talk about their children and challenges returning to in-person work, and show me puppy photos on their phones. They ask how I’m doing. They say please and thank you.
There are nights when all the pasta dishes look the same. There are also nights when I deliver food to the wrong table or forget to “fire” an order. Will I ever remember what comes on the cheese board, or the daily specials, or how to ring in a single scoop of sorbet? Why are prosecco corks so difficult to remove?
There are also nights when I stop overthinking every little thing. I’m not worried about the past or the future.
I enjoy the hour before we open the restaurant, when we set the tables, buff glasses, chill water bottles, fold napkins, go over the menu and daily specials, figure out how to handle quick changeovers. Life seems almost normal again.
The restaurant is like community theater. Our stage is sometimes chaotic, but also controlled and constantly changing. We have to react fast. I’m grateful for my strong arms and powerful legs, all those jobs and years of experience teaching me grace under fire.