For most of my childhood, my parents owned and operated restaurants and nightclubs. This meant I got to be the elementary schooler giving my Girl Scout troop a tour of a professional kitchen, then the middle schooler having a birthday party in a real-life dance club, albeit at 11 a.m. on a Sunday. But it wasn’t until I reached the awkward age of 13 that my dad proposed the idea of me joining him on Saturday nights to work as a busser at his upscale Italian restaurant.
In my dad’s establishment, a busser assisted the waitstaff and servers by bringing bread and water to each table, clearing dishes, and wrapping up leftovers. It’s typically a job for beginners, a way to get your foot in the door and learn the ropes of the restaurant world; I was gleeful at the prospect of being the youngest worker on the busiest night of the week.
While I held this position for less than six months, it was enough time to create a bond with a handful of my adult coworkers. I also started to develop an understanding of the complex nature of customer service and managed to soak up some wisdom that has stayed with me ever since. Served up below are a few life lessons learned while wiping tables, heaving bus pans, and refilling countless bread baskets (whether people wanted them or not).
Something you can only discover once you’ve worked behind the scenes at a restaurant is that its employees are far more interesting than any innovative menu or chic interior design can hope to be. Restaurant work can attract almost anyone, from sassy teens looking for their first gig to well-traveled sommeliers, veteran managers, and seasonal wait staff. Within this hodgepodge of ages, interests, and ethnicities is often an extraordinary mix of people, all with multidimensional interests both inside and outside the restaurant industry.
Every person I worked alongside had a multitude of pursuits and talents. The more I dug in, the more I learned from my coworkers about any number of things: writing, bodybuilding, stage acting, fashion, and, of course, food and wine. My biggest takeaway was the importance of extracting and savoring all the unique flavors of the people you’re thrown together with in life.
Beyond the food itself, there are countless reasons a customer might enter a dining establishment: to celebrate a special occasion, to take a break from a stressful week, to enjoy a new dish (or an old favorite), to catch up with a friend. Some diners eat out two or three times a week while others save up all month to treat themselves.
Each of these people wants a meal, yes, but they’re also at your restaurant for the experience of dining in a community setting, a moment of connection with someone they know (or don’t!) and an opportunity to enjoy food and conversation without all the work that can accompany it. Those months of watching diners cry laughing, wipe painful tears away, hold hands, and share pieces of their lives with each other remain an inspiration for me when hosting friends over a home-cooked meal, charcuterie board, or takeout. Food brings us effortlessly together in a way little else can.
Restaurant-goers often enjoy people-watching, socializing, and surveying other diners’ tasty dishes as they float by on a server’s tray. But even more important than the chance to scope out the scene around them, they want the experience of being welcomed, cared for, and seen.
As a teenage busser, my job was to remain invisible, and as a result I became a keen observer of body language and expression. No one wants to flag down a server if they don’t have to, so I learned to notice, from across the room, if a customer was ready for a dish to be picked up. I knew if they needed a water glass refilled, and I could tell whether they wanted to engage in friendly banter or preferred to be left alone.
This study in behavior has helped me be a better mom, a stronger writer, and a more thoughtful friend. No matter how many plates I have in the air, I try to pay attention to the needs of those around me so that I can celebrate the moments that matter and support them when life gets hard. I want my community to know that I see them and that I’m around to help them replenish.
There is nothing like hard work and nothing like a restaurant gig to show you just what hard work is. My seven-hour shifts were the first time I was on my feet non-stop and the first time I had to manage multiple tasks, all while juggling dishes, table numbers, and server requests. By the time the night was over I would be sticky with sweat, covered in splotches of marinara sauce and beyond exhausted, but also filled with exhilaration and pride for the job I’d accomplished.
I found real joy in the brisk and intentional laps I took around the dining room, the mountain of dirty dishes I delivered to the kitchen sink, the baskets of bread I set down in front of hungry patrons. The harder I hustled, the faster the hours flew by and the more tips I was likely to get from the wait staff. Win-win.
I’m sure that I was also clumsy, confused, and uncomfortable in my skin a lot of the time when I was bussing tables at the impressionable age of 13. But the fact that my coworkers and our customers could show patience and kindness to the frizzy-haired girl trying her hardest might be my biggest lesson of all. To this day, I smile, give thanks and tip big when dining out.