Heads Above Water: The Inferiority of Service Industry Work

My dad passed down a saying to me a long time ago. He told me “As long as it is honest work, it is good work.” The saying is straightforward: if you are not stealing, cheating or scamming, the work you do is worthy of the respect from the rest of society. Despite this, since I have been working in restaurants there is sometimes a bothersome thought in the back of my mind, “I should be doing something better.” The problem is that I do not really know what that means, especially considering I genuinely enjoy my work.

As a kid, when the adults asked you “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I doubt your answer was a server, line cook or bartender. If you asked the average person to name a list of careers, professions like accountant, nurse or engineer would be on that list. You would be hard-pressed to find service industry work on that same list. I get it, a career is traditionally something you do long term, to build a successful and fruitful life. Longevity and advancement are important for any job and admittedly, that can be hard to find in the service industry. Most people bounce from job to job until they find something that will fit long term, it can be a hectic lifestyle.

Even with the tough lifestyle, most people in the service industry are in it for the long haul. In one survey, the National Restaurant Association found that 7 in 10 restaurant workers plan to make a career out of their work. Furthermore, the service industry makes up a huge part of the American workforce, 10% at 14.5 million people. Despite the size of the industry and the millions of hardworking people it employs, there is an underlying lack of respect for service industry work. The jobs are often categorized as “unskilled,” and food service work is simply viewed as inferior to other work. A point to which I vehemently disagree.

Everyone who works in the service industry knows the struggle of dealing with a disrespectful customer. The people who view their server as less than a human being. They say things and do things that they would never say or do to a stranger on the street. People snap their fingers and whistle at you. In a busy bar, you can be viciously yelled because you’re not working fast enough. Casual sexism is commonplace as many of my female coworkers and friends are called “babe” and “hun” daily. The list goes on and on but if you want to get paid you just put your head down and deal with it. Luckily most people become numb to it after a while. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it helps you handle dehumanizing nature of serving people.

It can be even worse if you work at a place where guests need to be removed on a regular basis. I’ve had about every expletive insult thrown at my face and people have said some downright horrible things to me. Anyone who has been in this situation knows the go-to insult is “get a real job.” Although I usually laugh it off with my coworkers at the end of the night, it is tremendously disrespectful to say that to anyone who is plainly doing their job. You always must remember the reason they would say such terrible things is because they are sad, awful people. (Also, they are getting kicked out by someone who doesn’t have a real job, how sweet.)

Sadly, the worst thing about being treated so poorly is that eventually, whether you want to admit it or not, you will get down on yourself. You’ll find yourself whispering under your breath “I hate this fucking job” and wondering why you put yourself through so many tribulations for a $5 tip. Personally, I have a business degree and know I could find a “professional” job, but I sometimes look at job postings and think “I would never qualify for this, I’m just a bartender” (not true.) A friend of mine whose name I will leave out often talks about how they cannot find any work with their degree that is even close to the amount of money they make serving. I hear these same stories all over the place and I’ll be the first to say that everyone I know in the service industry is better than the way they are treated.

Unfortunately, all of this it leads to some self-hate, which in turn leads to destructive behaviors. It’s self-inflicted anxiety and tension through the cycle of good days and bad days. The rollercoaster of emotions and stress about your work and your future can be overwhelming and sometimes it really is too much. People turn to drinking and other unhealthy coping mechanisms. If you are dealing with problems outside of work as well, it can get very dangerous. It does not have to be this way.

Looping back around I am here to say it again “If it is honest work, it is good work.” Service industry workers are worthy of your respect. We work long hours and depend on the kindness of others to pay our bills. Sure, there are rude and lazy people who work at restaurants, but I guarantee you will find those kinds of people in almost every industry. Ultimately, the people who stay in the business genuinely care about their guests’ experience and take pride in their work.

Further, anyone who says restaurant work is unskilled is simply wrong. The list of skills it requires to work in a restaurant or bar is nearly endless. A résumé can include both interpersonal and public communication, multitasking, working under pressure, teamwork and leadership, customer service, salesmanship, training and development, and many more. When you get into management you are dealing with areas of financial and operational planning, human resources, marketing and other skills that take a great deal of knowledge and practice. My point is that none of these skills are easily attained and must be developed to be successful in the service industry, just like any other career.

One last thing I would like to mention is that restaurant work is important. Think about it, people plan some of the most special and important events of their lives at restaurants and bars. These could range from anniversaries, birthdays/holidays, parties of every sort, and even proposals, (I have seen three in my bar.) Further, “wining and dining” is an important part of business, and many deals are discussed and closed in a restaurant dining room. Although we are simply bystanders to all of this, you can be proud to provide a venue for the special things that happen at your establishment.

Just remember, you are worthy of respect. You’re doing honest work and you are doing good work, don’t let anyone tell you differently. Service industry professionals deal with things that would make most people pull their hair out and scream. It takes a special kind of person to embrace the madness of it all and you should be proud you are capable of it.