Food & Drink Muse

Life Behind Bars: Memoirs of a Hospitality Worker

Sophie Burton recounts the many triumphs, trials and tribulations of working as a waitress and bartender.

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Image Credit: Bimo Luki

As someone who literally grew up in the hospitality industry (my parents used to manage restaurants and I was the small child running around the place) it was only natural that my first part time job was as a waitress. When I turned 18, I then became a bartender and of course, my university job… working in a student bar! (I’m also a theatre student so insert all the usual clichés here).

Like many of my fellow hospitality warriors, I often find myself scrolling the deep dark depths of Twitter, through the memes created about our line of work, particularly after Friday night (or should I say Saturday morning) close. TikTok also has plenty of material around this topic, and though so many of these hilarious posts are relatable, sometimes frighteningly so, I think it’s very easy to view the job in a negative light. Even though we  love to complain about irritating customers (and I promise we’ve all been one at some point), not all interactions are like the ones you've heard about. Yes, there are occasionally customers who drive you absolutely mad, and some you never forget - like the woman I once argued with for half an hour because she wanted the treacle sponge without the treacle - but there are also customers who leave a lasting impression for a good reason.

Whether it's the regulars who come in every day and put a smile on your face, or those one-hit wonders who turn up out of the blue and turn a stressful night into a lovely one. I’m still in touch with customers I used to serve when I was 16, and I’ll never forget the young boy and his mum who I used to look after every Friday for three years. I'd have their drinks waiting ready for them and have the order pre-written before they even sat down. In a way, I witnessed him growing up. It's crazy what impact a weekly waffle (or wine for his mother) can have. When I left for university he made me a card - a card that is still in my room to this day.

The thing is, it’s not just the customers that you build bonds with in this line of work. The friendships you make with your co-workers can be some of the strongest relationships you ever know. Whether it’s the chef you dance to Michael Jackson with, the potwash who shares your 11pm crying sessions, the colleagues twenty years older than you who morphed into a strange mix of a maternal figure and the bad influence friend… the nature of the job means you can go from knowing someone for five minutes to hosting a karaoke night with them and singing the fast food song …. (Yes, that really happened!).

For some people it’s merely a stop-gap or a means to an end, and yes, very rarely, you’ll come across servers who really couldn’t care less about your customer experience - but take it from me, they really are a rare breed. If you’re strange like me you get true satisfaction out of a perfectly settled pint of Guinness or are genuinely pleased by a customer coming back and telling you they loved the dessert or the drink you recommended to them.

Don’t get me wrong, I won’t deny there are times when the job can be absolute hell. Those of us who lived through the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme can attest to the physical and emotional pain that was inflicted. Between Football World Cups, hen nights and Christmas festivities, there’s never an end to the workload. I for one have worked more than my fair share of 14-hour shifts and dealt with many a rude customer. The worst I ever had actually had the audacity to storm into the kitchen to continue shouting at us and get the chef involved! Despite what people say, it’s not easy work. Long, unsociable hours, often at minimum wage, being constantly on your feet and customer facing all the time can be truly exhausting. But there’s also a sense of reward to it.

As someone who has always struggled with elements of social anxiety, you’d think working as a waitress or a bartender would be my worst nightmare. But actually, I’m at my most confident behind the bar. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to switch off the external world and just be present in the room with your customers. I worked a shift this week and I remember going in thinking work was one of the last places I wanted to be after such a long day of 3rd year student stress, but low and behold, less than an hour I was dancing around singing to Abba as I poured pint after pint of Coors for the darts team. Many of my friends and past co-workers agree that working in hospitality has helped them socially. You meet all sorts of people everyday - some are absolutely inspirational, and others… Well, at least they make good punchlines!

Joking aside, what I’m trying to say is that though almost every hospitality employee you meet will have some sort of horror story to tell you, chances are, they also have some stories with happy endings too. The kind of stories that remind you why pub culture is so popular in the UK and why, in my mind, it’s one of the most rewarding jobs you can have as a student (And beyond university - hospitality is also a career path too!!)

Finally, for those of you who are customers - remember to be nice to your servers. We are all people too. The probability is the waitress hasn’t spat in your food - it's more likely she’s scalded her fingers waiting for you to remember which one of you ordered the hottest and heaviest plate.

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