Fifteen weeks in a kitchen

the kitchen of a restaurant
Me wearing my Sandburg Cafe t-shirt
Me wearing my Sandburg Cafe t-shirt

You might be asking yourself why I would make this post.

It all started with this post:

The interview was fairly standard and asked me the usual questions:  Why do you want to work here?  What does customer service mean to you?  How do you resolve conflicts with other coworkers?  What are your strengths/weaknesses?  It took approximately thirty minutes and I was informed that hiring was contingent upon passing a background check.  I knew in the back of my mind that I would pass it considering I’ve never had one come back negative.

That interview was conducted on July 29th.  A few days before I made the post shown above, I made a phone call to follow-up and inquire about the status of the check – turns out it can take anywhere from a few days, to a few weeks.

I eventually received a phone call stating that my background check came back clear and that I was offered the position.  I accepted and asked some of my standard questions – benefits, pay rate, hours, etc…  Pay was $7.25/hr and like other part-time positions, there were no benefits or extra perks.  I was asked to come in for a two-day orientation.  After I got off the phone, I was ecstatic to have a job again.

Day one of orientation was in a meeting room where we watched a presentation about the ins and outs of the job, what was expected of us, the do’s and don’ts, policies and procedures, and we met the management team.  We were also taken through the kitchen and serving area, in addition to being shown the different areas.  We learned that day that every associate sans management were hourly students.  At first, I was impressed that an entire restaurant-style environment could be run by all students, but then I realized that it was the perfect system.  Before we departed for the day, we were asked to bring citizenship documents and state-issued identification with us.  For me, that meant my driver’s license and birth certificate.  Boy, was I glad I brought those with me on the trip.

Day two was more hands-on in the kitchen environment learning about serving and preparing food.  I had received my semester-long schedule at this point and was both assigned to serving and bussing duties.  In my mind, serving seemed fairly straight-forward.  Of course, I didn’t factor in that this cafe was run like a business, so there were policies and procedures that had to be followed, with management around to ensure compliance.  In fact, we were split up into groups, some by what job duty they were assigned, and some just arbitrarily.  I must admit I was overwhelmed when learning about the procedure behind setting up a serving line.  After spending most of the day in the kitchen, those who brought identification with them were brought into the manager’s office.  Of course, my license and birth certificate both being from different states prompted the usual questions of ‘where are you from?’ and ‘born/living in two different states?’  Honestly, I rarely get bored of telling people why I came out to Wisconsin.

Paperwork drill completed, I headed out and back to my apartment, excited to be starting work at the beginning of the semester.

August 24, 2015 was my first official shift, and I was assigned to serving.  I discovered quickly that I was slow to adapt.  Following the serving diagrams was fairly easy, and assembling utensils was elementary, but putting everything out and making it look presentable proved to be a challenge.  Serving wasn’t wholly difficult, but my ability to present it effectively was lacking.  While I have no problem taking pride in how I present something to someone, food on a plate did not register as one of those things.  In my  mind, food hits plate and is later consumed.  My other oversight was my lack of a food palette.  I’m a ‘burgers and fries’ person who tends to hit up sports bars when he goes out, and I’m here serving tacos, burritos, different types of chicken and pork, and pasta beyond Chop Suey.  I was serving some food that I’d never heard of, nor could easily identify.

Needless to say, these deficiencies went noticed by management, and after four serving shifts without much improvement, I was moved to bussing.  I don’t want to say that I liked bussing because it was easier or more straight-forward, but it seemed to be my strength.

Bussing a cafe isn’t much different than an actual restaurant environment – you clean tables, sweep floors when they get messy, keep condiments and silverware stocked, and bring dirty dishes and trays back to the dish room for washing.  In some restaurants, bussers will leave their bins for the dishwashers to take care of, but here, bussers took care of their own.  Also, in most restaurants, you’re removing dirty dishes from a table, washing it, and returning the dirty bin to the back.  In this case, students clean up after themselves.

I had picked up a dish room shift early on, and learned the ropes of the area – at one end is someone washing and rinsing dirty dishes, and at the other was someone pulling them from the washing machine and putting them aside for return to their area.  As time went on, I learned that there was much more to the dish room area.

As time went on, I made good rapport with my supervisors, earned their trust, and showed them some promise.  Maybe it’s an age and maturity thing, but they were relieved that I was one that they didn’t have to hand-hold, or motivate.  I was also someone who had no problem jumping in to help out another area, both where I could, and where it was needed.

After three weeks of doing the job, I knew that by the end of the semester, there was a strong chance I wasn’t returning – I was learning that food service was not an industry I wanted to be involved with permanently, but for twelve additional weeks, I made do.  In fact, I thought that at the end of the semester, they just laid everyone off, and then held a hiring fair at the beginning of the semester for a whole new crew, giving preference to previous hires.  As I found out today, they do ask if you intend to return, and if you do, they keep you on file for return; if you do like I did, you hand in your ID badge, shirts, hats, and shake hands on the way out.

Some learning experiences during that fifteen weeks:

  • I was the only Political Science major.
  • Young college students can be both messy and many of today’s youth never learned the concept of pushing in a chair.
  • Interacting with a young kid who was easily offended by someone disagreeing with him.
  • Don’t let non-supervisory coworkers be the boss of you, but don’t get too confrontational over it.
  • That people will wear headphones while walking and will intentionally bump into you simply because you didn’t move out of the way.
  • After loading a napkin dispenser, a student actually opened the dispenser, took one pack of napkins, used maybe one-third of the pack and left the remaining out in a mess.  Keep in mind that the other two-thirds of that pack had to be discarded.
  • Students have no problem carrying on a Skype conversation from their laptop or tablet while eating.
  • Ten students will crowd around a table designed for no more four or five, all with their trays.

Overall, it was a decent part-time job.  I worked three days a week, every other weekend, never had to take time off or switch shifts, and it gave me some extra spending money.  It also earned me a professional reference for future jobs.  It also gave me some exposure to working in the food service industry, something I’d never done before.

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