Three Things Working in Food Service Taught Me About People

They say that everyone should wait tables at one time in their lives. Of course, “they” are usually current or former waiters, who believe that people should have to serve food to the general public in order to gain empathy for the server that they just screamed at about dressing on the side.

I doubt this attitude is limited to waiters. Coal miners probably wish everyone had to spend a day in the mines to gain perspective on the cost of electricity, while teachers think everyone should have to teach middle schoolers geometry before campaigning to cut teachers’ pay, and so on and so forth until the world is just one big version of Freaky Friday and we’ve all walked seven billion miles in seven billion pairs of shoes.

"I thought being a Sudanese child soldier was bad. Try raising a teenager!"

That being said, I spent most of my teenage and a few of my adult years working in food service, and I do think it’s a valuable experience. Not just for the empathy one gains, but for the insights it gives you into people’s behavior. To paraphrase a line from Party Down, waiters, caterers and food service professionals are viewed as the extras in other people’s lives. And because people are generally more concerned with their own main plot lines, they don’t notice or care what the extras think of them. So they tend to behave in ways that are sometimes mean, sometimes irrational and sometimes just bizarre.

What’s interesting is that these observations apply across all of my food service jobs, from the McDonald’s drive-through to an upscale wine bar where I routinely said things like, “Oh, you really can’t go wrong with an Argentinian malbec” to people whose cars were worth more than me (in that they were worth more than the collective black market value of my internal organs). So it’s not about income or atmosphere, it is about how people behave when they are out to eat. Of course there are more than three lessons, but I can’t make them funny am saving them for my book, so here are just three things I noticed during my many years delivering food to strangers:

3. People do weird things to bathrooms when they don’t have to clean them.


At McDonald’s, one expects a certain amount of dickishness in the bathroom. Sometimes people would squirt ketchup all over the mirrors or try to flush a burger down each toilet. Typically, these were high school kids who were probably acting out due to frustrations over their own undiagnosed learning disorders, so it was easy to overlook.

But as I grew up and worked in different establishments, I learned that this was not limited to mentally-stunted adolescents. Even in the nicest places, people have a tendency to trash the bathroom. The women’s room was always particularly bad, especially when it came to the toilet paper. Is toilet paper really that difficult to unroll? Half the time I would come in at the end of the night to find the roll removed from its normal, sane place on the wall and unraveled across the floor, as though women had just been batting it around all night like a gang of kittens.

2. People trust minimum wage workers with their lives.

"No pickles. If I am in the same room as a pickle, I will die." - person who probably shouldn't eat at McDonald's

Food allergies are a serious topic in food service because while I foster a mild contempt for the general public, I do not want to be the cause of any of their deaths. So when people came into Pizza Hut and explained that they not only could not have onions, but that nothing that touched their pizza could have ever touched an onion, it put a lot of pressure on me, a waitress making less than the minimum wage. Dutifully, though, I would go back into the kitchen and explain the situation to a very red-eyed cook who, while speaking with me, was shoving handfuls of mozzarella cheese into his mouth and I would think, “That man out there is going to die.”

Luckily, to my knowledge, no one actually died from anything I served them, which proves that either they exaggerated the severity of their allergies or that it just never got traced back to me. Either way, if you are deathly allergic to a common ingredient, it might be a good idea to eat at home. Or at least go to a place where people make more money and spend less of it on weed (I don’t know how you would learn that information – although I’d go by the spelling on their message boards).


1. People assume food service workers have a low level of competence but a high level of responsibility.

"Hey, can someone take over the line for me? I have to jump on a shareholders' call." - How some people see the world, apparently

One fact about serving food to others for a living is that there are people who are going to assume that you are stupid. Sometimes it works in your favor and people actually tip you more after you mess up their order because you’re really apologetic and they feel bad that you’re an idiot. Other times, people are just jerks.

For the most part, I can deal with this. These are people who need to take out their deep-seated insecurities on someone, and since America lacks a caste system, they tend to vent on our less codified version of the untouchables – the fast food workers. But what amazed me was when, after ranting about my inability to properly press brightly colored buttons to order their very simple burger-with-extra-mayo-no-tomato-and-not-those-tiny-onions-but-the-big-ones-those-tiny-ones-are-gross, they would also accuse me of being responsible for grievances that were caused by someone roughly 1,000 levels above me.

The time that breakfast ends, for example, is something that the McDonald’s fry cook has absolutely no control over. You should know, you just called that person a retard. Why would he also be assigned the task of setting the national standard for breakfast hours? I was once accused of not accurately foreseeing the popularity of a specific Happy Meal toy, as though I, a person forced to wear a visor as part of my uniform, was also responsible for the multimillion dollar promotional campaign and had really screwed the pooch on my forecasting models.

But then in the next sentence she told me that the bathrooms were disgusting, and one was clogged with what she was pretty sure was a McFlurry, and I knew that we both understood my place in the universe again.

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3 Responses to Three Things Working in Food Service Taught Me About People

  1. Ryan Reed says:

    Good write. I, as a bartender, encounter the same things across the board. Was a fun read.

  2. Sam says:

    So good. I was a busboy at an upscale steakhouse and the waiters liked to play a game of Jenga by stacking as much shit on it as they could. So they suck, too.

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