Letters from the Editor: Service with a smile

One of the hardest jobs I’ve ever worked was in foodservice. This is to say, one of the quickest ways to lose me as a friend is to be discourteous to servers.

Since midterms are looming, my roommate and I have been coping by watching an unhealthy amount of television and, during Saturday night’s particular marathon of cheesy game shows, someone on the tube mentioned that he is always rude to waiters. He said it (on-air!) like it was nothing, like it was a quirky character trait or a peculiar habit.

I’ve been away from the service industry for a few years, but what I haven’t forgotten from my brief tenure as a fast food floater, is how taxing the job washow thankless.

People who work in foodservice work long hours in cramped, often overheated quarters. They’re regularly criticized and constantly monitored. Customers are not always impolite, but they aren’t frequently kind or understanding either. My most common experience with foodservice customers were mildly irritated folks who spoke to me like I was an automaton on an assembly line.

What really stands out in my memory of the work is the one person I can remember who spoke to us like we were humans—and yes, I can only remember one.

It was late in the evening and we were a few minutes away from starting the nightly cleaning routine when a customer came through the drive-thru and ordered something out of stock at the time.

My boss closed his eyes in a moment of mental preparation. On his face was a look you’ll commonly observe if you know how to look for it: the face of an employee about to tell a customer something they don’t want to hear. He apologized profusely and told the woman over the intercom that we were out of a particular product needed to complete her order. I can still remember exactly what she said, because the words seemed to open up a rift in time and space:

“That’s alright, it isn’t your fault.”

We all froze, eyes wide at our stations. After a few seconds I glanced at my shift manager, whom I saw staring at my coworker, paused and clutching a broom. After a moment, we all resumed working and took her order without further hang-ups, but when she drove off, the words still rang in the otherwise empty establishment. One of my co-workers looked at me and asked, “Did she really say it wasn’t our fault?”

I have a blurry memory of the faceless masses who shouted at us over the intercom over the broken smoothie machine, who came through the line four times asking for a sandwich to be remade, and who swore at my manager for running out of barbecue.

Still, I remember most clearly the womanthis glorious, empathetic human beingwho acknowledged that there were aspects of the job entirely out of our control and who told us to have a pleasant evening.

Next time you’re at a restaurant or waiting for coffee, I hope you’ll consider the person working behind the counter, the human handing you your coffee with human hands, and thank them sincerely. You’d be surprised the impact you could have.

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