The Other Side of the Counter

Last week, a friend of mine from college who works at a nice mid-range restaurant in our nation’s capital overheard a guest saying, “Hospitality is the default field people go to when they can’t hack it in anything else.”  I share her anger with these comments and other derogatory comments towards any service industries.  These are the men and women who cook and serve your food, bend over backwards to ensure your hotel stay is comfortable, and encourage you to buy goods from t-shirts to computers.  They serve not only gracious customers, but tolerate the behavior of customers that denigrate them by virtue that those who serve do not deserve respect.  To be on the other side of the counter relegates one to a lower stratum of the labor hierarchy.

I work a white-collar job as an engineer; however, this has only been the case for the last few years.  Aside from this and four years in the military, I have spent the majority of my adult life in the food service industry.  In my late teens and early twenties, I worked at Wendy’s near Binghamton University, which was simultaneously fulfilling and frustrating.  I was initially hesitant to take the job, but to my surprise, I found satisfaction in the simple tasks of preparing and serving food to customers.  While the fast food is an industry known for its high rate of worker turnover, I had the good fortune to work with the same core group for most of my employment there.

The experience was not without its drawbacks, including the inevitable overheating from working around grills and fryers in the summertime, and appeasing angry customers returning with incorrect orders.  For me, the most aggravating customers I dealt with were students from Binghamton University.  Many of the students I encountered were my contemporaries, but unlike myself had never wanted for anything, and may have never worked a day in food service in their lives.  My coworkers and I were dismissed out of hand as dumb townies who couldn’t hack it, which stoked resentment in me and fueled my determination to do better for myself.  My career in food service was a stepping-stone towards my eventual career as an engineer, but I enjoyed the experience enough that I would have no qualms about returning to it.

Nor have I forgotten the life lessons I acquired in my time working in food service.  For my job, I frequently make business trips to conferences or professional development courses.  A business trip for me begins at the airport, where I check my bag, pass through security, and board a flying sardine can to Detroit, where I transfer to a more comfortable aircraft to my destination.  After taking a shuttle bus or an Uber to my hotel, I check in and prepare for the conference or course I am attending. Each step on my journey involves an encounter with a member of the service industry: the flight attendant, the driver who took me to my hotel, and the front desk clerks who checked me in, the server at the restaurant where I eat dinner, and the housekeeping staff who cleans my room.  I may not have worked as a flight attendant, driver, housekeeper, or in the hospitality industry, but I automatically give them due courtesy as I was once on the other side of the counter.

It is important to take the time to be mindful of those who make their living in a service industry.  Is this person using it as a stepping-stone on their way to something more?  Is this person performing their duties out of the joy it brings them?  Is this person working here simply to put a roof over their head, pay their bills, and fill their belly?  Those who are served should respect those who serve, regardless of why they work in the industry.  Not only do they have the power to enhance your experience, they have the power to make your experience unbearable.

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