Monday, August 30, 2010

Work Sweet Work

I had an encouraging experience on Friday afternoon. I was walking down Main Street and heard someone shout, "Hey, Tara!" That hadn't happened to me yet in my new town.

It was my twenty one year old supervisor, who I'll call Gabe. Gabe was standing on the deck of the taco shop, a cold beer in hand.

"Hey, beer - nice!" I said. It was around 2pm.

"Yeah, I need it. This morning sucked. Phil didn't show up."

"Who's Phil?"

"He's the new kitchen guy. Now I have to cover for him tonight, and I had plans, too."

"Aw, that sucks."

"Yeah, but it's just part of the new job." Gabe became a manager last week. "At least I have this beer to calm my nerves."

"That's good. Enjoy it! I'll see you tomorrow."

Ah, to be twenty one and the boss. I remember those days. At that time, I probably wouldn't have guessed that I would be doing that same kind of work at age thirty three and if I had, I might have found that very depressing. But I'm not depressed now. For several reasons, this new job has brought me great relief.

For one thing, it gives me something to do with my day. I've suffered bouts of unemployment before (I think the maximum length was just shy of three months) and while I won't pretend I didn't enjoy the ample free time, I missed the structured days and, of course, the money. I used to think that I would be happy to be unemployed if money were no concern. Well, now that Dan has a full-time teaching gig, I'm as close to that reality as I've ever been but still I felt the need to get a job asap. The brutal southern heat combined with my natural shyness made it too easy for me to stay indoors all day and just wait for Dan to come home. I was getting bored and weekends just weren't feeling like weekends.

So, I got myself a job. This is as good a time as any to note that I barely ever blog about work, for a few reasons: 1) it isn't that interesting (and if it is, that's usually a good sign that I should be looking for a job elsewhere); 2) it clashes with my sense of professionalism - I rarely gossip at work because it usually leads to trouble, and that's the same reason I don't do work gossip on my blog; 3) the obvious one - I don't know who reads this. But, for the sake of sharing my new life with whatever readers I have, I'm going to disguise and describe my new workplace, which requires that I tell you a bit about my old one.

I used to work in the catering department of a nationally renowned deli that I'll call Foodie Deluxe. FD is famous for its towering sandwiches made with tasty breads from its sister company, Foodie Deluxe Bakehouse. Before I left Michigan, I did my research and learned that an FDB alum had started his own bakery in Chattanooga. That bakery happens to sit around the corner from my apartment and after we moved in, I started heading over there every day for a cup of coffee and free wifi. When I noticed that they had a retail sales position open, I made sure to put "Foodie Deluxe" in big print on the application.

It worked. I interviewed with the owner right after he returned from vacation. By the first day of my third week in town, I was selling bread and slinging coffee. I quickly learned that I shouldn't mention my FD background to my new coworkers, because I got this reaction - "Oh, you worked at Foodie Deluxe." Eye roll. "Well, the owner must loooove you." After hearing that a couple times, my story was simply that I had worked for a catering company in Michigan.

Really, other than the fact that I'm working with artisan breads, this job has almost nothing in common with the last one. I'm on my feet all day instead of sitting at a desk, which I definitely prefer (though I am starting to feel my age). The hourly pay is lower (boo) but I make cash tips (yay!). The two biggest differences are the level of organization and the customer service dynamics. Foodie Deluxe was big on customer service, which I loved. They claim (and I actually think it's true), that providing great service is as important as serving great food and making money. Too often, service workers are made to feel that their work isn't "real" work and I liked having a job that dignified customer service. Plus, the company did a good job of making it easy to provide great service by being highly systematized and allowing their employees to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy. I didn't have to ask my manager if I could give the customer a refund, I could just use my own judgment.

In my current job, I feel like I can make similar judgment calls and it's such a small business that it's easy for me to find a manager or supervisor who can deal with an unhappy customer. At the same time, because it is a small, up-and-coming business, I don't feel quite as comfortable giving refunds and band-aid cookies because cash is tighter.

In addition to that, there are almost no documented systems for anything, whether it's "how to give a refund" or instructions on cleaning the espresso machine. Fortunately, I've had enough restaurant/barista/food service jobs that I know the right questions to ask. But I have to admit that it was a little freaky for me at first. My northern sense of efficiency makes me nervous and leads me to frequently wonder if I'm doing my job right, or in the smartest possible way. In my experience, efficacy is as important as accuracy. I'm from the birthplace of the assembly line. I had a boss in Detroit who would berate me if I didn't pour coffee, bus tables and wipe counters in as few steps as possible. I keep expecting a customer to yell at me because they had to wait ten minutes for their sandwich when there were only a few other people in the dining room.

But, guess what? That doesn't happen! In the three weeks I've been working at the bakery, I have not seen a single customer yell at anyone. One man calmly asked for a refund after he waited half and hour for his sandwich and was told that we had run out of that type of bread. He simply said, "This is not right," and my supervisor said, "I'm sorry," and that was that. Yes, southerners are much nicer than people up north. When I was trying to figure out the credit card machine on my first day, I explained to the customer that I was a newbie and she said, "Oh, I thought you'd been here a week, at least!" before sticking a buck in the tip jar. Another woman cheered for me when I bused her table. I've never had a new job where the customers were so encouraging of my development! Honestly (and I've never felt this before) interacting with customers is one of my favorite things about this job.

But my coworkers are cool, too. Everyone I've worked with so far has been pretty friendly and helpful. I don't know if I'll make pals at this place, but I find even work-related social interactions uplifting. Starting over in a new town is exciting but lonely. Sometimes it just feels really good to here someone call your name as you're walking down the street.


  1. Great post! Congrats on the job! Love that the woman cheered when you bussed her table.

    Great too about the no yelling thing. I've been in Greensboro for over 6 years now and I still have never heard anyone cuss anyone out.

    Amazing, since the usual way I was awoken in the morning when I lived on 16th Street in DC was overhearing people on the street and at the bus stop screaming and cursing!

  2. Oh, that's such wonderful news about no one getting cussed out in Greensboro! I really noticed the difference between northern and southern etiquette when we visited Nashville in the winter. After a couple days I thought, "Wow, I don't think any random person is going to be a jerk to me." You get so used to it in Michigan, especially during the winter.

    Thanks for reading!