It was late May, perhaps early June before I acknowledged that a summer internship would not materialize. Dreams of sweltering commutes in a suit, long hours and coffee runs were to remain dreams. I had spent much of the spring searching and interviewing in vain, making it even more difficult to accept my fate.
Instead, for the third summer in a row, I would be working in the restaurant industry. This statement is not inherently negative. My disappointment was the result of my own failures to procure an internship and not a dislike for the restaurant business. Although it indubitably sounds like I am rationalizing my own fate this summer, I strongly believe that everyone should work for some time in the service industry.
It’s usually not glamorous, although as far as summer jobs go, it can be quite lucrative. It’s not a standout resume line, although it should be. But as any person who has waited tables, hosted, bartended, bussed, or worked as a cook can attest, there is a certain intangible value to working in the industry.
On the most basic level, working in a restaurant is about delivering the best product you can to guests within an hour or two. Whether you’re sick, tired, angry, overworked or underpaid, your livelihood depends directly on the quality of service you provide. Few professions have such a direct link between service and compensation. This provides a valuable lesson in service, and is easily scalable to other jobs.
Any job is about money, but when working in a restaurant you are delivering such a customized product that it becomes incredibly personal. There is an internal need to have the guests enjoy the experience that you are working so very hard to create. What you do directly affects the outcome of the meal. It is easy to be affected personally if people are dissatisfied, although there are certain people determined to have the worst meal of their lives irrespective of the service.
Above all else, restaurant work fosters important interpersonal communication skills. Whether it is with coworkers or patrons, success is predicated on your ability to connect and communicate in both good and bad situations. More often than not, the guests are people you have never met, meaning you have to find a way to connect and put strangers at ease with just a few words. These skills are invaluable in life beyond the restaurant doors.
In my third summer of work, I am increasingly more appreciative of the skills and experience that restaurant work has given me. Undoubtedly, I am a better person because of it. Most obviously, I have a greater sense of perspective and understanding when the roles are reversed and I am a patron of a restaurant.
I am painfully aware that the $3.00 per hour minimum wage for tipped employees is not a livable wage, meaning that tips are not option or extra, but a financial necessity. No matter the quality of my service, I always tip well, and I urge everyone to do the same. The "bad service, bad tip" dynamic is peculiar to me; as a server I never intentionally provided bad service, and being punished by tipping poorly strikes me as an immature way to display dissatisfaction.
When you have worked in a restaurant and then are a customer, you have a unique appreciation for the experience. Instead of being a series of isolated events, the food, service, décor and seating among other things come together as a unified experience, the amalgamation of many living and breathing factors.
I may have written this piece to reassure myself that there is a value in what I have spent my summers doing, but I also wrote it because I do believe in this value and believe many people would benefit from it. It may not have the prestige or the glamor of certain summer internships, but it provides experience and opportunity in a way working locked up in a cubicle could never do.