11 Things I’ve Learned from Working in a Restaurant During the Pandemic

By Christina

I have worked at Botiwalla, an Indian street food restaurant, in Atlanta’s most famous food hall located in Ponce City Market for the past few months. I have learned a lot from working in a restaurant and wanted to share 11 lessons I’ve learned so far. 

Our ‘Rules of the Cafe’

 Work should not be so serious 

  • I have learned the difference between being serious at work and taking my work seriously.  In taking work seriously, I see that doing my job well requires casualness, calmness, and humor.  Taking the time to laugh with a guest or write a nice note on someone’s takeout bag can enhance our guests experience.  With the pandemic limiting social interaction, we need humor and fun more than ever. 

What a squeegee is

  • Working in a restaurant has highlighted the differences (and similarities) between what I learned in the classroom and what I’ve learned in the ‘real world’ on my gap year.  One difference is what knowledge matters: I could thoroughly explain Gauss’s Law using calculus and physics concepts but could not identify the squeegee in the restaurant when I started.  Nobody cares how many AP’s anyone took or where anyone went or goes to school.  I am judged on how I treat people and how much of a team player I am, not even on how well I do my job: the staff has my back when I make mistakes on that. 
  • have also learned to physically work like I never have before.  Who knew there were so many pieces of equipment to clean, store, and cook things in a restaurant.  I have mopped and swept and wiped down and carried like never before.  I have certainly learned to keep my head down and put my back into it,” as I’ve been told while mopping. 

 Avoid easy mistakes 

  • One member of our staff shared a story about his experience playing the tuba in middle school.  He wanted to be the best player in the state and practiced tirelessly every day.  One day he complained to his teacher about how he endlessly practiced the hard parts yet still wasn’t the best.  His teacher responded by asking him how often he practiced the easy parts, to which his response was hardly ever.  He began putting more time into the easier parts, and two years later he became the best tuba player in the state. 
  • This story reminds us in the restaurant to not overlook the “easy.”  We are in the middle of an unprecedented time in the restaurant business and are going to make mistakes on the hard or unknown stuff, like our new takeout-only setup or the food hall’s new COVID-19 protocol.  However, we need to be sharp on the easy stuff, like getting orders right or making sure our guests have everything they need, in order to succeed. 

 Restaurant work is grueling 

  • Most of our cooks work in at least one other restaurant.  In their ‘time off,’ one works at a Southern breakfast restaurant while another works at an upscale burger restaurant down the food hall from us.  They work tirelessly and excel at the job that everyone wishes they could do well, which deserves recognition and respect. 

 How to think for myself 

  • One of our managers always expects us to know what we want.  What music do you want to listen to during setup?  What do you want for your staff meal?  Do you want to work register or expo tonight?  If we don’t know, his response is, “If you don’t know then who knows?”  The answer is nobody.  He has taught me to think for myself and be more confident in what I want and who I am. 

 A degree doesn’t define a person 

  • Every few weeks, our back of house manager, who only has a high school degree, asks me what book I’m reading. We both know the other will be on a new book by then and are eager to hear what the other is reading. It’s easy to assume he wouldn’t enjoy reading: maybe school just wasn’t for him or he always needed to work and never had time for a book. I don’t know much about his past, but I do know that he’s currently reading a collection of creative nonfiction essays about the author’s experience with intersectionality as an Asian-American woman living in Houston. 
  • Another back of house staff member is a history buff particularly interested in wars and ancient history. He could talk endlessly to me about the Spartans and Athenians or the weapons of World War II.  He wanted to become a historian, but couldn’t afford the college tuition. He continues to educate himself about history through conversations and book.
     
  • I have always been surrounded by people with college and postgraduate degrees, but being surrounded by an educationally diverse group of people- both college-educated and not- at the restaurant has allowed me to break down my own stereotypes about what a degree or being smart mean. 

 An Indian restaurant doesn’t have to sell rice 

  • Working in a restaurant that sells Indian street food has taught me a lot about my assumptions of India and other countries.  Partly due to thinking about America as a “melting pot,” I’ve realized that I often oversimplify other countries’ history, diversity, and culture.  Many guests, including some of Indian descent, are disgraced when they find out we are an Indian restaurant that doesn’t sell rice or curries when, in reality, Indian food is so much more than that.  I have learned a lot about the diversity of culture, history, and cuisine that influences our restaurant’s food and makes India so complex and unique. 

 Life happens, and compassion is necessary 

  • When the pigeons that plague our patio poop in someone’s $12 boozy slushy or someone’s overheated dog needs a cup of water, compassion is necessary.  Meeting the needs of customers and even noncustomers even when it sucks, uses up resources or time, or is petty is important to maintaining the standards and reputation we pride ourselves on as a company. 

 Most people are decent 

  • A small minority of our guests are really rude, but most people show kindness, whether that’s through wearing a mask, tipping, saying “hi” back, speaking to us with respect, or striking up a thoughtful conversation.  The pandemic requires that we be more creative in how we build connections, but we need the effort from both ends to do so now more than ever. 

 Appreciate and cherish the little things 

  • Front of house staff members are tasked with chores like portioning out our raita, spicy ketchup, or mango lassis into to-go cups for guests.  I have cut corners while portioning before and made messes- spilling spicy ketchup everywhere or dropping hundreds of 2oz cups on the ground.  I have learned that, to respect the kitchen staff, I have to take the time and effort to handle the foodcondiments, or drinks they make with care.  Whether it’s the simple syrup (aka sugar water) I use to make drinks or the full meals I package up into takeout bags, I owe the kitchen staff the respect of handling the food that dominates their time and energy with care. 

 Something about the restaurant makes everyone family 

  • Working in the restaurant has brought me some of my happiest moments since the pandemic- from making “Mondo burgers” inspired by the movie Good Burgers on a slow Sunday to the constant prank wars that one cook instigates to feasting on cake and laughing together during a staff meeting.  Work doesn’t feel like a chore: it feels like the place I come home to, filled with great food and people that make me smile.