Think restaurant workers are lazy? Think again

A note from inside the Arena

On most days I lace up my comfortable work shoes, tie my apron around my waist and head off to work. It’s not glamorous. It’s work. And I am not alone. All over this country people do the same thing. Just usually we do it at different hours than most everybody else. We are the ones going to work when you are going home. We are the hospitality industry.

In 1910 Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris often referred to as “The Man in the Arena” speech, after one of its most famous passages. In it, Roosevelt said: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”

Those words are often applied primarily to politics. But that notion is evident throughout our society. Take professional sports for example, there is an entire industry built up of people talking about sports. And when we finally do hear from the athletes it’s often so rehearsed and cliched as to be meaningless: “They showed a lot of character” or “We need to execute better.”

In the restaurant business it’s more egregious. For an industry that has an enormous amount of press dedicated to it, very little about the major participants in that industry ever gets reported. The headlines and the stories are all about the owners, the chef, or even the landlord. Sometimes even the building. The glossies love that stuff.

The people we never hear about are the employees of those restaurants. The bones of the operations, the human grease that keeps the wheels turning, the persons working 40, 50, 60 hours a week making it all go.

Well, we do hear about this silent majority. Just check out any online review site and you will read all about them. And if that is all you read you might come away with a completely mistaken impression. Because you never actually hear from them.

Anthony Bourdain came closest. He always talked to the people both dining in the front, and working in the back. And he and his shows were wildly popular. Simple tales about real life people doing real life things in real life situations. It was great TV and it resonated.

So why isn’t anyone doing that anymore? Instead, we get celebrities jetting off to Europe to interview food editors, restaurant critics, and interior designers; or we get chefs coming here to belittle and yell under the glitziest of lights. I’m not saying those people aren’t important, I’m just saying that they aren’t the most important.

We are finally beginning to see the value of the good everyday employee post Covid. It’s not that there aren’t jobs, and it’s not that there aren’t employees. It’s just that many of those employees no longer want to do those jobs.

And who can blame them? Long hours, low pay, and no voice don’t seem so great once you’ve stopped doing it. And trust me, anyone who can work 10 hours straight in a hellishly hot kitchen under incredible stress, and whose every tiniest mistake can become amplified online to heinous levels can probably do a lot of other things too. And now they just might.

There is a lot of nonsense about restaurant people being “too lazy” to work being bandied about. People who work in the restaurant business are the furthest thing from lazy. Many work two or three jobs, or go to school, or raise families, or all three. For most, there’s no real viable sick time or vacation pay or severance packages, or pensions, or buyouts. If you don’t work, you don’t make money, it’s as simple as that.

So, remember something all you harsh online “critics” out there using words like “lazy” and “entitled” while you sip your ridiculously ordered 10 step two ingredient drinks; that person who is actually in the Arena, day after day, might not really care what you think. And these days many companies today are beginning to realize that one good employee is worth a half dozen bad customers. I think Bourdain knew that, and maybe, so did Teddy Roosevelt.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

-“Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world,” T. Roosevelt, later in that same speech.

-The most likely people to complain, are the ones who have the least to complain about.

-“All that glisters is not gold,” William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Act II Scene 7.

-Once a hamster gets off of its wheel, sometimes it’s really hard to get them back on it.