In the restaurant world, the holiday season is the moment everyone waits for. As soon as snack-sized candies go on sale and the spooky season retires, talk of turkeys, Michael Bublé carols and end-of-year celebrations are just around the corner.
Businesses begin planning seasonal parties, families figure out where to host out-of-town relatives, friends plan reservations for friends returning home. It’s a season of pleasure and enjoyment – with the service industry in full swing.
I worked in restaurants throughout college and for five years after college in establishments ranging from a family-owned Mexican eatery to a multi-location seafood outpost. For me, that time of year usually meant texts or calls from my mom asking me when I was coming home, or what days I had off. And my responses usually included answers like “As soon as I can” or “I’ll know more when the schedule falls.” There were plenty of reheated Thanksgiving pages, late night drives and work celebrations in February as the holiday buzz began to die down.
One of my longest periods of service was at an establishment in Short Pump Town Center. After Halloween, not only did business pick up as guests sought out seafood towers and corporate crown steak, but the mall became a frenzied destination for shoppers to swipe and while away the days. Santa also had a stay there, attracting lines of often confused or crying children destined for St. Nick’s captivity.
Every year in early November, Honda’s normal parking lot for the season was eighty-six, and employees would arrive late and annoy before the shift after fighting for spaces or giving up the mall parking lot. It was known that while we could request days off around the holidays, they were not guaranteed. And we all knew what that meant.
In those few months, I clocked in more hours, doubles, steps, and time spent working with my colleagues than at any other time of the year. Working in the food and beverage industry during the holidays is like signing a blood oath of dedication, embracing the we-are-all-in-this-together camaraderie, along with every Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah. There is no I. If caffeine is sought for one, it must be sought for all. If you finish side work at the end of your shift, you should polish a little more silverware. When I think back to the holiday festivities of the past, two memories stand out. One was at home, when I removed a frozen pie from the pan and it melted into a messy lump that looked like Gloopy from Candyland, and another was at work, when I slipped while carrying a massive tray of plates during a holiday dinner. Both resulted in feelings of embarrassment and explicit language. And just as my mother assured me that I hadn’t actually ruined the dessert—thank goodness it was a spare pie—my coworkers assured me that it wasn’t so dangerous to eat the s— to dust it off, literally.
Family is defined as a group or social unit of two or more people who are related in some way. They are people you lean on when you’re feeling down, even though you may sometimes disagree with them or not see eye to eye. They are people you lift up without asking, a learned response that comes only after you really get to know someone. It’s been five years since I waited tables, and while the pandemic has changed the way the service industry operates, I can say, looking back, that a restaurant family has no boundaries.
Maybe it’s the act of showing up with a dozen other front-of-house staff on groggy mornings that turned into late nights meant to be spent with siblings or parents you haven’t seen in six months. Sacrifice a homemade feast and my mom’s ricotta cheesecake for a family meal at the chef’s table while I rock a gravy-stained black button and my loose bun is barely holding on. Leaving work 10 people deep, looking like a boy band with our matching uniforms, and giving everyone a hug goodnight before the “see you tomorrow” exchange and deciding who will get coffee. Establishing new traditions, like donuts and pastries on Christmas Eve morning or pizza and beer while decompressing with colleagues following a service from hell.
Or maybe it’s all of the above that made me recognize that the people I clocked in and out with six days a week were more than colleagues. That the warm, tired bodies I methodically moved next to were the ones keeping me grounded. From the bartender who brought drinks to my table when I was in the weeds to a snack from a sous chef who knew I needed sustenance, to a colleague breaking out into a silly song in an attempt to make me laugh when I wasn’t in mood , these little moments of humanity, signs of recognition and familial understanding of what I needed, were actually gifts in themselves.
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