A Piece Of Cake! | Takshama Pandit
In the midst of a chaotic brunch service, I remember feeling wound up, unable to untangle my feelings. I could see people enjoying their colorful cocktails and devouring the lovely food that was spread across the table. But the pit in my stomach kept growing. Then, I remembered the advice that I was given, “We’re all actors, putting on a show, so we smile and continue the performance”.
I took a step back, had some strong tea, and went back in with a smile. I don’t have a very friendly face, so it’s fair for you to assume that this took some effort. Like me on that day, servers and other restaurant professionals across the globe don a thin film with their uniform that gives their chaotic feelings a tidy exterior. What you get to emote is happiness, and the rest of the muckier emotions are kept aside to be felt later. We in the hospitality industry may not have the stressors that other jobs do, but working in a restaurant isn’t a piece of cake, even though we’re great at baking and selling you a piece.
Today, we’re in the midst of a wonderful time. People are finally beginning to talk about mental health, and I’m delighted that this conversation is extending to people in the hospitality industry. The chefs have it tough, with hours of standing, scorching heat, and constant pressure to deliver. There’s however another set of people in the same ocean, but a different boat as them. Those who are a part of what is called ‘Front of House’.
We head into the jobs with the expectations that we need to be charming and stand on our feet for most of the day, yet the boundaries are pushed everyday. Keeping aside the expected, two fundamental problems lie beyond the requirements of the job — a lack of thoughtful organizational support and social reproach. I’ve been a part of an organization that works on changing the well known abusive nature of work in hospitality. Yet, not all are as lucky. The immediate problem lies in the unsupportive structures that look at servers as waiters who need to do as they’re told and these structures continue to be the torchbearers of the non-humanistic regime.
The second problem lies outside the four walls of the restaurant. Society perceives our jobs as not ‘respectful’, or ‘valuable’. Why do we care? Because this often translates into how guests behave at the restaurant.
I know members of our team who guests have been rude to, but have shaken it off to ensure they don’t ruin another guest’s night. The reservationist who faces tantrums from whose table she released after they showed up an hour late, brushes it off and wishes the next guest cheerfully. But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t chip away a part of her. I’ve had many guests greet me with warm cookies and hugs, yet some have left me feeling scorched.
In most restaurants, they say the guest is always right and make amends to their advantage regardless of the situation at hand, but in doing so we steer accountability away from them and create a defunct relationship with the staff. It’s time to change the equation — a transaction isn’t a justification for being impolite.
Mental health is something much like a fingerprint that is unique to each one. Our highs and lows are different. However, when we see patterns emerge within an industry, we need to sit up, notice, and go to the drawing board to stir figure a new roadmap.
The F&B mental health crisis needs to first address the Sisyphean task of changing its environment and culture for trainees and employees. Hunger Inc. and other business owners in the industry have begun to have meaningful discussions and initiated steps to effect real change. However, the work is just beginning. A more inclusive and trusting space paired with the integration of wellbeing practices within the workspace could prove effective. Enabling two-way conversations that provide an outlet is a good place to start with. Better hours and pay to are a good place to end with.
A change at a macro level, however, requires more than monetary benefits. What can be done on a societal level, is a shift in perception towards the service industry.
Today, it’s a hopeful path I walk. I’ve seen care, kindness, and compassion, and I’m hoping that these little ripples soon create waves of change. Meanwhile, it's time for the actors to take a bow, and enjoy a piece of the cake too.
Words by Takshama Pandit