Given AY’s food focus this month, it seems appropriate to share a thought or two about my experiences in the food-services industry.


My first real job was at a hamburger joint on Highway 79 on the southwest side of Pine Bluff: Rich’s Hamburgers No. 3. I had just turned 16. It was time to make some spending money.

Among other things, that first job taught me the value of a dollar. That’s exactly what I made an hour.

Despite the meager wages, there was a big benefit for a teenage boy: free food. After school, I would run track, shower, then head straight to work, where I’d prepare a mound of fries and a jumbo burger. I’d disappear to a backroom where I’d wash it all down with a quart of Coke. Then I’d put on my white shirt and do homework until my shift began.

Rich’s was part of a locally owned enterprise. As the name indicates, where I worked was the third in the chain. Our establishment was simple: a small, cinder block building with an enclosed area on the front where people could place their orders at a counter and then sit on benches to await their food and beverages.

Competing with McDonald’s, Tastee Freez and a few other chains, our little hamburger place had its work cut out for it. Business could be slow — and I, being inexperienced, was assigned the slower shifts, which tended to be Sunday afternoons and weeknights.

Usually I was there with just one other worker, an affable woman in her 30s, and as we waited for customers through seemingly interminable evenings, we talked. The manager wanted us to be visible — people driving by on Highway 79 might stop if there were signs of life inside — so I would sit at one end of the counter and she would sit at the other, our Coke cups discreetly beneath the counter. We would tell jokes and talk about how we wished we made more money. This was a whole new experience for me: talking to an adult as a peer.

Around 9:30 p.m. we would start shutting down. I’d scrub the grill, empty the grease traps, then clean the asphalt parking lot. Picking up sodden pieces of food and other trash on cold, rainy nights was an especially humbling experience.

Not to paint too gloomy a picture. Nights when we did good business offered opportunities to flirt, as I served schoolmates parfaits and cherry Cokes. And did I mention all that free food? Even though I was running track, I was gaining weight. I guess that was the biggest factor in my decision to quit my job that spring. There were no events in waddling.

Seven years and several short-term jobs later, I worked as a waiter in Oxford, Miss., while going to graduate school at Ole Miss. I shared a house with a couple from New York, Paul and Debbie. He was a fellow student, she was a server at a restaurant connected to a motel. There was an opening for a server, and, thanks to Debbie, all I really needed to do was apply. I showed up one morning at 7 for a brief orientation, and then I was turned loose on the public.

Breakfast was a breeze, there being few customers, but starting shortly before noon, things got busy. A crowd of sorority girls, dressed as if they were going to some formal function, was seated at one of my tables. The order-taking went well. But when it came time to deliver the food, I overestimated my ability to balance a serving tray on one palm … and let one full of food slide into one young lady’s lap. I’ll never forget her terrified look. She shrieked. I froze.

The hostess rushed up, saying breathlessly, “Sonny, run, get some towels!”

I managed to look for towels for quite a spell. By the time I returned to the dining room, the sorority girls were gone. The hostess said everything was OK; she’d told the young woman to get her outfit dry-cleaned and bill the restaurant.

Despite that calamitous first day, I somehow kept the job for a while.

These experiences taught me that food service was not my future. I’ll close with this thought: Really good servers work hard and, by and large, don’t make what they’re worth. A generous tip is a nice way to say thanks.

Now, why am I craving a cheeseburger?

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