- File: Matthew Thorsen ©️ Seven Days
- A server at Pizzeria Verità in 2014
Seven Days is lucky to be able to publish the work of seasoned writer Melissa Pasanen, who draws on a seemingly bottomless supply of intel to explore all aspects of Vermont's food scene, from agriculture to food service. In this week's cover story, she found a fresh way to write about the pandemic-era challenges facing local eateries: by focusing on a handful of restaurateurs who, against all odds, are opening new places.
With five juicy examples, she covers the bad news — staff shortages, supply chain issues and the continuation of pandemic protocols — while also capturing the appeal of the business. "It's that excitement about putting out good food," said Jack Pickett, who is getting ready to open his seventh restaurant, Big Fish, at the Commodores Inn in Stowe. He and others also acknowledge that a system overhaul is required to make working conditions in restaurants more humane.
Planning for Melissa's story prompted some emails between us — and longtime food writer Sally Pollak — about the pros and cons of laboring in professional kitchens and dining rooms. The two of them made good points about the low pay, long hours, lack of benefits and potential harassment. Surprisingly, I found myself defending food service, making the case that it can be fun and financially rewarding, at least for a time. In fact, I think everyone should have to work in a restaurant at some point in their lives. No doubt the experience turns out more empathetic customers and bigger tippers.
I got my first waitressing job at 16, working the weekend breakfast shift at a Hot Shoppes in Bethesda, Md. It was uncomfortable — especially serving people at the counter, who sat alone, pre-cellphone, watching your every move. Fatiguing, too. While my young legs ached, I wondered how the much older, career waitresses working alongside me must have felt.
The pace was nonstop, but at the end of a busy day slinging eggs, I went home with an apron pocketful of dollar bills and quarters, which really added up. The money helped pay my way through Middlebury College, where I continued to waitress at Mister Up's. A waitstaff job brought me to Wyoming for a summer of indentured servitude in Grand Teton National Park. I worked double shifts at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. — waiting tables at lunch, busing them at dinner — to finance a three-month bike trip in New Zealand.
Working in restaurants bought me freedom and helped me develop organizational skills. Anticipating and responding to the needs of a dozen tables at different stages of eating is a lot harder than it sounds. I liked having a reason to approach people, to figure out which customers wanted to chat and which ones preferred to be left alone. I learned to sell — note: women are more likely to say yes to dessert — and how to uncork a bottle of wine in front of an audience.
I liked the simple fact that the harder I worked, the more money I made. And when I did well, so did the restaurant, with very little financial investment in me. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.
At times, I got steamed — like when I realized that one place I worked expected its waitstaff to pay out of pocket when we accidentally undercharged customers, but when the error favored the restaurant, the money stayed in the cash register. I proposed creating an overcharge fund that would cover our occasional mistakes. Instead of thanks, I got fired.
Of course, I'm more inclined to remember the good times: When the place was packed and everyone was stretched to the limits of their abilities, the buzz was exhilarating — not unlike the thrill of assembling a newspaper. Our individual efforts contributed to a hardworking team striving to deliver a quality product, consistently, on deadline — day after day, week after week.
In short, pretty good training for life.