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The Truth About Hospitality Work

In 2010 I took a job running a bar. The bar was a really strange, decrepit place, and having had spent time as one of Sydney’s best bars and restaurants, simultaneously, was now one of the most depressing places in this city. The days of success were thirty years before I started working there. I heard a lot of stories, about lines going down the street, and bands and celebrities, recalled by punters sipping on their warming beer, and starring with glazed eyes at the crumbling pub around them.

When someone new came in, it was really exciting, but for the most part I saw the same people everyday. The political dynamic was also incredibly strange. One of the locals, a sixty year old, held together the entire business with his cheap cocaine. We stocked a beer just for him, and sold it for four dollars, because if he left, the business would leave. Without the cocaine he’d hooked the majority of our clientele on, the business would be nothing. 

After that pub closed down I went on to work in restaurants, cafes, tequila bars and clubs, and I’ve come to a conclusion: every young person should work in hospitality. I’ve learnt a lot about the world, about people, and about our society, by serving it food and alcohol. Working in hospitality offers a sort of introductory package to the world. 

I was a bartender in Balmain once. I showed up early every shift, I put in everything, I volunteered for every job, and I volunteered for the worst jobs. I put my head down and worked; I didn’t talk to anyone, I didn’t make friends, I just did the job. One time I was two minutes late to a shift and one of the managers, who I’d maybe met once before, fired me on the spot. The next day I brought in my uniform and gave it to the same manager who was eating lunch. I went to shake his hand and he ignored me. I said thanks for everything and left. I hated wearing a uniform, and I hated the culture in that pub, so it wasn’t so bad that I was fired. But I learnt a couple of really important lessons. The first was professionalism – a quality often forgotten about in this world – is secondary to being friendly. You have to get to know people, go to drinks with them, make them like you and respect you. 

You can be as professional as possible, show up early every other shift, and still lose your job. You have to befriend the guy who makes your job possible. If I was friendlier with that manager, I wouldn’t have been fired. You have to talk about things and open up, and smile a lot, smile constantly, laugh at all their jokes and ask them lots of questions.

While I was a barista, I had a small conversation with a filmmaker that I really respected. She mentioned a Vice fashion spread that, despite its criticism, and Vice retracting the piece, she really liked. She gave her reasons. She said that it breathed new life into the work of the authors. I told her that I thought the spread was incredibly symbolic and really powerful because of that.

Excited by my thoughts, I listed what it was saying and doing, and gave what I thought to be a solid argument. She went quiet and said something like: well I don’t know if it’s symbolic, but I’m glad you like it. I was really cut because I wanted to say something intelligent and impress her, because she constantly impresses me. But I realised people just want to be completely agreed with; then they will like you. You can challenge passively, but only in ways that build on their points.

It’s going to be interesting to argue that I learnt dignity in hospitality, having just said that I learnt to agree with people and not argue with them (regardless of what they are saying), but I am going to anyway. Dignity, I feel, isn’t how you hold yourself when you’re in public; it’s being able to hold yourself highly and respect yourself, despite the public. People have done all but spit in my face and I’ve found ways to rise above it, and still respect myself, and not by going behind the bar and making jokes about them either. By keeping calm and sympathetic, you can get even the most frustrating and angry customer to leave smiling and dropping big tips.

Written by CerealMonk. Photo by Janna Banana

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