• Kathie Scalf

Women in Service


This weekend was an extremely busy one for the restaurant where I work; probably the busiest I’ve experienced in my short time there. And like all establishments who pay the bills servicing the masses, that high volume didn’t come without its fair share of stress and drama. But I’ll get back to that in a minute.

I’ve worked in the service industry in some capacity since I was 16 years old, minus the 2 years I spent in the office at a car dealership. During my almost 20 year tour of duty, I’ve grown to love that world, although some might call that Stockholm Syndrome. I love the contrast that exists between the front of house (the dining room) and the back of house (the kitchen); the way there can be pure pandemonium transpiring mere feet away from guests while they laugh and clink glasses over upbeat music and are never none the wiser. I thrive off the anxiety of being in the weeds (when you’re over-extended trying to service more people than you can handle.) There is a certain high that comes from doing absolutely nothing, then suddenly spinning in 15 different directions while the demands of 20 people run like a ticker tape through your head, then dropping back off to nothing again all in the span of 4 hours. I thrive off the adrenaline required to survive in these conditions, and the trauma bonds that are created from such conditions amongst the staff.

There is no better group dynamic than the one that exists within the restaurant industry. In no other occupation will you find more heart-warming functioning dysfunction. The idea of HR is borderline laughable, with most of the staff sharing food, tears, living quarters, dirty jokes, drugs, alcohol, sexual relations or all of the above at once. At the best restaurants, management knows where their employees’ individual boundaries lie and have their back when those lines are crossed. At the worst, nepotism, narcissism, greed and cowardice prevail, creating uncomfortable and unstable circumstances for everyone. I have worked in both, and thankfully my current establishment is of the former and not the latter persuasion…but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Which brings me back to this weekend.

We had a situation on Saturday night where a man in his 50s got aggressive and verbally accosted our 16 year old hostess until she cried. This girl has worked at our restaurant for all of 3 weeks. It is her first job and she’s as quiet and timid as a field mouse, so when I saw this grown man getting off on asserting his power over a child in high school, it triggered a lot of suppressed memories and emotions from over the years and something in me snapped.

For all my warm feelings toward the service and hospitality business, there is definitely a dark side. And while I don’t like to play the “woman minority” card, women definitely are at a disadvantage in this male-dominated industry. From belligerent customers to predatory or opportunistic managers to toxic co-workers, women are expected to tolerate a ridiculous amount of physical and mental abuse to get ahead. As a 16 year old host working at Pizza Hut to this very day at 35 years of age, I’m still not immune to being called “f-ing stupid” to my face by an angry cook for messing up the occasional order when busy. There’s never been a cease in men who have told me I should smile to look pretty or commented on my body or feel it’s ok to physically touch me even though they are strangers. And even at my age now, I occasionally have to endure the wrath of a miserable person who is projecting their own inner demons as a way to feel superior, because I’m a “lowly server” just like our young hostess.

For better or for worse, I have acclimated to these unsavory environmental factors and accepted them as just coming with the territory. While my male cohorts have never had the pleasure of being told to smile while 2 customers argued over what size their breasts are, they also have never had a man slip a $100 bill into their apron pocket every time they came to the table just to talk to them…6 times in a row. Learning how to survive and thrive in service requires a degree of hardening, boundaries and self-assurance that not a lot of women can achieve, nor should they be required to. By now, 20 years of experience and trauma down the road, a rude customer could never bring me to tears. I know my worth, I know my intelligence, I know my dignity, I know how to tell someone their behavior is unacceptable in a professional way, I know my own shortcomings, I know when to walk away and when to let management take over, and I know how far is too far for my level of comfort and am able to communicate that clearly and directly when that line is crossed. It’s taken decades of being groped, being talked down to, being screamed at in my face by mentally ill business owners, sobbing in walk-in coolers, and countless night terrors from job related anxiety, but in the end it has made me a damn powerful woman and I’m grateful. Because now I can be the person I needed at 16.

Which is why it gave me a great deal of pleasure to intervene when that man attacked our hostess. For all the sick ego boost it was giving him to verbally abuse this child, I can promise you it gave me even more to look down at his 5’9” beady, bloodshot eyes from my 6’0” vantage point and directly ask him what was his problem. Nothing really puts lead in my lady pencil quite like asserting my dominance over a man with an inferiority complex, reducing him to stuttering until he shuts up completely; it’s a very therapeutic form of vindication for the jerks who have hurt me over the years.

More importantly, it was an opportunity for me to be an example to that girl of what she does and does not have to accept, and hopefully how to conduct herself when she finds herself in the next situation. Because sadly, we all know there will be another. Whether she stays in this industry or not, women need to recognize and assert their voice in the workplace, or they will be mistreated. Use your womanly wiles to your advantage and don’t feel guilty; men do it all the time, but it’s with expense accounts and perks. Know your boundaries and be firm in them. And don’t react on your emotions, instead work from a headspace of logic. Most important, don’t let your trauma be your detriment. Use it as a learning opportunity and grow from it; it will only serve to make you unstoppable in all aspects of life.

As for the idiot, he’s blacklisted from our hospitality group and good news travels fast in the small world of restaurants. And let’s just say I never forget a face and eagerly anticipate the day I’m off the clock, off company property and can pick up where we left off on our little conversation, in case he missed the memo on why gross old men shouldn’t be mean to little girls who just got their driver’s license.