What Working at Restaurants Can Teach Writers


When I was nine, I decided I was going to start my own restaurant. I made a sign that said “Gourmet Platay” (yes, platay isn’t a word, but the rhyme rolled off the tongue) and taped it in our front window. I added OPEN right below it. I placed a table in the middle of the living room with a fake floral arrangement my grandmother had given us, and I figured it would be moments before an interesting customer came through the door.

I didn’t know what I’d offer on the menu, as our house wasn’t stocked with the type of food I imagined Gourmet Platay serving, but I knew I’d figure it out. I set out two water glasses and found a pen and notepad and waited. I waited and waited until one of my older brothers saw the sign and took it down. He said, “You can’t just start a restaurant like that.”

I didn’t know then that one day I’d create another restaurant—in book form this time. But I had to figure out the business first.

When I was fifteen, I begged my parents to let me take a job as a busser at a seafood restaurant. I wanted my own money, and The Galley was a seemingly-fancy place where a lot of teenagers worked. It had a nautical theme with porthole windows, fake lobsters on the wall, and a captain’s wheel; baskets of dinner rolls and a giant salad bar.

Businesses held their holiday parties there, and it was the spot for graduation lunches. On New Year’s Eve, reservations were impossible to get. When I applied for a job, they told me I needed a tuxedo shirt and black pants and that I would start that weekend.

I didn’t know then that one day I’d create another restaurant—in book form this time. But I had to figure out the business first.

I remember my first shift—spilling water down a woman’s blouse and dropping a tray. I remember the hostess told me the tablecloth was crooked, so I had to redo a whole setting. I remember one of the servers yelled at me, and someone told me they called her Crabby Patty. I remember that we had no breaks, and I made less than minimum wage (which was around four dollars an hour in the early 1990s).

At some point during our shift, pasta with marinara sauce was set out on the counter. I looked around for a place to sit and realized we were supposed to gulp it down, clean it up, and get back to work. After a couple months, I called the owner to say I was quitting, and he hung up on me.

My oldest brother kept telling me I’d love working at McDonald’s, where he was a manager during college breaks, but I wanted a cool job (which McDonald’s wasn’t). But what was? There was no trendy coffee shop, no French bistro. I applied to be an activities assistant at a nursing home but never heard back. I wanted a job at Gap, but it didn’t pan out. I had burned my bridges at the only real restaurant in the area, so I had to give fast food a shot.

I first worked Window, which is not, as you might think, the drive-thru window. Window meant the counter where you take people’s orders.

The training was very specific. You were to take the order, make the drink (use the ice scoop), get the sandwich, and then the fries last so they stayed hot. If something wasn’t ready, you were to take payment and put the customer’s tray to the side. You could tell them to have a seat and you’d bring it over. If there were no customers, you were to check the shake machine or fill the ice.

“Got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean,” the managers said. Sweep the floor, stock the sauces and ketchups. It was a well-oiled machine. I hated it and loved it.

I memorized the register, and I liked putting the bills in the same order, something I still do whenever I pay in cash. I loved getting promoted to drive-thru, which is where the elites ended up because you have to be fast. I loved being asked to call bin (four Macs, four Quarters, nine Regs, cheese seven), finally getting a ten-cent raise ($4.35!) and being promoted to a trainer.

I loved the crew, too. On slow days, we’d experiment with new food on the grill (fried ice cream, sloppy joes). We’d sing along to the music (“I Swear,” “Build Me Up Buttercup”) after closing and commiserate at having to be back early the next morning. I started drinking coffee there.

I loved McDonald’s because I knew I wanted to be a writer, and the writer stuff to notice (character, setting, plot, dialogue) was everywhere: I remember the senior citizens coming in and ordering discounted drinks, knowing what their cost should be to the cent.

One time, a girl from my class came through the drive-thru, and I recognized her voice on the speaker. I gave her a free cherry pie, and she said she never forgot that (she married me some years later).

I was only a teenager, and I would one day understand the concept of displacement, how people take out their pent-up aggression on someone they can, namely customer service workers. It stung to have someone call me worthless because their nuggets weren’t out of the fryer yet, to have a Happy Meal toy thrown at me because they’d “goddamn told” me they already had that one.

Writing is about truth and connections, and restaurants are all about connections.

I hated serving a car full of teenagers because I would stand there and get made fun of while I waited for the runner to assemble their order. I remember my sixth-grade teacher coming into the store with her mother, and I was so excited to see her. But as she gave me her order I realized she didn’t see me. I was invisible working there. I remember classmates saying, “You work here?” and laughing.

When I write about characters who are doing their best, I often think of my coworkers, the ones who weren’t just doing this for extra money like I was. The ones who had kids and car payments and rents or mortgages. To this day I have never gone into a fast food restaurant where I am not extra nice to the employees because I know how hard that job is.

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I had wanted to write a book set in my hometown, but for a long time I couldn’t get it right. Then one day I imagined a man who showed up for work one day and thought to himself that he couldn’t do it anymore. The whole scene materialized: the family restaurant that had been in his life since he was born, the ocean breeze, the employees showing up for their shifts.

I used my time at restaurants to remember what I felt—the notion of doing one’s best while being exhausted. I wrote and wrote, and Jack Schmidt was as real to me as myself. All he wanted was to sit in the beach chair he had bought once but never used, and when he worked, he thought about the past as we all do, and tried make peace with his regrets. The connections the restaurant crew had with each other had echoes of what I felt when I worked with people who felt like they were my family.

I reached out to the only family-run restaurant I knew nearby: Warren’s Station. It’s my family’s favorite place. We have a tradition of taking our old convertible and driving the half hour from Rehoboth Beach to Fenwick Island with the top down, going over the big blue bridge and wondering what kind of pies they might have that day, and who would order what.

Scott, the owner, told me to call him any time with questions. He told me about turkey portions and pie sales and restaurant prep. He told me about customer numbers. He invited me to visit the restaurant in the off season. He showed me the spot in the back of the restaurant where he goes to look out at the ocean when he’s had a crazy day. Because of him, the restaurant in my novel became a real place with a beating heart.

The Same Bright Stars is a tribute to a family business like Warren’s Station. Writing is about truth and connections, and restaurants are all about connections. When I was nine and my pretend restaurant was just a table and chairs in the middle of the room, I sat there alone with my thoughts. Maybe that was the day the book began. Maybe that’s mostly what the book is: a small wish come true.

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The Same Bright Stars by Ethan Joella is available via Scribner.



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