I got on my knees and used my hands to wrestle a giant hairy snake of digusting mass out of a bar drain, and I did it for no pay. Zero dollars an hour. That was when I was breaking my back working at Outback Steakhouse in Murfreesboro, TN.
Outback was the busiest restaurant in town with the highest ticket average per person. You couldn't make better money at any other place within 35 miles, and that included Chili's, Red Lobster and the white table cloth place out by the interstate.
I'd been promoted to bartender after years and years of waiting tables there. Getting bumped up to bartender was a big deal, and so were the tips. I soon learned that part of that promotion included getting up early on a Saturday morning with the other six to seven bartenders and detailing the bar--every nook, every crevice, every cranny--for about four solid hours.
We were paid nothing. We did not clock in. We were told specifically that this was part of being a bartender, and you could do it without complaint or not work behind the bar.
It was grueling work. I balanced on a teetering bar stool hoisting 20 gallons of hot water in a giant bucket overheard to clean the frozen drink machines. Had I slipped and cracked my face on the metal of the machine or worse, I would not have been on record as having worked and would not have been able to receive workers' compensation for medical bills incurred from my fall.
The place I work now is a corporate restaurant. The people who own it own others in the Bay Area, like One Market, Lark Creek Steakhouse and Fish Story in Napa. But it is not like Outback Steakhouse or The Cooker or large scale chains that I worked in before. Not even a little.
I am treated so much better where I work now. When I think back on how much physical labor some restaurant jobs in Tennessee demanded of employees making $2.13 an hour, I am baffled that it's legal.
Servers in San Francisco make minimum wage plus tips, not $2 an hour plus tips, as I was once paid. (Many, many servers in many, many states still make just above $2 an hour plus tips.) From my experience, when a corporation can get virtually free labor out of individuals at $2 an hour, it makes those in charge devalue not only the work being done, but the worker.
We were treated like shit. On multiple occassions a manager called us all into the kitchen to scream and curse at us until he was red in the face and beads of spit at ours. All because the people who worked there were so overtaxed that busy weekend shifts would often run on the verge of complete meltdown, every synapse on the verge of snapping.
I am extremely lucky to work in a restaurant that values its people. I am respected where I work. The place is filled with bright, funny people who are a pleasure to be around because they are heard and forgiven and treated with care.
This return to waiting tables is better so far. In part because I am older, wiser, whathaveyou, but also thanks to those above me and my teammates. Seriously awesome people; I want to squeeze them each and every one.