The first job I ever had was working at a pizza parlor down the street from my house. I was not quite 15-years-old. I didn’t have a work permit, but they were desperate and I had a good attitude, so I got the job. I worked the take-out window. I answered phones, took orders, and folded dozens of cardboard pizza boxes until they were piled so high, I could no longer reach them. I worked there for seven months or so, until I began getting harassing phone calls from an unknown caller, asking if I wanted to have sex after work. I knew it was a prank, but I couldn’t shake the unsettling feeling that came over me every time the phone rang.
Some days, the male caller would state bluntly, “I want to have sex with you,” and then laugh into the phone. Other times, the man would call and describe in detail the clothes I was wearing. “That’s a nice blue shirt you have on there,” he’d say. Or “Your jeans hug your butt nicely.” I never responded to his comments, and instead hung up every time he called. Though I usually only worked Friday and Saturday nights, I began to dread every time I was scheduled to go into work.
So I quit.
Mine was hardly an isolated experience. Women everywhere are well-versed in workplace sexual harassment. Whether it’s at the hands of a co-worker, boss, client, or in my case — anonymous guest calling the restaurant, it’s not easy to navigate. That’s why In the Service — a new podcast about the restaurant industry from two women in NYC — is so important.
With a new episode released each week, hosts Kath (a lawyer by day and bartender by night) and Jan (a comedian and waitress), tell their own hilarious stories and interview guests who have worked in the industry to highlight the “highs and lows of hospitality.” Their podcast discusses topics like navigating sexism in the food industry, dating in the workplace, handling intoxicated diners, and tipping culture. Through these issues, they delve deeper into what it's like to work in a restaurant, and offer a comedic look at the problematic aspects of the service industry in the process.
"I’ve endured sexism at every level: from management, front of house staff, back of house staff, and the people I’ve served. There is a heightened normalization of sexism in the industry that cannot be denied."
The women, who have a combined 20 years of experience in the service industry, met a year-and-a-half ago, while working at a restaurant in Manhattan.
“Every night after work, we would go out and have a post-work drink to complain and vent about the highlights and the low points of the evening, and just shake it off.” Jan told me, referring to the time before the podcast was developed. That’s how Kath came up with the idea for In the Service. “She was like, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to share some of the stories we’ve had?’” Jan said.
With the women’s combined knowledge and expertise, they not only have plenty of their own stories to share, they also use their podcast to connect listeners with other industry professionals. “We figured we’d have a really great, well-rounded podcast between all the different kinds of people that we knew, since hospitality is one of those things that attracts so many different kinds of people,” Jan said. It’s this broad scope and subject diversity that has led to the podcast’s success.
While the podcast is fun, humorous, and includes different industry guests, it also addresses important subject matter like industry sexism.
“Sexism in the industry is always an issue,” Kath told me. “People come in and they think my male colleagues behind the bar are somehow more qualified to answer their questions about cocktails, even though I created them or I put them on the list,” she said.
Her co-host agrees. “In terms of management, sometimes women aren’t taken as seriously as their male counterparts. That can come from knowledge of wine or menus, or anything that’s even really basic, to how people react to women versus men. People assume that if a woman is even standing near a host stand, she’s the hostess, when she might actually be the manager,” Jan said. In fact, even research shows that though the food industry is typically dominated by men, more women work in the service aspect of the industry as hostesses and waitresses.
“Sexism in any workplace is an uphill battle and the more people who are aware of it, the better it is to try and change that for the future.” Jan added.
In effort to highlight the sexism women in the industry face, as well as the issues Kath and Jan discuss on their podcast, I’ve compiled stories from millennial women who either work, or have worked, in the food industry.
I cut a guest off after five margaritas in two hours. He proceeded to ask what my name was. Thinking he was just wanting to complain, I told him it was Austin and that I'd be happy to call a manager over. His response was that when I got off work he would be waiting at my car. That wasn't the worst part. I proceeded to grab the nearest security guard (I worked in a casino), who called my manager. After my male manager and the guy spoke, they told me they warned him and he should stop. It wasn't until I was in tears from feeling so unsafe that the male security officer stepped over my manager and had the guest 86'd from the property.
Another time, I had my male manager tell me he wanted to throw me against a wall and fuck my brains out. I still regret not going to HR.
While I was in college, I briefly worked the weekend night shift at a classic pizza joint. Every time the bars closed at 2am, we were rushed by drunk and high people with the munchies, and varying levels of infuriating shenanigans would ensue.
One of the weirdest moments for me though, happened in the late afternoon. A man walked in who acted like he owned the place, and all the employees treated him as such. When I asked a coworker who he was, they just said that he was a friend of the owner and should be respected. After a while he saw me and introduced himself to me, then said that if I threw the pizza dough I was working on into the air and let it land on my face, he would give me $100. When I looked dubious, he pulled out a $100 bill to prove it. Figuring I probably shouldn't because where is my dignity, I tossed the circular dough into the air and let it land on my face, and lo and behold he gave me the $100 bill. Not long after, he left.
I asked my co-worker what the hell that was about, and he said, "Oh, he's loaded and does weird stuff like that with his money. He's a good man though, he gives a lot to charity."
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I’ve endured sexism at every level: from management, front of house staff, back of house staff, and the people I’ve served. There is a heightened normalization of sexism in the industry that cannot be denied.
At a restaurant I worked at, the lead expediter would flirt with me a lot, and admittedly, at first I laughed and played along in passing, avoiding conflict. As time went on, his come-ons became more specific and public, egging on the rest of the male staff. “Yeah, bend over beautiful, shake it for us. There’s my girl, always looking so sexy for me.” Every time I’d go to the kitchen to modify an order or dump a dish, I became the main attraction in the kitchen’s new cat-calling arena. Eventually, words became subtle touches as I passed by. The expectant hugs and uncomfortable moments grew, and if I showed hesitation, I was met with what started as mild aggression. “What, I don’t get my hug today? I always make sure your employee meal is special.” Or, “You forgot to put that order in and I had it rushed for you, and you can’t even stop and say hi?”
Eventually, I started telling him to stop and tone it down. He quickly shifted gears, and became mean and aggressive. It was awful. When I’d finally had enough, I reported him to management. I’d like to say a lot was done, but it wasn’t. He was scolded, and didn’t talk to me anymore, but still took every opportunity to take subtle jabs by refusing menu modifications or whisper cruel criticisms about me within earshot. He was later fired for his temper.
I have a closing serving shift at my pub, which means I'm doing all of the food serving and busing, as well as the drink service for folks who would rather order at their table than go up to or sit at the bar.
We'd just had a larger group clear out, and I was picking up a large stack of pint glasses and martini glasses to bring back to the bussing station, and as I bent over the table, a dude, about 25 years old rolled up behind me, whispered "wait" in my ear, and pulled my tank top down to my waist so he could touch my back tattoos. While extreme, men grabbing me to manipulate my body so they can look at the tattoos on it is fairly common. I've had it happen at least once a week for as long as I can remember.
I clammed up, and robotically said "please don't touch me without asking," and walked the glasses back to the bussing station like nothing was amiss. Luckily the bartender that night (another tattooed woman who was also sick of this behaviour) read him the riot act and kicked him out.
He sent a friend down with a $5 bill and an apology for me. I kept staring at that $5 thinking how thankful I was to have it, and how little I was worth, but how I absolutely wouldn't want to work anywhere else, regardless, because where else does a dude actually get yelled at and actually PAY for that kind of trespass anymore?
This one guy at a table I was serving asked how old I was, so I told him 19. He asked if I was in school. I told him yes, that I'm actually going to school to specialize in facial reconstruction. "Really?” He asked. “Are you sure you can do that? Why don't you go to school to be a teacher or a hairdresser or something? Seems more like the woman thing to do."
Another guy in his mid 40’s asked me if I wanted to hear his theory on dating in this day and age. I wanted a decent tip, so I humored him. He then proceeded to tell me how he believed rich older men should find themselves a "young, hot thing." THING. And marry her. Then when he dies, she gets his money and can become a cougar. Then she can find a young man and marry him, and the cycle continues. Then he started telling me how rich he was and all the different things he bought for each of his four ex-wives. He said next time he gets married, he'll do it right and not go through a divorce. Then he asked me how opposed I was to the age gap between him and myself. I've never been more disgusted in my life.
Though, as these stories illustrate, sexism and sexual harassment are important and prevalent issues, Kath and Jan approach each episode of In the Service with humor and positivity, without ever shying away from or belittling the importance of the topics at hand.
“We try give an honest opinion of what the industry is like, but we also try to appreciate it for what it is,” Jan said.
Despite the problems in the industry, In the Service celebrates the women’s passion and appreciation for the industry. “Even when there are bad nights, we want to spin this in a positive way, because at the end of the day, it’s still always about the guest experience,” Kath said.
“We never want to knock it completely, even if we do have bad nights, because that’s just like every other job. We do enjoy the industry as a whole, and we want that to shine through,” Jan added.