When I was 23, I left a Manhattan office job for the world of breakfast. For over a year, I worked at a bagel shop and its neighboring cafe in my Brooklyn neighborhood. I swapped one job title, publicist, for two: bagelmonger and barista. I traded in my all-black wardrobe for old T-shirts and jeans I wasn’t afraid to ruin, mid-afternoon calls with fashion brands for post-shift naps. There were a lot of perks—free coffee and bagels, no 2 a.m. emails, a five-minute commute, etc. My new jobs gave me much needed psychic space to consider new career paths while not draining myself in an office where I wasn’t happy. Yet, I quickly realized that I had plenty to learn. When I finally left the world of cream cheese and customers, mopping, and health department inspections last May, I realized what I’d learned:
You’ll save money
Many of the regular customers also worked in the service industry around the neighborhood, and I formed some lucrative relationships. Bartenders, who usually came in before their shifts, proved particularly generous. I frequently stopped by their bars after my shift ended, sometimes dropping off leftover pastries. They rewarded me with free drinks. I was already eating for free at the bagel shop. Now that I was drinking for free too, my bank account was getting a boost. (Confession: When I worked in PR, I bought some $10 smoothies near my Chelsea office. As a snack.) Even if you aren’t making as much as you did in an office, you might start spending much less.
You can still be ambitious. And ask people about their days.
If you harbor a competitive nature, it won’t dissipate in the bagel shop setting. I soon learned that the software on our register tracked and presented financial statistics, including daily sales and credit card tips. I became fixated on how much I was making in tips as compared to my coworkers (only one of us worked at a time). I divided credit card tips by total credit card sales, coming up with a percentage. I realized my numbers were lower than those of my coworkers. I’m a little shy, and I knew that aiming for quick wit and entertaining banter wasn’t really playing to my strengths. Was I ever going to make as much as my outgoing friend who was in an improv troupe? No, but I could try. She ended up getting a shout out in a Yelp review, by the way. That’s some real affirmation. Instead, I began asking customers how their days were going and trying to smile more. It was like magic. My tip percentage immediately jumped. People are so much simpler than you think.
There are unexpected benefits to passing a food-protection course.
To work in the service industry in New York, you need to complete an online food-protection course. When you finish a series of lessons, you have to take a multiple-choice test in person. If you pass, you receive an ID card with your name and picture. Recently, I lost a wallet on a trip to Austin, during a date with a local bartender (god willing, my last romantic encounter that will begin with me crawling around the back of a rental car while apologizing for being an airhead). The next morning, I had to fly back to New York, sans state-issued driver’s license. The airline accepted my food-protection card, which had fallen out of my wallet and into my purse, as proof of my identity. I boarded my plane after an extra-intensive patdown at security. Do I remember how you’re supposed to install plumbing in an eating establishment? Absolutely not. Will I forever be thankful for that food-protection card that helped me out of a tight spot? Most definitely.
Mind your milk.
Oh, you think it’s easy to steam milk and pour it into espresso in the shape of a heart or a fern? It is not. Occupational hazards abound. Don’t lean against a steam wand—it can leave a burn mark beneath your shirt. Also, milk steaming requires a certain amount of coordination and precision. You have to execute this kind of up and down movement with the pitcher, get the milk to spin and sound a certain way (like paper ripping), and make sure it’s at 141 degrees when you’re finished. Now try that when you have a line out the door on a Sunday morning. Don’t get me started on latte art.
Don’t think you can’t get fired. But it might not be that bad.
Up until the coffee shop, I had an immaculate employment track record. I’d never been fired. For the most part, I thought I was a decent employee—I showed up on time, did my job, was nice to customers. Then, one day, the manager called and fired me for telling a coworker she could take her time coming in one day. She also critiqued the quality of my latte art, the temperature of my milk, and the fact that I hadn’t “been around” enough. And, I realized, I hadn’t been around a lot. I was steadily receiving more freelance work, which was taking up more of my time. It was hard to leave a place where I’d developed relationships with customers, where I was eating for free, where I felt comfortable and confident in my work. Though not the departure I’d wanted, I realized it then: It was time to move on.