As a New York City attorney, Erez Talmone spends much of his workday either in an office building or in a courtroom. It’s not a very physically demanding job, and makes for a sedentary kind of work life that drives some people to join a gym or take up running. Not Talmone. He stopped going to the gym so often once he started working at Toro, the bustling Manhattan tapas restaurant by Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette. Talmone is there three nights a week, moonlighting as a runner — a food runner, that is.
Like most food runners, Talmone's job is to deliver plates from the kitchen to the tables. In the world of restaurant accolades, service employees like runners tend to be overlooked, sometimes brushed off as low-skilled workers, who either have no choice but to work the job or are just paying their dues in pursuit of a higher position. But that is not always true, Talmone said. In reality, jobs like table bussing, food running, and bar-backing require more skill than one can imagine, and not all of the people who work them do it because they have to. For some, the job's mental and physical challenges are enticing.
Talmone grew up working in restaurants, and when he started his career as a lawyer, he couldn't bear being away from the rush of the dining room. "It was one of those things where I felt there was a little bit missing in my day-to-day life that I wanted to get back," Talmone said. "As soon as I became a lawyer, I spent 80 percent of my day sending e-mails and making phone calls, and then 20 percent of my day in court. I like going to work after that, running around like crazy, and being really tired — feeling like I actually did something."
"Compared to construction or any other kind of physical labor I’ve done, restaurant work is by far the hardest."
While the job can be exciting, it's tough. When Jake McIntosh found himself wanting to move to New York from Wyoming, he didn't hesitate to take a job as a food runner for the Michelin-starred Spotted Pig. McIntosh had restaurant experience prior to his move, and also spent time organizing communities around restaurant labor rights. Despite working various physically demanding jobs and having an active lifestyle that includes biking, hiking, and surfing, McIntosh says "compared to construction or any other kind of physical labor I've done, restaurant work is by far the hardest."
But how hard is it, precisely?
To understand what kind of impact running tables has on their health, and how the work compares to other physical activity in their daily lives, Talmone and McIntosh agreed to wear Microsoft Band fitness trackers for two 24-hour periods. Out-of-the-box, the bands track a collection of bio-data like heart rate, calories burned, and sleep quality. To get the most accurate picture, Eater created an app that uses Microsoft Band's API to hack the bands and obtain even more bio-feedback, including body temperature and stress levels. Talmone wore the band to his day job at his law firm and during two evening shifts at Toro. McIntosh also wore a band for two work days, including during a daytime shift at the Spotted Pig. The results, represented below in averages unless stated otherwise, prove there is more to running than carrying hot food.
Always on the Move
After a day at his law firm, Talmone takes the subway to Toro in West Chelsea. The upscale tapas bar sits in a former factory on the corner of 15th Street and 11th Avenue, stretching the entire block. When Talmone arrives he heads straight to the kitchen, which is downstairs and on the opposite side of the building from the entrance. To get there each time, Talmone and the Toro staff descend two flights of stairs and tread several hallways. Those hallways are long: The distance from the stairs to the kitchen is the equivalent of walking the entire city block. Talmone spends the entire seven-hour shift walking this path, transporting hot plates and drinks.
He climbs the stairs about 80 times in one night, the data shows. That's 10 to 12 trips an hour. "The first two or three days I did it I was dead afterwards, but you get used to it after a while," he said.
The average American walks 5,000 to 6,000 steps a day. McIntosh and Talmone double and triple that during their shifts.
When he's on the dining floor, Talmone is maneuvering the busy scene, in which different sections have completely different designs. At street level, there are tables for two, tables for four, tables for 10, a bar, and an elevated section for large parties — with more steps — and an open kitchen area. By the end of his shift, Talmone will have taken 18,000 steps — the equivalent of more than nine miles — in this industrial obstacle course. That's five times the amount of movement from his time at the law office or in court.
Wacky and complex floor designs are not uncommon in restaurants and can add to a runner's challenges. The Spotted Pig spans three stories; the rustic spot was a small tavern before restaurateur Ken Friedman transformed it into a cozy yet quirky space. Since wearing the tracker for Eater's experiment, McIntosh has since left the Spotted Pig, but when he was there, it was his job to not only navigate the space, but do so while meeting its one-Michelin-star standards. These standards include not only bringing food to the right table, but placing it in front of the right guest without "auctioning" (i.e. "Who had the burger?").
"When I first started food running, it was brutal," McIntosh says, describing his usual trajectory through the crowded dining room space. "[Bringing] searing-hot plates from point A to the right table and then remembering that this skirt steak is going to position one. This skate is going to position two and [you have to make] sure it's seamless, because that's what it means to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant, right?"
At the end of what he referred to as a rare slow Tuesday night shift, McIntosh still walked more than 13,000 steps and climbed 66 floors, nine times the amount of movement he does when he isn't working.
In comparison, the average American walks 5,000 to 6,000 steps a day. Talmone and McIntosh are respectively tripling and doubling that amount during their shifts, alone. If it weren't for their running gigs, they'd be closer to the average.
Stay Calm and Run
But unconventional layouts, constant footwork, and climbing stairs make only half of a food runner's job. The other part is the mental demand.
"Not everyone can do it," McIntosh said. "Multitasking and being able to be under intense physical strain and still order priorities in your head: ‘Remember that table four needs a cappuccino, but first I've got to get this bottle of wine for table 22. The bell just rung so now I have to go to the kitchen and run food and then still remember to do those things — and now the server is asking me [something].' [You're] breathing deeply, prioritizing, and remembering it all while walking 10 miles in a night."
Stress happens to have an impact on the electrical properties of the skin. When a person experiences emotional arousal, like a change in mood or stressful event, their skin becomes less resistant to electricity. The more emotionally aroused a person is, the lower their skin resistance. This is known as Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), and the Microsoft Band 2 measures it in kohms.
When Talmone and McIntosh wore the fitness tracker for the day, their skin resistance levels decreased throughout the day and drastically during their shifts, highlighting the emotional impact restaurant work has on staff. For Talmone, his GSR readings started to tank at the start of his shift. They reach very low points, which indicates sweating. But with a fast-paced work environment, there's no time to notice the strain.
When a large group was seated, the data shows Talmone’s heart rate reached one of its highest points of the night.
"I like to think that I'm pretty even-keeled, so I try not to stress out about anything. Of course, if it's super busy and there's 20 plates downstairs and only three people that can each carry three plates at one time, then yeah, you might have to move a little faster and run, and I might be sweating a little bit," Talmone said. "I don't think I ever get to a, ‘Oh my god, I'm freaking out'- type of stress level."
But Talmone, like other runners, is constantly stimulated when he's working, more so than being in an office, or even court. Between the running up and down stairs, remembering table orders, and communicating with the kitchen, he is encountering a number of subtle stressors. One example is when a large group of people suddenly appear: That happened during the experiment shortly before Toro was supposed to close. When a large group was seated the data shows Talmone's heart rate reached one of its highest points of the night.
"When we're going upstairs, if I see that four tables just sat down, when I go back downstairs, I'll tell the chef. He'll tell everybody else, ‘Hey, we're about to get 15 orders in one after another,' so we anticipate the rush and are ready for it," Talmone said. "There might be a little anxiety, but I think it's more of a positive than a negative."
Rowdy or trying clientele can also add to the stress. In a trendy tavern-like atmosphere like the Spotted Pig, where music is blaring and drinks are flowing, the pressure to stay calm, alert, and excited can be taxing, McIntosh said. Patrons can be demanding, and sometimes inattentive or indifferent to the staff. "Getting through an eight-, 12-hour shift, it's really hard to keep a smile on your face, dealing with some really impossible people — that's hard." McIntosh said. "But that's true for any restaurant."
Work or Workout?
What effects do the physical and mental stress have on runners' health? To put Talmone and McIntosh's work into perspective, Eater consulted Frederick DiMenna, an adjunct professor of movement science at Columbia University (he's also a restaurant owner and former bodybuilder). According to DiMenna, the impact of restaurant work depends on the runners' lives outside the restaurant. In order to keep a healthy weight, they'd have to keep an energy balance, making sure they're outputting more calories (energy) than they consume.
"From this standpoint, walking five to seven additional miles each day would result in a dramatic shift in energy balance that could put [caloric intake] back in the red," DiMenna said. "Of course, if they increase their intake at work, all bets are off."
That means for Talmone, whose time at the law firm is spent primarily at a desk, time spent running tables and walking miles could be good for his health. But for McIntosh, who is already active outside of work — including biking to and from his job at the Spotted Pig — the shift can feel more exhausting if he isn't consuming enough fuel.
According to the Microsoft Bands, Talmone and McIntosh burned close to the same number of calories per hour working in restaurants as they do when they are not running tables. But DiMenna says given how much they walk, the runners most likely burned a lot more than that. The average person burns around 100 calories walking one mile. That means after their shifts, Talmone and McIntosh should be burning about 100 calories per hour just from walking (not including additional calories burned climbing stairs, running to the kitchen, etc.). The bands use heart rate and activity levels to estimate calories, but Microsoft declined to comment on what factors could have caused the band to likely underestimate the calories both runners burned. But experts we spoke to said fitness tracker sensors are modest versions of the high-tech tools such as brain scanners and heart rate monitors used by professionals. So small inaccuracies in fitness tracking data are expected.
Either way, a 10-hour shift spent burning a lot calories can't replace a good, traditional workout, DiMenna said. High-intensity cardio training has better health benefits than low-to-moderate exercise over a long period of time. "They will not be maximizing their health unless they are also finding time during their day to do some exercise," he said.
And even though the runners say they feel like they're getting an intense workout, they're really not. Their average heart rates don't increase by much compared to when they're not working restaurant shifts. The data shows that there may be times where stress or workload causes his or her heart rate to rise (such as Talmone's last-minute large group at the end of his shift), but this level of intensity isn't consistent. In general, both Talmone and McIntosh are getting low-to-moderate exercise as runners. But "doing anything physical beats doing nothing physical," DiMenna said. "So from a general health standpoint, they are better off."
"I have found the culture there really satisfying; the camaraderie that comes with hard work."
After hours of being on their feet, memorizing tables, and avoiding accidents, the runners head home — sometimes in the middle of the night — exhausted. But it's not an immediate relief. The long night at the restaurant can haunt the runners: McIntosh notes that after a long shift, the bustle of the restaurant can stick with him, even as he sleeps. "I've had a couple of nightmares." McIntosh said. "Not anything serious, but I have a lot of dreams like, ‘Why [is] the burger still on the window! Get that thing out! Hot food!'"
Both Talmone and McIntosh only get about four to five hours of sleep after their shifts, wake up, and do it all over again. But according to the band, those few hours of sleep, for both, are totally effective, falling in the band's "restful" category. It's not surprising, considering they are working up to 10-hour days.
Which begs the question, why put up with it? Why exhaust yourself with tough, stressful, thankless work when there are other options? It's simple, McIntosh says. Aside from the extra money, there is something magnetic about being in a restaurant firing on all cylinders. At the end of the day, runners share a special bond with each other and the rest of the restaurant staff.
"I have found the culture there really satisfying; the camaraderie that comes with hard work," McIntosh said. "At the end of the shift, having a beer with three people that you just went to war with: That's what it feels like; it's a really satisfying experience. That's why I've done it for three years now."
Talmone agrees: Restaurant work exposes people to an unrivaled fellowship. "You'll always learn something new about teamwork, communicating with people, interacting with people. Those skills are vital for any workplace where you have to interact with a human being," he said. "I think I am getting more out of being there... until I have kids or I'm physically unable to work in a restaurant, I'll probably work in a restaurant."
Vince Dixon is Eater's data visualization reporter. Matthew Schumacher is a freelance illustrator and designer in Portland, Oregon..
Editor: Erin DeJesus