The skills you gain working at a restaurant stick with you forever, whether it’s being able to wash dishes faster than anyone you know, balance a tray of shallow martini glasses without spilling, or master the firm but friendly smile as you tell an entitled, drunk bro that, sorry, there is absolutely no way you can seat him and his date right now but you can put his name on the list.
But those skills usually come with a curse — that is, of knowing exactly how a restaurant runs. Sure, most high-end restaurants are safe and clean and are only guilty of putting an ungodly amount of butter in every dish. But if you’ve worked a chain, fast-food place, or just your average neighborhood pub, you’ve probably seen or heard some shit that now directly impacts your ability to eat out. Maybe you know just how much sour mix the bar goes through, or can’t un-smell the scent of black olives straight from the industrial-sized can, or were doomed to listen to one novelty playlist every shift for four years.
We’ve decided to share our knowledge with our readers, because in order to save ourselves we have to pass it on. It’s like The Ring but for borderline health code violations. Happy eating!
When I worked at a popular retro-designed burger chain, my regular side work included marrying and refilling glass Heinz bottles, which was one of the grossest things I’ve ever done. The practice involves dumping half-empty ketchup bottles into a giant tub, so that all the remaining ketchup gets pooled together for redistribution into washed-out ketchup bottles. The original bottles could be months old or more, and also consider the amount of people who stick things into the ketchup bottles — let’s say, a knife that you’ve already used with bits of burger on it. That little piece of ground beef is now a forever friend in the restaurant’s ketchup universe.
Once you’ve redistributed ketchup into new bottles too many times, the bottles have a tendency to explode open, usually all over you. I finished many shifts with a once-white button down shirt covered in old ketchup, and the smell stays with you forever. I couldn’t eat ketchup for months after quitting. I’ll eat it now but sparingly, partially because I’ve come around to better condiments, and partially because I can’t unsee what I’ve seen. — Stefania Orrù, coordinating producer
I worked for 82 Queen, which is very popular with Charleston tourists. They had coupons for a free cup of she-crab soup in the visitors booklets at hotels, so every table would use one. Since the soup was so popular, servers would ladle it out themselves instead of the chefs, and it was so viscous and messy that you were sure to get some on your arm or clothes. A warm, cream-based, seafood soup in the Charleston heat is enough to make your stomach curdle. I never loved she-crab soup, but I saw it as a regional dish to be cherished. Now I will rant all day about it on the internet. I will eat crab though — as long as it’s not covered in heavy cream. — Erin Perkins, Eater Charleston editor
I worked as a server and hostess at a chocolate-focused restaurant that served all manner of fondues and lava cakes and sweet martinis. We’d pump chocolate scent onto the sidewalk, and as a hostess I had to stand under the machine, so I’d be smelling chemical chocolate all night. And as a server I’d basically be covered in chocolate sauce at the end of every shift. Customers liked to joke that they could never work there because they’d be stuffing their faces with chocolate all night, but it took me about a year after leaving that job to really enjoy it again. — Jaya Saxena, staff writer
The band MGMT
I worked at Two Hands when I first moved to New York City in 2016, which is a very trendy and busy Australian restaurant (I served Leonardo DiCaprio). After a big brunch rush, you’d kind of turn to another server and go, Is this the eighth time we’ve heard “Electric Feel” today? And then we’d realize we’d have listened to the same 12 songs on repeat all shift. I couldn’t tell you why we were so bad at playlists; I don’t know who was in control, but I just know if I hear that song now, I get a sick feeling in my stomach. — Milly McGuinness, director of audience development
The smell of Subway bread
For all the processed meats that should be unpalatable after working at Subway, it was actually the bread smell that was most off-putting. It sank into fabrics (mostly your uniform) and at times felt like it settled into your skin, too — people often asked what we did to make the store smell like that, and the answer was “nothing,” it’s just whatever they do to the bread in the production facility. Also, instead of drying out, the bread would get lumpy and deformed after a day. We could take home leftovers at the end of the day, and nobody wanted to take the bread. I more or less liked Subway before I worked there, but 10 years later, the smell is still weird. — Tim Forster, Eater Montreal editor
I worked at a seasonal Dairy Queen in Iowa when I was a teenager. Every summer, on the hottest, muggiest days of the year, the ice milk machine would overheat. So instead of doling out frozen ice milk with a curl on top for sundaes, Blizzards, and Peanut Buster Parfaits, straight liquid ice milk would gush out of the machine. The lines grew longer, people grew antsier, and there wasn’t a thing we could do except wait until the machine started working again. Now the sickeningly sweet smell of that ice milk makes me want to gag. It brings back those memories of lines of angry people stacking up, refusing to leave, but willing to share their ire with teenage employees making probably $4 an hour. — Susan Stapleton, Eater Vegas editor
V8 tomato juice has always deeply grossed me out, but the way it stained the glasses I had to bus at a retro-designed diner was deeply upsetting to me. To this day it makes me nauseated if someone sitting near me on a plane orders a can of tomato juice. — Madeleine Davies, daily editor