My First Job: Big Trouble in Little Kitchens

This is the second of our My First Job blog series, where we ask Sirenumates, partners, and customers to reminisce about their first paying job. For more information, see our introduction to the series here.

My first job was at a sandwich bar in my Spanish home town of Zaragoza. These types of places are open mostly at nitapasght, offering fresh sandwiches and tapas. I was one of three kitchen assistants, and I worked Friday-Sunday, quite late in the afternoon and evening, when the bar was busiest.

Things got off to an interesting start when, on my first day, I discovered that the staff had no place to change clothes or leave valuables. We only had six small lockers in the back of a pantry room for a total of eight staff—leaving none for me as the newbie. Plus, the temperature there was incredibly hot—though admittedly not as hot as inside the kitchen!

In the kitchen, three assistants worked alongside the chef—who owned the place—all together in a room not larger than six square meters. There was only space for us to work at our respective spots. So for example, if you wanted to assemble a salad, your teammate couldn’t slice bread. Plus, the co-owner—who was the chef’s wife—would smoke in the kitchen, which was terrible, but I couldn’t complain because I wanted to keep my job!

One day the owners decided to offer delivery. They also added two more tables, so more customers could eat in. Of course, the work volume doubled or even tripled—and we had to put up with the delivery men (actually boys!) mulling about. There was not enough space, nor the means to produce the orders with the existing equipment. But the owners didn’t want to move to a bigger place, because they felt strongly that a full house always attracts more customers and makes the restaurant seem successful.

tapas-bar

The owners often told us off for not being able to get orders on time (but we physically couldn’t!). They also decided to cut out the team dinner, because they believed we were already paid too well (at minimum wage!). Nevertheless we were expected to stay in late for unpaid work hours to clean the kitchen, even after our shift had finished!

All in all, working in a restaurant is a heck of a first job. And so that you don’t think that my complaints were the only thing I took away from the experience, rest assured, it was a great learning experience, both professionally and personally. Some of the takeaways are relevant regardless of your industry or where you are professionally:

  • Because employees are the main customer touchpoint, workers need to feel engaged, know the product well, and teamwork is crucial to deliver orders quickly and provide good customer service
  • Keeping a relaxed atmosphere helps minimise arguments and the inevitable efficiency lost.
  • Management with a broad perspective on the business is needed to ensure that everyone is working towards common goals.
  • Cameraderie is great—getting along well enough to cooperate is even better.

It should come as no surprise that after a year I decided to quit. Unfortunately, I wasn’t engaged at all—I was regularly being told off for incidents that I wasn’t responsible for, since I hardly could have increased the production speed, and had to smell my manager’s smoke while working. All of these were accompanied of course by a strict minimum wage. I’d work in a restaurant again…but only one with better management!

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