A little over two weeks ago, Red & Black Café hired me as an employee. The Café, tucked into the back section of Broad Street Books and not to be confused with the Red and Black Society, has a truly fantastic menu. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that it has the best food on campus (and I’d say that whether or not I was getting paid to do so).

Working at Red & Black is the culmination of my long and valiant struggle to enter the food service industry. I spent this past summer at my home in Berkeley desperately seeking a job at any restaurant or café that would have me, which turned out to be approximately zero.

Not only was I lacking in restaurant experience, I was also apparently overqualified, thanks to what seemed like a completely unrelated occupation: writing. At the 20th or 30th place I applied to, the deli owner scanned my resume and asked bemusedly, “You write for The Huffington Post? Why would you want to work here?”

The short answer—that I love food and had been dreaming of waitressing like most waitresses dream of Broadway—would have confused him further. The long answer—that my unpaid internship was forcing me to look for a second job—would have made him even less sympathetic to my cause.

Still, I did get one callback, and it was from an excellent restaurant only two blocks from my house. Unfortunately, it was exactly four days before I was due to fly back to Wesleyan. Lesson of the summer: yes, despite the apparent abundance of food service jobs on Craigslist, it does take several months to get hired.

That is, unless you apply for a job on a college campus. Red & Black called me back within a week of my submitting an application, and after what turned out to be a be a very short phone interview, they told me to come in for training in a few days.

Training, however, is a bit of a misnomer in the food service industry. At Red & Black, you start at the cash register and gradually add skills to your repertoire: making coffees, then smoothies, and eventually sandwiches. Unlike in an internship setting, there’s no pause button for when you learn a new task. Instead, you hope that whatever you’re doing allows for some kind of do-over without wasting too much food, and that customers will still believe you when you stage-whisper, “It’s my first day, so I’m a little slow.”

Each shift continues to be something of an adrenaline rush, especially as I figure out new orders at the register. One of my most embarrassing moments of first-day panic was when I shouted back to the rest of the staff, “Where’s ‘Fruit Cups’? I can’t find it anywhere!” and someone then pointed to a very brightly colored button toward the bottom of the screen. The main reason I was in such a tizzy is that ‘Fruit Cups’ is also the category for Chobani yogurt, which I had been attempting to ring up. Similarly, mac ’n cheese is under ‘Soup’ and specialty coffee drinks are “SINGLE / DBL / TRIPL” instead of the usual “Small, Medium, and Large.”

Yet aside from the esoteric register commands, my job is fairly straightforward. The key is to always look busy, whether that means restocking, sweeping, or wiping down tables after customers have left. This last task has made me uniquely grumpy toward people who nurse a single coffee or spend hours curled up with a book. (If you never leave your table, there’s no chance that I will look industrious while cleaning up after you.)

The strangest thing about working at Red & Black is what I call “The Great Divide”: the discordant contrast between the song playing in the café and the one playing in the main part of the bookstore. If the café is blasting “Party in the USA,” the store will probably be listening to “Since U Been Gone,” or vice versa. The two sides of the building have similar taste, but I have yet to hear any overlap. Instead, there’s a region along the outer edge of the café tables where you can listen to both songs at once.

As for the perks of the job, that’s easy. In addition to the free soup and mac ’n cheese we occasionally receive at the end of a shift, we get a 50 percent discount in the café while working and a 20 percent discount (which also applies to WesWings and Broad Street Books) when we’re not. There’s also the fun of greeting friends who wander into the café and of overhearing weird conversations at the tables by the register.

It’s been a pretty awesome first job in food service so far, and I’ll be more than happy next summer to say, “Yeah, I have experience. I worked at the Red & Black Café!”

  • glumalum

    “Lesson of the summer: yes, despite the apparent abundance of food service jobs on Craigslist, it does take several months to get hired.”

    Not for everybody. You might want to look more closely why this was true for you.