15 Lessons from Working at a French Cafe
“You’re crazy. You’re taking on too much. You are going to wear yourself out.” That was the general consensus when I told my friends I was taking on a second job at a French cafe over the weekends. I was only two weeks returned from my year abroad in France. I already had found a full-time job in my chosen field. But I was worried about making ends meet (I had done the responsible thing and blown my entire savings in Europe––yay!) Still running of the fumes of my Parisian dream world, a job at a French cafe just sounded… heavenly. So I applied, and a few days later, the owner of the franchise called me directly. The jarring, delightful sensation of reading a “614” area code on the caller ID and being answered in French sealed the deal. I had found my piece of Paris in Columbus, OH.
Turns out there are a lot of things I don’t know about how a restaurant is run. Things like tips vs. wages and how to tell if a loaf of bread is fresh without tasting it and how to avoid pervy old men. But thankfully my French cafe job was fairly down to earth, and my managers weren’t too hard on me. I worked at the French cafe 1-2 days every weekend for the last five months. I left every night smelling like one big buttery baguette (which is not as delicious as it sounds), and toting armloads of day-old French bread home with me. I made friends with some quirky characters, and I fell in love only a couple times with a customer or two. And I cried a little when I finally told them I was hanging up my apron.
Figuratively. I still have my apron.
But I learned some pretty big lessons in those short few months that I thought I should share with you, if ever you decided to take on a cafe job to distract yourself from post-abroad depression. Or if you’re just normal and need life tips from a short-term cafe girl. Juste lisez:
- There is such a thing as too much free food. Sure, we love free food. But I learned quickly at my French cafe that when the food is caked and marinated and saturated and dumped in butter and salt, your tongue will quickly fall off after an attempt at a third croissant. My gluttony was spanked more than once.
- Clocking in is important. So is clocking out. I relearned that I hate clocks.
- Smoke breaks are still a real thing. Especially at cafe styled after European culture. And you can guarantee that the server who just took a smoke break an hour ago will get priority over you, regardless if you have been standing on your feet for 8 hours straight. Because the manager wants a nicotine break buddy.
- Let’s talk about those 8 hours on your feet. It’s EXHAUSTING. The first few weeks, I would come home and fall asleep on the couch, I didn’t even make it to my room. I wore cute shoes once. For the rest of the 5 months, I wore ugly pain black nonslip sneakers because 1. slipping on grease is lethal, 2. spilling hot soup on your feet is lethal, and 3. running away from oogling fat Frenchmen is lethal, if you aren’t equipped with ugly pain black nonslip sneakers.
- “Better to bring the bowl to the soup than the soup to the bowl.” -Second degree burns.
- Dress code is relative. Add your own style and customers will love you for it.
- If someone offers you cash tip, for goodness sake, take it! Tips left by credit card are put into the pot for everyone. But tips given by customers to you are fine. Especially if those customers are your parents and the change is a $20 bill. They know why you have that second job.
- It’s so important to have something to do that is completely different than your day job. If you sit all day, stand. If you work on a computer, work with people. If you work with your brain, work with your hands. It’s important to keep you sharp and well-rounded.
- Names from credit cards appear on receipts of cute boys as well as the nasty old ladies. These access to information should not be abuse. It should never be used for stalking purposes. I WOULD NEVER DO THIS…
- You will meet hot guys at a French restaurant. Give out your number sparingly. Do not be fooled. The attention is nice, but most of them are showboating and just want to say they got the number from the hot girl at the French cafe. But do give out your number if your gut tells you to, because I met some really cool people this way who are part of my core community now.
- Holiday parties are the best. If you can, start working at a restaurant in November so you can make friends by the party, but still be the cool new person. The food at a restaurant party is always killer, mostly because it’s not the free food from the restaurant you always get. Everyone shows up dressed to the nines and let’s their hair down on the dance floor. Or maybe that’s just because my cafe was pretty freakin’ cool.
- Speaking in a French accent at a French restaurant will double your tips. I did some experimenting. It’s not lying, it’s giving them the real experience. But only if it’s a good accent. And get ready for douchy real French people to come embarrass you and blow your whole story. Ugh, the French… I love them.
- Always ask to taste things. It’s your prerogative to know how something tastes if you are going to serve it. Milk that “I’m new, I need to know what to say when people ask what it tastes like” for as long as possible. But use moderation––see #1.
- Restaurants are full of d-r-a-m-a. I don’t know if the food industry attracts dramatic people, or if boredom of mopping up a toddler’s mess for the thousandth time drives them to it. But there are always people whispering about someone. Learn to separate the good gossip from the bad. For example, good gossip: they are installing security cameras near the pastry case. Be careful sneaking macarons next time. Bad gossip: They are installing them because the manager had sex with the baker on the pastry case last week. (This never happened, but if it did, you can be sure it would be on the pastry case.)
- But the truth is, restaurants are also full of really genuine wonderful people. Out of all the different places I worked, this restaurant was the place I felt most accepted. I didn’t have anything to prove, and neither did anyone else. I knew every shift that someone would ask me about my life, that someone would make me belly laugh, and someone would try to get me talk the manager into doing shots of French wine. I knew I could go to this random roundup of characters I called my coworkers with questions and or for advice, and they actually rocked at it. I feel like people in the service industry have lived a lot of life, even if they are young. And it shows.
So it’s not the fresh-baked pastries or the speaking French or even the magic of night falling on the glowing wood beams over the fireplace than I’ll miss most about that place. It’s those people who make you feel special and normal at the same time. People who are just people, weird and funny and simple and magnificent all at the same time. I never thought I would love working in the food industry, but that part-time job at the little French cafe was the bridge that helped me transition back to life here, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.