What do you really do?: How Creatives Became the Backbone of the Hospitality Industry
© Ru Pearson
From pot-washing poets to bartending bassists, the hospitality industry is saturated with creatives earning money to support their main passion. But what draws creatives to the service sector and why is it so difficult to leave?
Having worked in various facets of the hospitality industry for over ten years now, I have had my fair share of experiences, good and bad. One thing that remains consistent, however, is the fact that many bar, kitchen, and café workers are also creatives, employed in service positions not out of unbridled love for making coffees or serving customers, but to earn money to support their main passion. When getting to know colleagues at a new job – my last one was in an Irish pub – the same question always comes up: “What do you really do?”
For those who have never worked in the industry – the rare few uncorrupted by the debilitating grind of low-wage, high-demand jobs – the realities of the lifestyle are unconceivable. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not all bad. But when an outsider imagines what goes on “behind the scenes” of their favourite establishment it is almost definitely, hilariously, wrong. Sure, in some kitchens the chefs wear white coats and flambé pans like in the movies, and in some bars you might see bartenders skilfully flipping and throwing cocktail shakers. However, your average hospitality business is run off the backs of young people who are there out of necessity; teenagers wait on tables or do the hot and heavy pot-wash jobs for a sliver of extra pocket money while university students pour your pints to support their studies (or their own beer funds). As a result, a tangible feeling of youthful impermanency underpins hospitality culture. For most, it is not seen as a “forever job” – it is merely temporary.
Then there’s people like me: creatives who are still scrubbing grease off extractor fans and cashing up the till years later. But I’m not alone; in every hospitality job I’ve ever had I have been surrounded by a colourful assortment of colleagues. During my MA degree I worked in a vegan fast-food restaurant. Here, a fellow cook was a tattoo-artist; the front-of-house manager was a jewellery maker; and the kitchen porter was a DJ. When I moved to London and began working as sous-chef in a restaurant in Covent Garden, one of my teammates was a dancer and roller-skater and the waitstaff was made up entirely of students at the Royal Academy of Music. Fine art students, jazz drummers, poets, writers, and filmmakers have also dipped in and out of my workplace spheres. In an ideal world, all of us would be focusing on these creative endeavours full-time. Instead, our time is spread thin; we work our shifts and use the time in-between to cultivate our creative crafts. When I first started out in hospitality, I had no plans to still be in the industry ten years down the line. But, like the booze-soaked floors we mop at the end of each shift, the hospitality trap is a sticky one to get out of.
Why do so many creative minds get stuck in hospitality, then? Granted, creative brains work well in jobs that depend upon good communication and out-of-the-box thinking. Pubs and restaurants are also environments that thrive on collaboration and teamwork, something that comes naturally to us right-brained folk. It should be no surprise that so many creatives find a sense of belonging in the lively and dynamic work settings offered by the hospitality industry. By contrast, the creative fields are notoriously harsh, competitive arenas that are particularly difficult to break into. Forget the glass ceiling; the creative industry is built with glass walls, too.
Budding artists and fresh humanities graduates must regularly contend with unpaid and irregular work and fewer opportunities for fast-track employment initiatives than their peers who studied subjects like chemistry, engineering, or medicine. When a steady, salaried role does pop up on artsjobs.org or creativeaccess.org, the competition is fierce. Hundreds of talented, educated, and experienced creatives apply, making the chance of success for any one individual exceptionally slim. Systemic issues of nepotism, classism, racism, and sexism also set firm obstacles in place for many aspiring creatives, with people from working class backgrounds and BAME groups experiencing the worst exclusion. The other option for creatives – freelancing – is idyllic in theory and terrifying in practice. Giving up the stability of monthly pay checks and putting faith in your abilities to make a living from your craft is a risky move and one that, in a society that chronically devalues the importance of the arts, will inevitably invite cynicism from those who champion “traditional” jobs and career paths.
With this mercurial terrain ahead of us if we do take a leap and leave, hospitality work can suddenly feel comfortable, easy, and even homely. This is the crux of the trap; hospitality work is hard but finding lucrative creative work can be harder. There is also something strangely addictive about the lifestyle – and I’m not just talking about the substance abuse issues that are all too common among the staff in kitchens and bars. The money in hospitality is surprisingly (read: annoyingly) good if you sell your soul and work full-time. As a sous-chef, I was earning more than my university friends who opted for corporate careers in marketing and PR and had job titles like ‘regional communications resourcing manager’ that I never quite got my head around. Hospitality is also a sociable line of work; you end up seeing your colleagues more often than you see your family, friends, housemates, and partners. Even after an AFD (an ‘All Fucking Day’ shift for those not in the know), when, in theory, all we should want to do is go home to bed, we all stay for a drink to unwind. It’s at this point that we will discuss the horrors of the day: a group that came in five minutes before close and ordered three courses, a screaming baby that threw up on the floor, a family of mice discovered behind the walk-in fridge… venting about our job (and the general public) is a ceremonious and sacred part of our culture.
This culture is what keeps us going when we feel hopeless or stuck. Bonded by the knowledge that none of us are there because we thrive on late nights and long hours, there is an undeniable solidarity amongst creative hospitality workers. We understand each other. We help each other out; swapping shifts to accommodate each other’s creative commitments, sharing advice on what job sites are best for creative roles, and even collaborating on each other’s creative projects whenever possible. But this sentiment seems lost on some customers, some of whom also seem to forget that we are people, too. My housemate – an incredibly talented photographer and part-time cafe manager – continually has customers utter “see you tomorrow!” as they make their way out, coffees in hand. It’s a friendly, knee-jerk salutation but it represents something more; service staff are often seen as permanent fixtures within their establishment. But we are not automatons programmed to flip burgers, serve meals, or froth milk. We are busy people trying to strike a balance between backbreaking shifts that pay our rent, and free time in which to create. For bar staff, who sacrifice evenings and weekends - the prime time for gigs, art shows, film screenings etc – for a job that offers us time off in the week, finding a sustainable and healthy schedule is almost impossible. But the industry couldn’t work any other way. Who else, if not creatives, would be mad enough to work 8pm-3am shifts back-to-back without becoming entirely nocturnal?
Despite having a decade of experience under my belt, I still don’t see hospitality as my “forever job”. It’s just taking me a little longer than most to wave goodbye to the industry that has fed my social life and paid my bills for the entire duration of my adult life so far. I don’t regret my choices, either. I would take a bad shift in the kitchen over a mind-numbing 9-5 in an office any day of the week, although my rattling knees might say otherwise. Although my love/hate relationship with the industry teeters slightly in favour of the former, I’m sure not everyone would agree; the industry has a habit of chewing people up and spitting them out. I would put money on the fact that there is not a service worker in the world who doesn’t have at least one horror story about a terrible customer or a frightening altercation. I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt looked down on or treated as disposable in service jobs, and I hear similar stories from friends in the industry all the time. But where would you go for date night, or to celebrate your promotion, or to hold your birthday party, if service workers suddenly decided enough is enough? Just treat us with respect, please, we’ve got a lot on our plates.