The current reality is confusing and heartbreaking; I have had many days of despair and just as many of contemplation. As the manager of a restaurant, this time can seem dismal. I miss the beautiful people who work for our company every day, and wish I could see them cooking on the line, killin' it in the dish pit, baking doughnuts like it's no one's business, slaying the coffee bar, busting out cocktails and serving the restaurant flawlessly like the badasses that they are. But I cannot, because we have been effectively 86'ed for the time being.
I am not mad about that. I understand. Above all else, the well-being of humanity is most important. I am not mad, I am sad. This time has brought about many emotions and memories, and for that, as well as for my health and the ability I have to keep working, I am grateful.
I've been in the industry since I was fourteen years old and started slingin' blizzards at Dairy Queen in good ol' Hays (in western Kansas, population 23,000). All of my best friends and cross-country teammates worked there. The only ice cream shop in town, during the summer it had a line out the door and a drive-thru line to the street for my entire eight-hour shift. During the winter, though, we were dead as a McDonald's with no fries. My friends and I would spend the hours concocting our own ice cream dreams and consuming copious amounts of the sweet goodness. I loved that job. I was attending high school full-time as well as participating on a sports team every season; I went to DQ after practice and earned a few extra bucks, but that's not why I worked there. I had that job for the camaraderie, for the people.
Fast-forward a few years and a few jobs. I went to grad school at Kansas State and landed a barista gig in Manhattan, aka Manhappenin'. (After I moved to Colorado, whenever I told someone I went to college in Manhattan, they thought I meant New York. I meant the little apple.) Radina's was a quaint little spot. We served coffee as well as sandwiches and pastries. Every barista had a headset, and we would use these to communicate with both the guests at the drive-thru and each other. There were two buttons: one for the drive-thru and one for barista-to-barista. Design flaw: Why would you put the buttons right next to each other? We would be talking shit about a customer and holding down the wrong button, and while we almost always caught our mistake in time, a few of those moments were terrifying.
I appreciated Radina's for the barista experience, but more for the life experience that I gained there. I learned what it was to work in a bigger town and see local celebrities, to make sandwiches on the fly when we didn't have every ingredient, and to improvise on a 2 percent, double shot, add one splenda, mocha with no foam order when we ran out of whole milk. I gained friendships that have lasted to this day, despite the fact that I moved hundreds of miles away.
Years later, I arrived in Denver with a decade of barista experience and a few bucks. No place to live, no job, nothing. I composed a simple résumé and began the hunt for employment. I was staying at a hotel, driving around with copies of my résumé that I asked the front-desk night-shift guy to print for me. The first establishment I came upon that listed “coffee” was a little joint called Paris on the Platte. I spoke with the manager and had a positive interaction but was not hired immediately, so I kept moving. The next shop hired me on the spot, and, just like that, I had a job. Ironically, finding a job was much easier than finding a place to live.
Paris closed a few months later; I was working at another local coffee shop when a friend told me I should apply at this cool new place called Carbon Cafe & Bar at Habit Doughnut Dispensary. Not being very happy at my current job, I decided to give it a go. When I walked into Carbon, I realized it was Paris on the Platte reincarnated.
Five years later, through many wonderful moments and just as many hardships, I am Carbon's general manager. It has not been without struggle; the service industry is difficult. I laugh to myself, or maybe even out loud (depending on the company), when I hear others say that working at a restaurant must be “so much fun” and “so easy.” It is not. Working in the industry means early mornings and late nights. It means interacting with people for eight or more hours, nonstop, with a smile on your face, no matter how difficult or frustrating the job is. It means serving people when your feet hurt and your heart hurts more. It means always being “on” and providing the best experience that you can for the guest. It can be exhausting. It can also be so fulfilling.
In fact, now that I take the time to mentally scroll through the list of all the industry jobs I've had, almost all of them have been like that. I didn't walk away with ten new friends or anything; this isn't a Hallmark movie. I did meet amazing humans who impacted my life, changed my perspective and made me a better person.
Nathan, a regular at the coffee shop I worked at in college, would come in seven mornings a week for his latte and scone; I would visit his assisted-living center once a week to discuss literature over a cup of tea. I was closer to Nathan than I ever was to my own grandfather. Even after I moved to Colorado, I visited him in Kansas. I correspond with Nathan via handwritten letters to this day.
I wish I could share over coffee a fraction of the beautiful memories that the service industry has given me. Some may think it is for those who are not capable of having a “real job.” They are wrong. The service industry is not for the faint of heart. It is for the strong, smart and brave. It is for those who believe in the good of humans because their own well-being relies on it. We are for you, for everyone, for the people.
I believe that this pandemic has made many people question who they are or what they're doing on this earth; I also believe that is not a bad thing. I urge all of us to examine ourselves at an intimate level and, in that same breath, see others in the most open and accepting way that we can.
And be well until we may see each other again.
Hayley Charles is general manager of Carbon Cafe & Bar at Habit Doughnut Dispensary, the winner of Best Doughnuts in the 2020 Best of Denver: A Survival Guide.
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