This month we're looking back on all the strange and wonderful food jobs people have held during the summer. Whether it's a job at a local scoop shop, a grocery store, or the concession stand at a baseball field, the skills and memories you gather in those short, hot months usually turn out to be invaluable. Here's Bex vanKoot on her summer running her own business at a baseball field.
The summer of 1998 was one of many firsts for me. I was finishing up my first year of high school, preparing to take my beginner's driving test, dating my first boyfriend, planning my as-yet-only trip overseas, and working my first real job at a baseball park snack stand (babysitting doesn't count, right?). I would spend that summer learning the ins and outs of running my own business, a first that I can say now, almost 20 years later, led directly to the last decade I have spent freelancing and traveling the world.
To say that I grew up in a Baseball Family would be understating the facts. I have strong memories of sunburned thighs from afternoons at the Skydome in Toronto, a few hours from our rural Ontario home. My brother and I both started playing as wobbly tee-ball toddlers and advanced to competitive leagues. And even after the fat jokes from my peers and the general malaise of being Gen-Why in the '90s pulled me away from participating in competitive anything, I still cheered from the stands.
The Ilderton sports park was simple: three diamonds of varying sizes and a small soccer field, all crowded into the grassy space beside the town library. My young brother was playing for the bantam team, my dad was coaching and on the executive board of the district baseball association, and my mom was helping to convene one of the leagues — so they were at the park several times a week already when they found out no one was operating the park's small snack booth and I somehow landed the gig.
I learned quickly that small business owners don't have it easy. I wasn't making a set minimum wage. I was responsible for purchasing all the stock up front, and had the privilege of a small loan for food and float from my parents. We would load up our cart at Costco with cans of pop and bags of chips, Bazooka Joe gum and sunflower seeds, freezies and Fudgesicles, sour keys and fuzzy peaches, hot dogs, hamburgers, and plenty of strong coffee.
I set my prices based on my own market research, and brought home whatever profit I could. As any freelancer may attest to, clients will try to get everything they can for free, and being a teenage girl didn't make it any easier. But I learned early to stand up to pushy customers (i.e., my brother's annoying friends and teammates) when they tried haggling over the price of candy or sneaking Freezies for free out the back door.
The snack booth also had a secret side-hustle, as the place where I would meet my first boyfriend after school, before the baseball games started. Under cover of the swinging plywood windows, to the sound of the ancient fridge's buzz and percolating coffee, I had my first kiss, and learned a thing or two about dealing with rejection and embarrassing mistakes. Leaning on the countertop, gazing down into his eyes, leaning in ever so slowly … I tripped and fell and smacked my entire face right into his. I burst out laughing. He was less than impressed by my mojo-busting moves. But if there is one thing you need to learn to be a successful freelancer is that sometimes on the road to awesomeness, you're going to mess up. You will make humiliating mistakes and people will sometimes be less than impressed with you, but you need to be able to laugh at yourself. I apologized for giving him a fat lip, and then I kissed it better.
Leaning on the countertop, gazing down into his eyes, leaning in ever so slowly … I tripped and fell and smacked my entire face right into his.
After two summers working the snack shop, I had thoroughly enjoyed myself. But by then I finally had a permit to drive all on my own, a car to drive in, and the free time from school to work somewhere that I didn't have to deal with 14-year-old boys trying to hang out with me. More than that, the snack booth profit margin was thin, and I needed something steady to really start saving for university. In business, knowing when to take a leap forward isn't enough; you have to know when to turn back and go a different direction. Every time I have made the decision to go out on my own and make work for myself, it has required a leap of faith, the confidence to develop new skills and try a new career path. And each time, I have been able to reinforce these same lessons I first learned at the ballpark.
3 Lessons I Learned From My Summer Job That I Still Use Today
- I learned to stand up to pushy people.
- I learned the road to awesomeness is paved with mistakes.
- I learned that you need to know when to give up.
A big part of the reason I stopped playing baseball was my general distaste for the so-called "competitive spirit" — people stopped seeing me as a competitor, and so I stopped seeing myself that way. Thanks to my time in the snack stand, I learned about a bigger, longer game — one where I'm every player, and win, lose, or draw, what matters is that I keep playing.