10 Things We Learned from Our Summer Food Jobs

10 Things We Learned from Our Summer Food Jobs

Ariel Knutson
Jul 28, 2017
(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

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.

Whether you're washing dishes, bagging groceries, or on the line at a restaurant, working in the food industry can be tough work. Many jobs require experience with customer service and thinking quickly on your feet, which — if you're not used to that — can be a hard learning curve. The skills you learn in these environments, however, give you invaluable tools for other various aspects in your life and throughout your career (whether that's in food or not).

That's why I asked 10 staffers from Apartment Therapy Media who have worked in the food industry to share what life lessons — big or small — they learned from their summer food jobs. Do you agree with these lessons?

1. Wear gloves if you're washing lots of dishes.

I worked at a fast food restaurant, and it took me so long to realize how important it is to wear gloves when you're washing dishes. My hands got so dry and painful those first few weeks on the job! I won't wash dishes without them ever since. – Kaitlin Garske, Social Media Manager

2. Don't be afraid to make mistakes.

Working at an ice cream shop taught me that mistakes aren't the worst thing in the world. If I messed up (and, say, put chocolate sprinkles on a cone instead of rainbow), I'd get to eat the mistake later. Of course, I'd eat it while I thought about what I had done wrong and how I could do better next time. — Lisa Freedman, Lifestyle Editor

3. Don't underestimate your ability to do mental math.

My first summer job was at a bakery in my hometown, when I was 15. Very early on, on a super busy Saturday morning, someone jumped on the register right after I rang up an order, but before there was time for it to calculate the change. I immediately felt panic when having to count the change in my head, and was slightly mortified when the customer had to help me do it. It was simple math, and I was so reliant on a calculator, I couldn't do it. This made such a lasting impression on me, and needless to say it was the last day I ever relied on a calculator for counting change. - Kelli Foster, Assistant Food Editor

4. Give even the most boring tasks your attention.

I worked as a waitress/hostess at a tiny Italian restaurant. It was my job to slice lemons for the lemon water, and I used to just zone out while doing it because it was so repetitive ... until one day when I sliced off a big chunk of my thumb! Lesson learned: Even the most boring tasks require attention, especially when you're wielding a knife. – Lauren Kodiak, Production Editor

5. Stop putting your leftover pizza in the microwave.

I worked at a pizza joint in a ski/vacation resort for a summer when I was 18. No real life lessons learned, besides having my first heartbreak from a summer love. I did learn that pizza is best reheated from the bottom in a cast iron skillet, though. We heated slices to order in an old cast iron stove and they were the crispiest, most delightful slices of pizza ever. – Meghan Splawn, Associate Food Editor

6. Deal with unpleasant people with a smile.

I've worked in a variety of food service industry jobs, including one high-end restaurant in New York. The biggest skill I've learned through it all is how to deal with unpleasant people. I once had a couple show up 45 minutes late to a reservation on a totally booked Friday night and were outraged that we gave their table away. They screamed at me for a good 30 minutes and threatened to write about how awful I was on Yelp (which they did, but they got my name wrong). All I could do was smile and say I was sorry. They were upset, they needed to vent, and I was just a sounding board. Working in restaurants gives you a hard skin that will benefit you in any situation. - Ariel Knutson, Culture Editor

7. Embrace going outside your comfort zone.

Lacking more traditional job prospects one summer, I was a salesperson for *that* knife company. You'd think that this introvert would not be into cold calling and asking for the sale (and you'd be 100% right), but I did get pretty good at it nonetheless. Lesson: Sometimes you just have to do things that are outside your comfort zone in the name of growth (and some cash money). — Tara Bellucci, News & Culture Editor for Apartment Therapy

8. Find joy in small, casual encounters.

After many summers working as a grocery bagger (for tips!) I learned the incredibly important people-person skill of taking genuine interest in what casual encounters have to say. I saw hundreds of customers come through, some regular, some not, but I always pretended like I'd see someone again. People knock small talk, but small talk and checking in on small details ("Hi, what's your name?" "What kind of dog do you have?" etc.) helped build small moments where customers actually felt valued and important. People can tell when you're bullshitting them or not really listening to what they have to say, so I learned the focus and interpersonal skills to go beyond that — which reflected in better tips, sure, but to this day, not only am I great with names, but my ability to talk to anyone about anything is also one of the qualities I'm most proud of. — Taylor Nulk, Audience Development Associate

9. Never challenge a pizza chef to a sauce-off.

My first job, at 16, was as a hostess and expo at an upscale pizza restaurant in Atlanta. Here's a short list of things I learned.

  • Be nice to everyone, but especially the regulars.
  • Don't run through a kitchen with heels.
  • Don't trust the pizza delivery guy.
  • Don't try to get a tan under the heat lamps.
  • Never challenge a pizza chef to a sauce-off.
  • If you don't got it, don't carry it.
  • Never cry over broken dishes.

- Samantha Bolton, Art Director

10. Dishes aren't going to do themselves.

I worked as a prep cook and learned a few valuable lessons on cooking (and life).

  • Make it nice or make it twice.
  • If you're not early you're late.
  • "But nobody told me" is not a legit excuse.
  • Dishes aren't going to do themselves.
- Christine Buckley, Food Stylist

What are the life lessons you learned from your summer food job? Let us know in the comments!
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