On the Illusion of Food Service

Life is a series of choices. Some are made by you, some are made for you, and some are the necessary conclusion of a long road walked. This road, called fate or destiny, always seems so large from the front. When we talk about the road we talk about heroes and dragons, earth-shattering revelations foretold by prophecy. The current destination of my long road is prominent Texas grocery store who serves as a direct competitor to Whole Foods.

The grocery store that I work at comes equipped with a dingy coffee bar, treated as an afterthought by the store at large. Jutting angrily into the space between the cafe and the registers, the bar offers a glimpse at food and food culture that will surely end up being a metaphor at some point later down the line.

Some Background.

When I first heard that I was getting a job at this nameless grocery store, with help from a good friend, I was nonplussed. I’d come this far because I was desperate. Years of attempting and failing to break back into any sort of industry that doesn’t involve standing for twelve hours and then drinking yourself to sleep had ended in yet another failure. My wife was furious at my lack of occupation and I was so bored that I felt physically ill. The training process itself was exactly what you’d expect, videos that proudly proclaimed:

“We only accepts THE BEST employees!”

“It isn’t about MONEY, it’s about IDEAS!”

“We CARE about FOOD.”

They even invented something they call the “Food Journey”, which is incredibly clever. The idea is this: everyone is somewhere on their food journey. Whether they’re just taking the first steps away from only eating foods that rhyme with “glurger” or they’ve licked truffles off of a whale’s vagina on the coast of southern Spain, each of us is somewhere. It’s our job to provide assistance on taking that next step.

Not surprisingly, this dedication to quality is, at it’s base, a veneer designed to allow both customers and management to feel good about their mutual acceptance of food as a Veblen Good. Employees tend to see it for what it is, however, and that leads to a loss of respect for the company at large.

That’s not to say it’s all bullshit, however. I believe that the employees themselves truly care about food, for the most part. The other inhabitants of my training classes were more interested in food than the average supermarket employee and I respect the business for being able to bring these people in. It’s just built on a lie.

The Metaphor.

On my first day working in the monolithic coffee bar within this giant food-metropolis I came to know something that jarred me out of my complacency and showed me just how haphazardly we in the food industry do our jobs. There was no structure. There was no efficiency. There was no training regimen. The bar itself seemed to have been designed by someone who’s only experience making coffee was in a Keurig at their summer house. The lack of accountability to function within the coffee bar spoke to the shoddiness of the entire operation.

That’s not the scary part, though, as every organization has its cracks. The scary part is that every organization has its cracks. The worship of food and food culture isn’t from a noble desire to expand the boundaries of our experience but instead comes from the same base need that drives people to buy cars more expensive than houses. It’s not hunger; it’s the need to feel superior to each other.

The other side of this isn’t any more soft or fuzzy. When we create more efficiencies it naturally leads to a stilted outlook about the product itself. Efficiency leads to corporatization. Corporatization leads to consistency. Consistency is just another word for boredom. And we love it. We love our boredom. We build monuments to it. But it doesn’t feed us the way food is supposed to. Humans get used to things very quickly. We’ve spent eons upon eons developing millions of recipes built from ingredients around the world. How do we find a balance between our need for complacency and our need for variety?

Trying to Find a Balance.

The easiest solution is to blame the individual. Make it an individual problem and you’re no longer tasked with the hard job of finding a solution. Another would be to institutionalize the solution — make the government take care of it. Legislate your way around it and watch the tastemakers suffer from afar. You’re not responsible for their suffering, therefore you can enjoy it. In reality, there’s a third solution. There’s something that we’ve forgotten in our long, individualistic trek towards immense fortune and glory. And we learned it in our mother’s kitchens when we were just knee high to a jackanape.

My Mother’s Kitchen.

There’s very little that I can think of that’s less corporate than my mom’s house. As an aging hippie with a strong nonconformist streak, my mom is about the last person you would expect to work at a chain grocery store. And she doesn’t. I’m the one who works at a chain grocery store. She, however, taught me a few things about being process-oriented and its value in cooking. Her fire turns towards baking, more science than art, and she pursues it with a kind of aplomb only found in those who have truly mastered their craft. She taught me three things that I think can be applied to foodservice, preparation, and appreciation for improvements all around.

1. Keep things close to where you need them.

If you make something often then you know where you’re going to be next. Put things in a place where you can get to them quickly and easily. If sharing a kitchen, discuss and agree on a process that makes the most sense to everyone.

2. The recipe is always right. Except when it isn’t.

Learning to do something right isn’t about following the instructions every time, it’s about following instructions the first time. Figure out what the constituent components of a process do, what changing them does, and then alter it to your taste. Two bread baked by two different bakers should never be the same.

3. Go as fast as you want but never, ever rush.

This is the biggest pill to swallow as far as the foodservice industry goes. A “sense of urgency” has become the most important thing to have as an employee. We have created a system by which the commoditization of food robs both customer and employee of the shared experience of service. Going fast is good. Hurrying only serves to put piss in your soup.