A few Saturdays ago, I was upstairs making lunch while my flatmate Kenny complained about how crazy-busy his night job had gotten – bartending at a local Mexican restaurant called the Flying Burrito Brothers. Since I’d arrived in Christchurch, I myself had been debating finding some part-time work at a restaurant to fill my nights with and bring in a little extra cash, so when he mentioned they were short-staffed, it couldn’t have been hard for him to see my eyes light up at the potential opportunity. He offered to talk to his manager about me that night, and the following Tuesday found me in the restaurant with a trial shift set up for the coming weekend.
I didn’t quite know what to expect when I showed up for the trial. The only other restaurant experience I have was my three-month stint at Ruby Tuesday’s last summer – a job I don’t exactly look back on favorably. It’s a place where the runners are overworked to death yet the servers walk out with all the money in their pocket. It’s a place where I often felt like the only one who cared about standards and the kitchen staff could be found out back taking shots and passing joints. It’s a place I often left frustrated at the end of the night. In short, it was anything but professional.
So I rocked up for my trial, very much interested to see how it would be working for a restaurant in a country where tipping isn’t part of the culture. After my haphazard experience at Ruby Tuesday’s, I was immediately impressed by the system they had in place – even if it seemed the exact opposite at times. The first thing I learned was the system of table numbers, always an entertaining moment. In the downstairs section, for instance, there are three rows of tables. The middle row runs from table one to five, then continuing back up the left row to table nine, skipping ten and thirteen to finish up on the right with table fourteen. Thirteen was easily explained away as unlucky, but no one seemed to know exactly what happened to table ten. And the one tip offered to me as a memory aid? “Remember table nine is by the window,” Carli shared. Okay – the point of that being? It doesn’t rhyme, it isn’t from a song, it makes no sense. But wouldn’t you know…here I am remembering it enough to tell you about anyway.
And of course there are the little nuances you only pick up after time; only keep three black drink trays upstairs; there are two sizes of drinking glasses, it doesn’t matter which you use when resetting a table as long as you’re consistent; and oh yeah, table 44 is the only table in the whole restaurant that seats five people. Honestly, where do they come up with this stuff?
What amazed me the most, though, was the way the whole place worked without the incentive of a tip driving everyone. You might expect people to slack off, take it easy and not work as hard – kind of like what happened in Communist China when the government began providing food for everyone and the farmers stopped farming because they no longer had any real reason to work to put food on the table. But that wasn’t the case at the Flying Burrito Brothers, in fact it’s safe to say the entire staff worked harder than any of my colleagues at Ruby Tuesday’s and not just for their own tables, but helping out wherever they could. At first it was even hard to differentiate between the runners and servers – later I did get to know which servers are assigned to certain sections, but the most noticeable thing at first is just the sense of camaraderie among everyone.
When the chefs ring the bell in the kitchen, a signal there are dishes ready to be served, you don’t stop to think if the food is for your table or not. You just run, taking the stairs two at a time if necessary. And if the bell rings twice, there’s no telling what kind of mood the kitchen staff will be in. Most of the dishes are fairly straight-forward to run out, but the fajita trays are a mission every time. Like a customer said tonight, they’re shaped like over-sized ping pong paddles – a large circular center with a short handle. To carry them, you tuck the handle awkwardly under your armpit and let your arm support the rest of the tray. This ingenious method was designed to allow you to carry two at a time, one in each arm – and then make a fool of yourself as you try to set them down in front of the customer without tipping the flaming iron dish on their lap. Oh, did I mention the head chef places the dish of fajita filling – be it steak, chicken, or prawn – on the tray literally on fire, blowing out stray flames only seconds before you pick it up. This results in a rather treacherous walk to the table, with sizzling juices popping and scalding your skin and billows of smoke choking your throat and burning your eyes. There’s no saying I don’t earn my staff drink at the end of the night.
Speaking of, the whole place has a great feel about it – maybe it’s the prime position it occupies on the corner of New Regent Street, a small “Spanish colonial-style mall” found between Armagh and Gloucester Streets. Maybe it’s that magical combination of Kiwi and Mexican cuisines, the mouth-watering menu of Mexican classics I missed so much in London, and the Feijoa Sunrise cocktail, bringing the flavors of a quintessential Kiwi fruit to a standard Mexican drink. Or maybe it’s just the fact that the staff is mostly young and unattached and all sit around after their shifts with ice-cold Sols and corn chips, blurring the line between work and socializing. I’m sure this may well be influenced by the fact that many of us are travelers or transplants, hundreds or thousands of miles from home. There is no family to go home to or friends to meet up with after your shift ends, so you stay and hang around, as workmates become friends and colleagues your new companions.
Now a week into the job, I think I’m settling in pretty well, adjusting to their “system” or at least able to sort all the random ways of doing things into my own quasi-system. And so it seems my managers think of me as well – on only my second proper shift, they already had me training another new runner. Flattering? Yes. But a bit too early for the blind to be leading the blind? I think so. And I suppose I should be grateful that the managers have been keeping me on until the end of the night, while I enviously watch them send the other runners home, one-by-one, until it’s just me and the servers left. As much as I love the chance for extra hours on my timesheet, even the last runner standing needs sleep sometimes, people!