By William Hoo (15A01E)
“In the moment that you are waiting for your food, do you not become the waiter?”
Beyond this pun, I doubt many Rafflesians actually know what it’s like to be the guy at the other end of the table who’s responsible for your café experience. As a way to kill time and to expose myself to some life experience, I chose to become that guy, right after Common Test 1 last year, at Sunday Folks, a quaint little ice cream shop situated in Holland V.
Being someone with no experience in the F&B industry or actual prior work experience (the closest thing was a stint interning at the national museum), getting to work in an ice cream shop was a childhood dream come true. It is, after all, rather easy to romanticise such a profession — what could be more fantastic than being in constant close proximity to the cool and delicious embrace of ice cream? But that doesn’t equate to having a non-stop ice cream buffet or having ice elves for coworkers. Working in an ice cream shop, while not exactly tough, isn’t a simple job either.
As opposed to the typical ice cream you come to expect from similar cafes in other parts of Singapore, the ice cream here is soft serve and has to be freshly churned every day from scratch with Italian machines that slumber behind the copper countenance of our counter, humming along throughout the day. Naturally the first thing that I had to learn was how to clean these machines, and how to assemble and operate them.
Processes are part of every job and their importance was stressed by my boss in her jovial declaration of having to send us to Italy to get replacement parts for the machines were we to spoil them. That was also how I spent a good deal of my initial time at the café worrying about wrecking and causing an explosion in the kitchen. Thankfully though, the only explosion I’ve created so far was a great experience for myself to enjoy.
One highlight of learning on the job was practicing to pull ice cream from the machines to make our own ice cream cones. This was also when I made my own ice cream cone for the first time.
It was meaningful to me since the moment I realised I was contributing to the economy for the first time in my life. Of course, it was also very delicious as well. Pistachio remains, to date, my favourite flavour at the café.
Other basic ropes that I learnt along the way were cashiering, seating customers, cleaning amidst a flurry of things that staff were required to juggle throughout a single shift. I would say cashiering was perhaps the craziest of the duties that I tried my hand at. It happened to be a Sunday when my boss decided to field me at the cashier and the café was inundated with an unrelenting flow of customers. Needless to say, I was a little overwhelmed. In spite of the uncertainty, it taught me about the way I interacted with others and how to take more care and concerned when doing so. One particular customer had inquired about adding extra blueberries to his waffle and in my concern with just coping with the customer flow, I didn’t really get what he was asking and simply told him blueberries were already included with the waffles. He surfaced this to my boss later on who rectified the issue and told me about the miscommunication. It highlighted to me how important communication and interaction was in the workplace- were it not a waffle inquiry that I flubbed but an important contract inquiry in another situation, would I still be as lucky to retain my job? I could see why taking a job in the service industry was a really good way to prepare yourself for jobs in other sectors and industries.
The bustle of the café lets you get into your own groove; I found myself challenging myself to see how many plates or cups I could clear from a table and there was this little oomph of triumph when I pulled it off. Other fun things to try included seeing how high you could stack the drinking cups before bringing them out to arrange them and pretending you were holding the tower of Pisa in your hands. When it gets really busy it also feels satisfying to know that you’re helping to create a great experience for customers and also that you’re able to juggle all the things that need to be done. You could be serving ice cream one instant and then find yourself having to clear five tables and refill the cutlery and napkins the next.
There’s the inevitable gross factor that you have to face as with working in all F&B outlets. Be it grabbing someone’s eaten ice cream off the table, dunking your entire hand in dirty dish water or clearing out trash, there’s always going to be something that’s gross to touch. You also get to find out just how long it takes for you to get over it. (About three seconds after I picked the ice cream up). For those of you too squeamish to handle this kind of grossness, you might want to reconsider any intentions of dabbling in F&B (or even walking into your own kitchen).
Amidst the constant stream of activity though, with the huge volumes of customers passing in and out of the shop, no one really knows who you are and nobody really wants to know either. The inherent voyeuristic quality of such a service job was eye-opening for me. People don’t notice service staff beyond the functions they perform, giving you a glimpse into people’s lives that you wouldn’t otherwise have. I’ve seen a ridiculous number of couples being lovey-dovey with each other until their ice cream melts, and children having fun messing with their toppings, and even become an unwitting part of someone’s birthday celebration. There were many family moments that I was privy to, unnoticed and unknown. Seeing the kind of dynamic interaction between people really inspired some quiet reflection of my own as well in my spare time, mostly musings on my own relationships with people. There’s something very human about the short and temporal slices of interaction I get to have with customers. They know nothing about me and I know nothing about them, yet somehow we are part of each other’s lives just for a transient moment.
Other quirky experiences surfaced over the course of my time there. It’s disorientating and amusing when you realise that you’re going to have to serve your friend and he’s going to have to pay you for doing it. I’ve also tremendously enjoyed myself when I brought friends over for discounted ice cream, a perk of being a staff member. I don’t tend to want to eat the ice cream myself when people I know are there as customers.
Being a salaried worker doesn’t quite hit anyone until one pivotal moment for everyone: getting your first pay check.
It was actually rather surreal looking at my pay just lying on one of our menus at the end of another night shift. I remember I was tired and rather chuffed from doing closing and seeing the money made me rather excited for no particular reason. As I listened to indie songs on the way home while staring at my wallet on the train ride home, I thought, “I am a productive member of society after all and I can earn my keep.” Extra pocket money goes a long way in making yourself a little happier with JC life and savings are always good for your mental health.
I’m aware that some people have reservations about working in the service industry given the toughness – the menial aspect of it would presumably also be a challenge for some, especially those who’ve been molly-cuddled, but difficulty is expected of all professions regardless of required qualifications. There is no job that’s easy but there’s nothing stopping you from making the best out of it and I think I have.
It isn’t all work and no play for us though- at the end of 2014, the bosses were kind enough to host a New Year party for staff. It was a good load of fun as we all got to know each other better and just chill together after a year’s worth of working together.
It was at this party when I realised just how fun and amazing it has been to work with my fellow coworkers. It’s been nice making friends along the way and the work experience for me at the café has been really enhanced by them. A strong sense of identification and spirit really comes through in the small moments that we have with each other. Sometimes it’s a joke about someone’s hair looking like a bowl after wearing the food prep hat or fighting to eat the last piece of waffle.The shenanigans are comforting in their own way and it’s a very nice slice of life community to be part of.
I know that most people work part-time for financial reasons but that doesn’t apply to me since I’m not in any dire need of money. I see this job as a social opportunity that lets me experience interaction with people completely devoid and out of both the school and home contexts. It’s refreshing to meet new people on your own personal terms and not let school or home precepts get in the way. I’ve also been able to explore another side of myself as I try different ways of presenting myself to others and trying to interact in more meaningful ways as well. I also picked this café in particular for the vibe that it gave me — not too formal or edgy but still rather fun. New things learnt, breaking out of the normal boundaries of my life and social experience; these are things that I feel what makes my job worth it; the money merely sweetens the ice cream of course!
“Try to look at your experience here as a mandala, Chapman. Work hard to make something as meaningful and beautiful as you can. And when you’re done, pack it in and know it was all temporary.” I think that this quote from Orange is the New Black sums up quite succinctly what I feel about my work overall and my hope to make the most out of it, in a beautiful and meaningful way.