“In the moment that you are waiting for your food, do you not become the waiter?”
Puns aside, most teenagers from middle-class families probably have no idea what it’s like to be serving someone else at the other end of the table. As a fresh JC kid back in 2014, I was looking for a way to kill time and to pick up a little life experience and thus chose to venture into that other side. This decision would eventually lead to a part-time stint at Sunday Folks, a humble, quaint ice cream café situated in Holland V.
Having no prior work experience in the F&B industry, getting to work in an ice cream cafe was a childhood dream come true. It is, after all, rather easy to romanticise such a profession — what could be more fantastic than to be surrounded by ice cream all day long? But that doesn’t equate to having a non-stop ice cream buffet or having ice elves for co-workers. Although the work wasn’t back-breaking, it wasn’t exactly simple either.
As opposed to the typical ice cream you’ve come to expect from similar cafes in Singapore, Sunday Folks’ ice cream 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, assemble and operate them.
Daily operations are of paramount importance in any occupation, especially when it comes to maintenance and upkeep—this was highly stressed upon by my boss through her jovial threat of sending us to Italy for replacement parts if we were to damage the machines. As a newbie, especially when it came to F&B, the kitchen proved to be daunting at first and really led me to question my practical knowledge and technical handling of the equipment. There was, quite unsurprisingly, the occasional great panic at having created a mess of trouble for my co-workers. Thankfully enough, I was able to create a great working experience for myself despite the initial misgivings and teething issues.
A really amazing highlight of my entire work experience was the chance to learn how to pull ice cream from the machines into a sellable cone and thus, my very first ice cream cone was born on a chill afternoon of learning with encouragement from my colleagues and boss.
It was a meaningful moment, to realise that I was responsible for creating something of deliciously concrete value. Pistachio staunchly remains my favourite flavour at Sunday Folks even as new flavours have been released in the subsequent years, and I am more than happy to savour it every chance I get.
Other firsts for me included cashiering, customer relations, and general cleaning amidst the multitude of things that could crop up during a single shift. The crew is expected to be more or less versatile in taking up any role the café required at the moment. However, as the number of shifts I worked per week wasn’t enough for me to properly learn food preparations and barista skills, I mostly took up roles that were less technically challenging.
Of those that I tried my hand at, I found cashiering to be the toughest. 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 concern when doing so. One particular customer had inquired about adding extra blueberries to his waffle and being engrossed 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 – if I wasn’t just handling mere waffles but something bigger and more important, would I still have retained my job? It was this moment that led me to see the value in working in the service industry as an important form of preparation in handling human relations, as well as communications in other sectors.
Together with unexpected epiphanies, the café itself also offered a certain sense of fun and peace; the bustle of the café lets you get into your own groove. There were times where I did self-challenges to see how many plates or cups I could clear from a table and having little quiet oomphs of triumph when I pulled it off. Other fun things to try included seeing how high you could stack the drinking cups before arranging 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. Finding work satisfaction is as easy as taking pride in doing your very best in the smallest things.
There’s the inevitable gross factor that you have to face working in all F&B outlets. Be it grabbing someone’s eaten ice cream off the table, dunking your entire hand in dirty dishwater or clearing out the 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). Compared to other F&B outlets, however, an ice cream café has a relatively low gross factor; there isn’t nasty food waste or heavy duty cleaning up required. For those of you too squeamish to handle even this level of grossness, you might want to seriously reconsider a part-time job in the F&B industry (or even walking into your own kitchen).
Amidst the constant stream of activity, with the huge volume of customers passing in and out of the shop, no one really knows who you are and nobody 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 their 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. Observing the dynamics of human interactions in this capacity up-close 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.
Quirky experiences also cropped up along the way— it was pretty amusing to serve schoolmates with a straight face and to entertain people you knew from your personal life.
But the most rewarding and pivotal moment of the stint has got to be when I received my first pay.
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 train ride home while staring at my wallet, 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 the 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 toiling together.
It was at this party when I realised just how fun and amazing it has been to work with my fellow co-workers. 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 interacting 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 learned, 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 is merely the sweetener 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.
The first version of this opinion piece was originally published on Word of Mouth.