The hustle and bustle of a restaurant kitchen comes with its own thrill.

I was always intimidated by the kitchen in my brief stint working in food service. The heat, the shouting, the hustle, I was at first overwhelmed by it and never quite comfortable there (even though the cooks were funny and kind). I was definitely more comfortable front of house, where I spent most of my working hours, dealing with people and answering phone calls.

Restaurant work is hard, with irregular hours, often low pay and irritable customers. It can be very physical labor, with heavy trays, restocking supplies and long shifts standing. Often jobs at restaurants do not come with benefits like health insurance. It’s also valuable labor. What is more essential to being in community with people than sharing a meal together?

It can be incredibly rewarding to create a beautiful moment for someone or to brighten their day with enthusiastic service. It can be invigorating to move through the lulls and rushes during a shift.

Restaurants can also come with difficult to work in environments. Some restaurants are lovely workplaces and others are full of rampant sexual harassment and exploitative labor practices.

It’s not an easy industry to work in and people are leaving in higher numbers than they have in decades. It’s disheartening to see so much public judgement of the people leaving the industry. Signs proclaiming “no one wants to work anymore,” posted on restaurant doors and customers who are impatient for food and irritable at the workers who are still there.

Of course people want to leave the industry. It’s a hard industry to be in, one that already operates on slim margins and that was even more unstable as restaurants had to close then open then close again with the pandemic. More than that, customers seem to be getting more irritable than ever before.

So let’s stow the judgement for the people leaving the industry. Instead maybe we can applaud those people for making the best choices for their own life. Good for them for finding a new gig that they’re more excited about, whether it’s easier work, or better paid, or something they’re more passionate about or just comes with fewer irritable customers. Why can’t we celebrate the fact that people are moving into jobs that fit better in their lives?

Also, taking advantage of unemployment payments to stay home with family in a time when schools closed and there’s a deadly virus reminding us all constantly of our own mortality seems like a positive life choice. In some cases, it is not a choice at all, but a necessity. If your job paid less than childcare costs and your child’s school is suddenly virtual, where is the choice?

Maybe we can develop a better appreciation for the challenging work the people still at the restaurant are doing and the skill it takes to work in a restaurant. The multi-tasking, the tolerance for stress, the culinary skills, the people-energy it takes to work in any customer service job.

I know the staffing issues place a burden on restaurant owners, but I don’t think the answer to that frustration is to get mad at people for looking for jobs that better fit in their lives, or to get mad at people for staying home. The fact that higher unemployment payments, a forced break from restaurant work, irritable customers or fears about COVID exposure motivated so many people to leave the field and find something new to do is an indictment of the difficult working conditions and the low pay that are standard in the industry.

If you’re going to a restaurant, be kind to the people working there. Have patience.

Cathy Cook, El Defensor Chieftain