Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front- and back-of-house about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favourite establishments. In the latest installment, we speak to a bartender who worked in a busy Amsterdam bar where the staff stole money and booze from the nasty owner.
When I was in a college, I worked at a bar that was like a sandbox for adults. The owner was rarely present. He was also a horrible human being, so the staff wasn't very loyal. Everyone who worked there stayed for an after work drink without paying for it. Some took bottles of booze home, and on busy summer days, many beers were sold without any of the customers' money ever making it into the register. To us, this was business as usual. We put the money in our pockets. Nowadays, I work in an office and wouldn't dare to take as much as a stapler home, but when I worked at that bar, I paid for a summer vacation with the money I stole from the place.
I got the job when I had just started college. Aside from some regular employees, when it came to staff members, there was a high turnover rate. The owner loved to humiliate us in front of customers by asking us to clean on our hands and knees, and threw a fit when we messed up the little things like spilling coffee. He also took a percentage of our tips, which was not OK.
He didn't care much about the city's health and safety regulations either. The kitchen was one of the dirtiest places on earth, featuring its fair share of roaches and mice. I was embarrassed every time I served a customer anything from that kitchen. All of the food on the menu was frozen and warmed up in the microwave. None of the employees dared to make any remarks about the kitchen, afraid that the boss might go off on them.
For an employer, it's important to be liked. If all people who work for you agree that you're a waste of space, there is a shared sentiment amongst the staff that you should be screwed over. This was definitely the case when I was hired, though I didn't notice that many of the veteran employees took money from the register to pay their coke dealer until later. After I found out about that, there were no more secrets, and I saw my co-workers snorting behind the bar while we were open.
On a busy Saturday, for example, we could make up to 10,000 Euros in cash. On those days, I would ask my friend—the bartender—for five beers to be served on the outside terrace. He would pour the drinks but didn't put the money into the register. At the end of the day, you'd ask yourself how many beers you had "failed" to record and you'd count the extra money you made in the bathroom.
I know it sounds terrible, but everyone did it so it didn't feel like stealing. If someone is so mean to their employees and pays so little, you take it upon yourself to make sure that you make enough money. Or at least these are the things we told ourselves to justify our behaviour.
One thing the owner did well was making sure that his staff was very versatile. He created a mixture of young and old servers and bartenders: the younger staff attracted students and tourists while the older employees had great relationships with locals.
I had a great time working there, but mostly because of the strange mixture of characters I encountered. During my four years as a server, the bar was my second home. I loved the regulars, the alcoholics who started drinking beer at 4 PM until they were all drunk. Like clockwork, they would be back the next day at the same time and start all over again. I knew the entire neighbourhood, and they knew me. After a while, it was like one big party all the time and I didn't see the sadness in it. I lost count of the number of nights I stayed at work until the cleaners came. Coke was involved on many occasions and I always drank a lot.
But in all the years that I worked there, nobody figured out what I was doing. The books weren't kept very well either. At some point, a counter was installed on the beer tap. An older co-worker left after that. She always gave everything away for free. It was bad. Sometimes on our nights off, we would go to the bar for drinks and insisted on paying our bar tab when we left, but she would never let us. The day that counter was installed, she quit.
Looking back, it was a very intense time in my life. I often wonder what my college years would have been like if I had worked somewhere else. There was a time when I stopped seeing my friends and spent all my time at the bar.
Do I feel guilty? Only when it comes to my body and the things that I did to it, but not about what I did to the owner.