Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments. In the latest installment, we speak to a former dishwasher at IKEA about the realities of cleaning up after everyone else, including you.
Pretty much everyone I know has had a horrible side job at one point or another during college. It was something you really didn't want to do but did anyway because you probably couldn't find anything better even if you tried. Some people get up at the crack of dawn on Sundays to work on a farm, while others spend their day off making sure someone's bouncy castle is germ-free. There's nothing wrong with that—it's an important step in your journey toward independence—and these experiences make for great party stories later on in life.
Unfortunately, I don't look back at my working days in college with a smile on my face. It's quite the opposite: They invoke feelings of horror and dread.
Until last year, I washed dishes two days a week for four years in the dish pit at IKEA. When I worked two days, or 18 hours, I sometimes worked ten-hour shifts, which included an hour-long break. It wasn't too bad, because in two days, I made the same amount that most of my friends had to work four days of work for. We weren't always open on Sundays, but when we were, my wage was doubled all day long. It was an amazing deal, and students in Belgium consider themselves lucky when they get a side job at IKEA because of it. The only downside is that you can't decide what department they put you in. I was the unlucky one who ended up doing the dishes.
The dish pit is the most depressing place in all of IKEA. There is one window, but it's up so high that you can never take a peek outside while you're working, so it's difficult to remember that there's a whole world out there that doesn't involve dishes. The only view you have is a white tiled wall that gets covered in food scraps and splattered sauce as the day progresses.
Scrubbing is the worst job of all. The person on scrubbing duty is in charge of getting the large griddles from the kitchen that were used for heating and cooking all of the food.
Everyone who works in the dish pit has his or her own task. One person is stationed at the head of the conveyor belt and takes hundreds of trays from the carts, empties them, and puts them on the belt. This is the most lonely job of all because there is a wall in between the carts and the rest of the kitchen. After the trays arrive in the kitchen through a hole in the wall, the dishes are systematically sorted. One person takes the glasses and cups, another the plates, the next the soup bowls, etc. The final item is cutlery, which is lifted by a magnet and put into a warm bin. While you're sorting dishes, you need to make sure that you swap the full bins for empty ones in time, and push all the full ones into the machines behind you. This requires constant speed and focus, because the conveyor belt never stops running.
Scrubbing is the worst job of all. The person on scrubbing duty is in charge of getting the large griddles from the kitchen that were used for heating and cooking all of the food. They expect you to clean one of those in about a minute, but they are usually covered in a thick layer of food. You need to scrub them with very hot water and the steam makes it hard to breathe. A griddle that was used for mashed potatoes isn't so bad, but one that was used to cook salmon is absolutely horrible.
The only thing that would make working at a conveyor belt bearable is being able to pass the time by talking to your co-workers, but the noise of the automated dishwashers and the moving belt itself make that nearly impossible. You can't even hear yourself think, let alone have a conversation. Apparently, there are loudspeakers in the top corners of the room, but in all of my time there, I never noticed any music. After a while, I couldn't stand the noise of the machines anymore, so I started singing at the top of my lungs. Whether my co-workers liked my voice really didn't matter to me because they couldn't hear me anyway.
Those Swedish meatballs have the perfect size and shape for throwing. I noticed very quickly that the dish pit is where fun goes to die.
When I first started the job, I tried to have some fun by spraying co-workers with water from the sinks, or starting up food fights. Those Swedish meatballs have the perfect size and shape for throwing. I noticed very quickly that the dish pit is where fun goes to die. Trying to have a good time only made my job harder, since the conveyor belts kept running and the dishes piled up.
One thing we did to escape the endless boredom was smoking weed. Nearly all of my coworkers were already high when they arrived to work. In the dish pit, it doesn't matter what you look like, and very little thinking is required. The job really didn't really require thinking or decision-making, so I would often party until the early hours and then head straight to work. I would snort some speed and get totally lost in the repetitive kitchen tasks. That was a dangerous routine.
The work in the dish pit at IKEA is really meant to be done by machines, but because these particular robots have not been invented, people have to do it. I could temporarily live with it because I only did it for two days a week. The rest of the time, I enjoyed being in college. It's hard to imagine the unhappiness of people who work in the dish pit full time.
This article originally appeared in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.