Munchies

Working at an Ice Cream Shop Is a Lowkey Nightmare

Some people do cry over spilled milk.

by Bettina Makalintal
May 20 2019, 1:15pm

Photo: Indeed via Getty Images

When you decide to scoop ice cream for ten dollars an hour, you expect a certain amount of drudgery: crying children, spilled milk, cleaning the bathroom after hundreds of customers with varying levels of unacknowledged dairy intolerance. You generally, however, don't expect having to pick up an actual, literal human poop—something we once had to do after pissing off two busking crust punks, whom we'd asked to please move from the shop's crowded doorway.

Working at an ice cream shop sounds fun. If you’re 20, like I was, and you want to mess around with a bunch of people who are also 20, while you eat free ice cream and make the minimum wage plus cash tips, it is. But beyond the discounted desserts and bragging rights, the reality isn't glamorous—or anywhere near as easy—as simply scooping ice cream.

To be fair, that's the case for most jobs in the service industry. Still, of the ones I've worked, including being a cashier at Walmart, the people at the ice cream shop always felt the most punishing. You think: "It's ice cream, can people really be too unhappy?" The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

When you work at a local institution, you get a lot of customers. My former workplace is the busiest little ice cream shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, part of local lore for the hordes of start-up bros at MIT and for the hunky rowers in town for Head of the Charles. It's a place where the line goes down the block on most nice days and even some of the bad ones.

A lot of it was good. Most people were pretty nice; some regulars felt like friends. My coworkers, for the most part, were lovely, and my bosses treated me like family. The space felt like a true piece of home in my adopted city. But the hard stuff was eye-opening.

For four years, long days of sprawling lines, dripping ice cream, and late-night mopping of sticky floors were my norm. Some days, it felt like everything went wrong. The air conditioning would break when it was 95 degrees, or right at 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday, the instant everyone starts to mosey out of dinner. Someone would call out unexpectedly; someone else would inevitably spill milk water all over the place; the trash bag would rip as I tried to heave it into the dumpster. The grease trap would go haywire, since only so much cream can go down the drain before the pipes revolt, sending reeking clouds through the air.

With those long lines came not just high expectations but also high tensions, and more constant than the technical malfunctions was the drama, frustration, and sometimes even cruelty from customers. After enough time in the service industry, you learn to recognize the cues of customers who think less of you for it: the barking tone, the refusal to make eye contact, the way some people just throw the money at you.

I learned to expect and shrug off the awkward moments. First dates, for example, announced themselves loudly because neither party knows who's handing over the card at the register, and I'd wait for groups to get through lighthearted arguments over who's going to foot the bill this time.

More innocuous but still frustrating was the frequent lack of common sense and entitlement. "How long will the line be in half an hour?" people would ask at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday, as though we were scoop-wielding soothsayers; I learned to never answer that question after unhappy customers berated me for inaccurate guidance well over half an hour later. Once, someone asked if we could pick the chocolate chips out of their chocolate chip ice cream. There were the people who demanded refunds after their ice cream cakes melted, even though they hadn't put them in the freezer. There were the people who'd knock angrily on the windows pleading for ice cream, even after the store had clearly closed.

Like the crust punk poopers, there was the more flashy drama: the unsteady drunk men who'd stumble in late at night yelling or rambling; the tip jar thieves; the very angry woman who yelled at me to pull expired whipped cream from the trash (I didn't), because it was Fat Tuesday and she was swearing off dairy for Lent. I never expected the couples who were teary-eyed and mid-argument and wouldn't speak to each other, or me, at the register, or the ones who just threw me right into it—once, a man kept dogging me to guess how old his partner was, and whether it compared to how she looked (I also didn't do that).

With 32 flavors on the board at a time, and more in circulation, the reality was that sometimes we ran out of the specific ones people wanted. That spurred a lot of freak-outs, most of the time from grown adults, who couldn't handle that we had espresso ice cream, but not coffee ice cream. Often, it was just that: someone distraught that they couldn't get their way. But sometimes it was more loaded. A few times, people were upset that a flavor had run out, and it wasn't for them but for a friend in the hospital, they told me, or they were really sick. Other times, people said they wanted that flavor in someone's memory. I truly hope all of those weren't scams.

People rarely got mad when they stopped in for their morning coffee or their breakfast croissants; ice cream had a weight of its own. As most of us were probably told as children, ice cream isn't a meal. I think that, for a lot of people, that gives ice cream more symbolism than a meal might hold. Even if it's celebratory, a meal is about necessity: everyone has to eat at some point.

But not much more than sugar and fat, the point of ice cream is pleasure. Instead of sustenance, it serves as a reward, celebration, or even a balm. In times of stress, ice cream soothes; in times of happiness, it commemorates; and being the person who provides it puts you in the middle of all of those things. When you can't create the exact experience each person needs, it's easy to get on people's bad sides, and the miserable humidity of summer, I'm sure, never helped the situation.

Two years out of it, I'm still a little averse to going to ice cream shops. The lines, to me, are never worth it, and I can't help but wonder when the teenagers behind the register last did a deep-clean of the soft serve machine. But if I do, I'm nice to the point of apologetic, and I always, always put a few dollars in the tip jar—that kid behind the counter deserves it.