Millennials have apparently dragged Hooters to the guillotine—but aside from the contracting market for horny dads, the restaurant industry is booming. Fine-dining establishments from San Francisco to Little Rock are finding new lives as sinkholes for unbearably concentrated wealth—and rare sources of comfort and sanctuary for those of us staring down the barrel of an economy that’s completely, utterly fucked. As a result, restaurant service jobs have become ubiquitous: unless you grew up in a castle, you’ve probably had one at some point—or at least have friends who pay the bills slinging plates and pouring drinks.
Service workers are used to getting kicked around, but the industry’s explosive growth has made it hard for anyone with a shred of empathy (or less than six figures of income) to ignore the subtle politics of the kitchen-to-table pipeline. From dealing with coddled assholes to navigating sticky professional boundaries, front-of-house staffers spend days staring into social microcosms through tinted glass.
If you’re interested in the petri-dish dramas unfolding at the point of sale—or if you just want to learn how to order a martini without sounding like an asshole—then Brooklyn-based co-hosts Kelly Sullivan (a server and self-described “selective Francophile who loves their wine and socialism”) and Lillian DeVane (a bartender and comedian who has written for Reductress and others) are making media for you. FOH ( Front of House, or Fuck Outta Here, depending on your mood) is an independent new podcast shining a floodlight on the service industry.
The show’s audience has largely spread across NYC’s restaurant scene by word-of-mouth, but its appeal is hardly local. Kelly and Lillian swerve from industry news to anecdote-soaked analysis and segments on topics like the politics of customer-employee boundaries, the legacy of Prohibition, and how to (respectfully) get laid at a bar. The pair is liable to name-drop Du Bois in a class analysis of the tipping economy, but they’re also—without fail—completely fucking hilarious. It’s Chapo Trap House meets Kitchen Confidential, with a refreshingly female perspective.
“So many of my friends don’t work in the service industry, and I’m constantly shocked at people’s behavior,” Lillian told me over afternoon brunch at a sun-spackled Greenpoint tavern. “We all are in this industry, because we’re constantly in contact with people’s most base emotions and reactions.”
“Half of [the sustainability movement] is reliant on upselling stuff that poor people are already doing."
The podcast began as a guide (and was first imagined as a zine) on point-of-service etiquette and power dynamics, but soon grew into a release valve for an industry that lacks control over its representation. As Kelly put it: “The conversations that I have [about the service industry] in private are not the ones I hear in public. Both of us are political, but not humorless or extreme. Often when you read about restaurants, it’s either very intense or it’s just, like, ‘It’s just food!’ And I think there’s space for both.”
Lillian also lamented that waitstaff are too often portrayed as helpless, subservient—or as victims. “We should talk about assault and sexual harassment in the workplace,” she said, “but that’s the only thing I hear quoted from servers—how shitty it is. And it can be really shitty, but there are so many other perspectives and stories that we can talk about. It doesn’t have to suck being a waitress!”
In one episode, “Back to Business, Mr. Bond,” they riff on different cocktails and narrate imagined scenes of people ordering them. (The absinthe-drinker is an insufferable WWI nerd trying to support himself on homemade crafts; the scene of the Moscow Mule is a sticky college bar.) Another, “From Crime To Table,” dips into the true-crime genre to run through the secret histories of various foods. (The Mafia cuts most “extra virgin” Italian olive oil with cheap nut oils; a controversial, cult-like Korean religious movement runs a major portion of the US sushi trade.)
FOH were also well ahead of the curve on the back-and-forth plastic straw outrage cycle, going on cheeky tirades against the self-indulgent liberal feel-good-ism of the push to ban them as early as May. Two months later, the pair took a victory lap with a deeper segment on the issue—all while flexing a buoyant chemistry that betrays a combined 15 years of getting paid to shoot the shit with strangers. “Half of [the sustainability movement] is reliant on upselling stuff that poor people are already doing,” said Kelly in the late July episode. “Shit that people have been doing out of necessity for a long time—and then being like, ‘but are you doing it the right way?’”
Back in Greenpoint, Lillian expounded between sips of wine. “The restaurant industry is changing, and becoming a bigger part of people’s lives. It’s such a hidden, vast culture and experience. It’s important to understand the people that are in it.”
“I can make an apocalypse batch cocktail that’ll last months."
“And,” Kelly added, “when we completely run out of fresh water, restaurants are going to be the first thing out the door—so you better appreciate it while you can, you dummies!”
A low-hanging sunlight mingled with the scent of zested orange; a drained Old Fashioned; a knowing smile. It’s all a reminder to pay attention—but also not to take anything too fucking seriously.
“I can make an apocalypse batch cocktail that’ll last months,” offered Lillian. “It’s going to be great!”
FOH has been running since mid-May, with ~30–45 minute-long episodes coming out (almost) every Thursday. Their latest, “Hangover Pros,” is a great pregame listen on the dos and don’ts of the morning after.