There is an invisible force in almost every restaurant that magically delivers your food. If you've overlooked it, you're probably too busy staring at your cellphone. No, David Blaine is not involved. This ghost-like soul floats throughout the course of your meal to deliver and to describe every last component of whatever foam or microgreen garnished dish you're about to consume. Without this person—the food runner—your dining experience wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable.
Often confused for busboys and bar backs, these employees are the second pair of eyes to the chefs, a job role that requires quickly assessing if there's a rogue booger on the plate or a missing sprinkle of black pepper. I spoke to one food runner who lied his way into his job position by Googling how to accurately pull off all that's needed in this role. Pretty ballsy.
Male. 30. Food Runner at a popular restaurant in downtown NYC.
Where did you grow up? I grew up in Brooklyn, but my family is from Mexico. I came to the US as a five year old. I still am an immigrant but I got my EAD card, and that's what permits me to work here legally.
Did food play a big role in your childhood? I grew up pretty poor. When my family first got here, my brother and I used to collect cans in the morning before we'd go to school. Each of us only owned about two pairs of pants and two shirts, so food didn't really play a big role. We'd only eat things like beans mixed with sour cream and cheese, and that would be it. The place where we'd eat the most was actually at our elementary school. Food wasn't really a big part of our lives.
Why did you start working in the food industry? I responded to an ad on Craigslist for a busboy but I only lasted about a week. I didn't have any prior restaurant experience. I just Googled what busboys do and when I got to the interview, I said I already knew how to do everything. I mean, it didn't seem like a hard job to do, but then when I started, I didn't know it would be so labor intensive. And I wasn't just working as a busboy—I was also helping out the bartender, like a barback, as well.
But you literally had one week of experience working in a restaurant. How did you transition from being a busboy to a server so quickly? The restaurant didn't know I had no experience. I told them I knew how to be a server just from watching the servers from my first job. Back then, I would only see them taking orders, so I assumed that was the whole job. I also said in the interview that I knew how to use the computer systems because I had Googled "the most frequently used P.O.S. systems." The manager decided to give me a chance, and I was able to get the hang of things after a while.
Thank god for the internet. That's a bit risky. I thought that if I messed up a lot of orders and got fired, at least I would've had that limited amount of experience. And eventually all of that would build up to something. After three weeks of serving, the restaurant wanted to make me a bartender, too. But as a bartender, I was getting out of work past 2 AM and wasn't making that much money. Plus, I was leaving work hammered as well. Almost the entire staff there was Mexican too, so after work we'd all say that we're only having two drinks. But it was never only two drinks. It was always more like four to six.
Then how did you become a food runner? I eventually moved on from that place and started working in a different restaurant that was bigger. I started working there as a busboy, but some of the other guys I worked with didn't speak English very well and an opportunity popped up to do it.
And what did you think about it? It was really hard. There was one time that I was trying to carry three desserts at once, but I didn't know how to hold it correctly. And then at that very moment, the owner of the restaurant walked into the kitchen and I ended up dropping everything. He started yelling at me because it was ice cream and ended up all over my uniform. Then he told me to go get cleaned up, and when I came back upstairs, he took the time to personally show me how to carry three plates.
What exactly, does a food runner do? Food runners need to be able to hold at least three plates at once. They also need to know all of the ingredients in every dish just in case someone has an allergy. Also, they're like the chef's second set of eyes, so paying close attention to the plating is important. If an ingredient or something is missing from the dish or doesn't appear right, then you can ask the chef if everything looks alright. The second time he sees the dish, he'll look at it differently and be able to fix it before it reaches the customer.
Are there other things that you personally like about working in the industry? I do. I like food in general now. I had to start going out to eat just to develop a palate. Before, when people would taste wine and say, "Oh I can taste the apples, it's tart and tastes like apricot," I didn't really get that. I guess I had to start drinking more wine and had to develop a better palate, eating everywhere as much as possible. I also dine out more frequently now.
Do you feel like working in this industry has changed your relationship with food? Definitely. I'm always looking for more flavors as opposed to before, when I wouldn't ever savor anything. I would just eat.
As a food runner, what are some things that customers do that really piss you off? When customers have their cellphones just sitting on the table, especially if it's a small table, that's pretty annoying. Or when diners don't really pay attention to the runner when they're dropping their food at the table. I'll be standing there and customers will be texting or trying to have a conversation over me as I'm trying to tell them the dish's drop line. And those are the people when as soon as I'm finished and walk away from their table, I can hear them say to their friends, "I wasn't paying attention. What did he say?" Or they'll call me right back over to ask questions about the dish. The hardest part of being a server, though, is having tough skin and the nerve to deal with people's bullshit.
Do you think food runners get the respect that they deserve? Since most customers don't know what a food runner is, they always just think I'm a busboy.
Oof. Thanks for talking to me.