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COLUMN: Life lessons from working at a restaurant

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Everything I needed to know about life I learned at my uncle's restaurant.

It was my first real job.

Or should I say, "jobs."

Plural.

I washed dishes.

I waited tables.

I cleaned, restocked and picked up boxes of fish from Weyand Fisheries.

I filled navy blue ramekin after navy blue ramekin with jelly for the morning shift.

My uncle Charly opened Charly's on the River in Wyandotte, Michigan, when I was in high school. They decorated the place in a Great Lakes nautical theme and gingham-patterned tablecloths that sort of looked like Dorothy's dress from "The Wizard of Oz."

Through huge windows, customers could watch freighters navigating the Detroit River and see the Canadian shoreline beyond.

Virtually the entire staff was friends and family, and at times it felt like being on a sitcom, with special cameos of this uncle, that cousin or my Grandma Lou at random times.

We wore navy blue shirts with the Charly's sun logo in white, and in photos of family vacations and holidays from this era, it's almost a guarantee someone will be wearing one.

It was a club — a group working all in harness, shift after shift, with a common goal.

There, waiting on tables during the lunch rush, I learned about the importance of workflow, multitasking, being organized and monitoring. (I still have a deep fear that I somehow forgot to refill that Diet Coke at table C4.)

I learned that your success is directly dependent on being prepared. If someone forgot to make iced tea or you didn't slice the lemons on a hot day, you were in trouble.

I learned real-world math. Percentages. Sales tax. Money. I learned to calculate in my head on the fly. ​

Chris Coates

Chris Coates

I learned I did not like capers. No thanks. I learned a lot of people really like capers. And that was OK, too.

I learned that it was impossible to predict someone's generosity. Big tips came from all walks of life. So did little ones or none at all. Sometimes, I would think I had a terrible service and would get a huge tip. And the opposite, too.

I learned that people really want crispy bacon. This was for sure the most common breakfast request. They really want crispy bacon.

I learned that orange marmalade jam becomes very popular at a certain age. No one younger than maybe 70 ever wanted orange marmalade. I have no explanation for this.

Most of all, I learned to work hard from the hardest workers I've ever met.

Charly's closed a while ago.

And we moved on.

I learned that, too.

I still have a Charly's shirt. And although the sun logo is well faded, it's a reminder of that time.

The club lives on.

​Everything I needed to know about life I learned at my uncle's restaurant.


Chris Coates is the Central Illinois editor. Follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisCoates. 

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