Jess Brent

I made a big deal about leaving the service industry by the time I turned 30. 

And I did it. I left the beer soaked night shifts behind and I got a real job – a nine-to-five desk job.

But here I am, now age 37, and I’m following a wiry little woman named Mary Beth around a dark, velvety wine bar ringed with rope lights. Mary Beth moves with the speed and intensity of someone who has possibly dabbled in meth. We’re the same age. Both of us were formerly employed by McNellie’s, a no-frills Irish pub that flourished into an interstate restaurant group based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but we worked at different locations, at different times, in different positions. At McNellie’s, only service industry lifers get promoted to management. If the restaurant leadership smells ambition on you, say you’re pursuing a degree, you stay at the bottom. Mary Beth managed. I stayed at the bottom. 

We stop at the well, the bar-side servers’ station where bartenders pass drinks to waiters, and Mary Beth taps through a touch-screen computer showing me around Aloha, the point of sale system. I’m familiar with it. Mary Beth is excited to have someone else at the wine bar who shares her level of academic achievement. She has a master’s, obtained through an online program, in something like Nutritional Arts which, she tells me, allows her to provide professional assistance to customers trying to decide between the bruschetta and the bisque. I will find that she primarily uses her degree to dispense well-meaning advice to customers and kitchen staff about the merits, or lack thereof, of vaccines.

Mary Beth hands me an apron and leads me through the swinging door to the kitchen. I’m immediately assaulted by the smell of grease, detergents, and steamy food waste. 

My mother always warned me about food service. It’s gross, she said, with no elaboration. I have to assume she was referring to the back of house operations, where food departs as a garnished meal and returns as trash. It’s been seven years since I set foot in a commercial kitchen and the signature smell – wilted lettuce and wet bread – triggers strong feelings of regret. What am I doing here? Until recently, I could be found behind a desk, or at the helm of meetings attended by community leaders. I could be found in the chambers of City Hall, in meetings with City Councilors. I’m sincerely hoping no one finds me popping out of this slick-floored kitchen balancing app plates and rolled silverware in my arms.

While Mary Beth goes over the kitchen’s features and functionalities – scrape plates here, stack dirty dishes here, soak silver here, run your own food out, don’t forget to pull your tickets – I unfold my new apron, press it across my belly and tie the strings behind my back. I run my hands over the starchy, tri-pocketed front. Muscle memory sends a hand into the right pocket, where I will store a check presenter as soon as I find one, and my left hand into the left pocket, where I will store pens. With that motion, my mind floods with details of a daily life long forgotten. The sound my apron made as I sprinted up and down the pub stairs – loose change, pens, a phone rattling against my thighs. Endlessly digging into my apron with both hands, searching for lip gloss, a quarter, a pen. A check presenter so thick with cash and credit card slips that it tested the limits of the right-hand pocket. My old apron wasn’t starchy and new like this one. It hung heavy on my hips, the seams compromised. It had a hard earned patina of grease, ranch dressing, and Guinness Stout. For six years, my apron was either tied around my waist or jammed into my purse. It never left my side. I threw that apron in the trash seven years ago, certain that my retirement from the service industry was final. 

But now I’m back.


My mother warned me about food service but she sent the wrong message. She told me it was gross, which I took to mean lowly, but what she should have said was: It’s fun and it pays well and you might find it hard to leave.

In high school, my first job was at a Barnes and Noble bookstore. When I cross-trained ever so briefly in the adjacent cafe, my mother was quick to remind me that even beverage service was beneath me. 

“Ew, no, you don’t want to work with food,” she said. “Stick to books.”

I tried to follow her advice. I didn’t return to the cafe. I worked as a bookseller through college then moved to Los Angeles for a job with a non-profit. When I struggled to make ends meet, I picked up odd jobs. I babysat. I organized a rich lady’s home office while she laid in bed. I went so far as to work as a stripper at a divey bikini club but I did not work in food service. Not until well after college, after I’d been in L.A. for a few years, after I moved back to Oklahoma on a romantic whim and found myself in a quasi-volunteer position at a nonprofit clinic. Only then, did I first tie an apron around my waist. 

It started as a side gig – two weekend shifts at McNellie’s. But my job at the clinic was just a one-year contract and when it came to an end I wasn’t sure what to do next.

So I waited. 

I waited at McNellie’s.

I waited for a year. Two years. Three…

McNellie’s revolved around St. Patrick’s Day. On the wood paneled wall between the servers’ well and the wait station a digital clock counted down the months, days, minutes, and seconds until St. Patrick’s Day. I stood in the well and watched the beer-fueled holiday circle around year after year. It was our biggest day, an enormous street party. We toasted with a pint of Guinness at nine in the morning, then worked as hard as we partied for 18 hours straight. At the end of the night we sat upstairs in a haze of smoke and organized our cash into stacks of hundreds. Each year I thought would be my last. Then I would spend another 365 days watching the clock run down while I waited for beer in the well.

‘Waiting’ is an accurate term for what servers do. We wait for the rush, bracing for impact. We wait for plates to come up in the window, exchanging colorful comments with the back-of-the-house staff. We wait for our customers to leave so we can turn their tables, urging them along with an impatient-yet-perky: “Can I get you anything else?” We wait to get cut at the end of the night, announcing within earshot of the manager: “My last table is tabbing out!” The little lulls between the action are the sweet spots where we carve out camaraderie.

Huddled around the host stand at the beginning of a shift, we check in with each other, discuss our kids, our classes, our relationships. In the heat of a hectic night, we respond to cries for help: “I’m in the weeds, can someone run my drinks to 22?!” Rolling silverware at the end of the night, we debrief about money we made and bills to pay. 

At McNellie’s, we were a crew of mostly women, around 20 of us, and, with few exceptions, we were supportive and caring of each other. We loved the pub and the people who ran it. We loved each other. When I had major surgery a full decade after I left, after we’d all left, it was my fellow pub waitresses who organized a meal train and carried plates full of food through my door every day for a month. 


A few years into my tenure at the pub, I enrolled in graduate school. I knew it would be hard to leave the service industry so I made a strategic move in order to wean myself off. When the McNellie’s Group opened a fine dining establishment, I moved to the new restaurant fully expecting to hate it. As a pub waitress, I dressed casually and served casually. At The Tavern, I had to wear ill-fitting oxford shirts and tights under my skirts. I suffered over laborious craft cocktails behind the bar and struggled to remember whether to serve plates from the right and pull from the left. 

Once I graduated, I transitioned seamlessly from an internship to a full-time position as a city planner. I resisted the temptation to keep one or two shifts a week for the easy cash flow. Now that I had the big kid job, I felt it should stand alone as my sole focus and source of income.

I was 29 and half when I put in my notice. 

I was excited about my career. I took pride in my work and in my status as a professional. I met interesting people, and together we came up with interesting ideas and solutions to problems. But I soon felt my enthusiasm dwindle. It had been hard running around a pub for eight-hour shifts – I would leave with a body aching for bed. But it was arguably harder to stare at a computer for eight hours a day. I would leave with a bloated belly and fuzzy mind.

At the pub, there was never a question of what to do with my time, only the question of how to do everything as efficiently as possible. At the office, as long as I was staring at the computer in front of me it seemed like I was working. 

At the pub, I watched years fly by on a St. Patrick’s day clock. On my desktop computer, I watched each minute trickle by.

At 5 o’clock I would burst out the revolving doors of our office building into the fresh air, free for the last remaining hours of the day. My freedom was hampered, somewhat, by the fact that my paycheck had to be spread out in a thin layer across the entire month. 


A series of things happened over the next seven years. In classic millennial style, I quit my city planning job after a couple of years and left the country in pursuit of adventure. When I came back, my partner and I started a small side business and collected a handful of children. I continued trying to lean into the nine-to-five managerial class. I served as the executive director of an economic development non-profit for a few years. Then I took a position at a non-profit co-working space called “36 Degrees North: Tulsa’s Basecamp for Entrepreneurs.” I was hired to serve as the Resource Manager and tasked, specifically, with launching a mentor program for our co-working members.

36 Degrees North was the hippest place I had ever worked and, at the age of 36, I was the oldest person on our ‘team.’ I was Microsoft Office and filing cabinets. They were Asana, Slack, and Google Drive. There, everyone toted their Macbooks around to meetings. The first time I had to present information to our team, I distributed printouts for everyone to review. They looked at the copies warily, like they had never seen paper before. Conversations were peppered with words like “intentional,” “impactful,” and “culture.” We spent a lot of time and effort researching complex, tech-heavy solutions for simple problems.

While I worked on forcing resources upon a group of entrepreneurs who mostly just wanted to be left alone, our Executive Director, Dustin, took a deep dive into organizational dynamics. He was an intelligent and gentle leader, but often overly-cerebral and indecisive. Among the decisions he seemed unsure of were how to execute a mentor program and whether he needed a Resource Manager to do it.

I was let go the day before my mentor program launched, only eight months after I was hired. 

Losing my job was a huge blow to my ego but I had plenty of connections I could have called upon for a chance to bounce back. I could have easily slid back into a nine-to-five desk job doing interesting, if abstract, work. The traditional 40-hour-a-week work cycle had been a strain on our family though. When I called my partner from my car to tell her I’d been laid off, hot, humiliating tears sprayed from my face. It was the middle of the summer and, on the other end of the phone, she was carting some combination of our four children between activities. She had a full time job at the community college but her flexible schedule meant that the care and transport of children often fell on her shoulders. She was sympathetic to my hysteria for no more than two minutes before revealing her true feelings:

“I’m so excited,” she said. “Now you can help me with all these kids.”

Six months later, with my business-running, child-having lifestyle, and unemployment benefits running out, I needed a job that would give me the most amount of money in exchange for the least amount of commitment. 

And that’s how I ended up following Mary Beth around this velvety wine bar at the age of 37. 

I have a lot of feelings about this career change, the dominant emotion being shame. Shame and fear that someone I know professionally, a chamber of commerce executive perhaps, will find me here peddling rosé and cheap cheese boards.  I’ve clearly regressed in life and that’s why I picked this establishment – because it’s buried deep in a bougie strip mall near the suburbs and I know for certain I will not find a single person I know here.

The drive is long, the money turns out to be terrible, and my co-workers lack both teeth and a basic level of service etiquette. I stand in the well for an entire winter watching my bartender, Alex, devour entire entrees in full view of his customers. I stand in the well impatiently waiting for Alex to return from his fifth smoke break and pour my wine. I stand in the well and watch the heavy wood doors, waiting for customers to breeze through with a cold gust of night air. 

I hate every second of my job at the wine bar. 

But as I go through the motions of each shift – tapping the Aloha screen to check the time, fiddling with the wine key in my apron pocket, popping maraschino cherries in my mouth to stave off hunger – memories of McNellie’s flash through my mind and those memories were glowed with nostalgia for better a time. The service industry had been good to me. Sure, my years at the pub were a wild ride that could be dismissed as a delayed adolescence. True, I bounced around town like a loose cannon but, at the same time, I had my shit together in a lot of ways that didn’t hold together once I got my real job. As a waitress, I always showed up to work on time ready to work. Aside from the drinking, I took good care of myself. I went to yoga. I made myself a healthy breakfast every morning. I paid my bills on time. I bought a house while waiting tables. I paid extra on the mortgage every month. I had a savings account. With money in it.

I look back and I realize that the most financially stable and professionally satisfied I have ever been as an independent adult was during my tenure as a waitress at an Irish pub.


One night in early spring, I meet my mom and dad for dinner at an Italian restaurant. While we soak up vinegar and olive oil with our cheesy bread, I work up the nerve to come out to my parents. They know I was let go from the co-working space but I haven’t provided a full update of my employment status in many months. With no prospect of returning to white collar work any time soon, I decide it’s time to own it. I tell them I got a job at a wine bar. I’m a waitress again.

My parents raised my brother and I in the comfort and security of the suburban middle class. I felt that I was born and bred for white collar work even though my extended family was made up entirely of farmers, truck drivers, and used car salesmen. My parents were first generation college graduates who did the hard work of lifting themselves into the middle class. They picked careers. They stuck with them. College was mandatory for my brother and me; success was expected. Yet we’ve both floundered and failed to find professional footing. I thought maintaining middle class status would be easy.  I thought I would be able to do meaningful work and also afford to pay my bills. I thought meaningful work meant “making a difference” on large scale issues like poverty, women’s rights, and economic development. I thought philosophy would be a useful undergraduate degree and was frustrated when I didn’t find any job descriptions listing “philosopher” as a desirable trait.

Though my parents have not been known to criticize my life choices (they care less about salary and more about whether or not I have health insurance) while we wait for our pasta I launch a heartfelt defense of the service industry. I share my recent bittersweet epiphany, explain how working at McNellie’s was the only time I’ve felt financially secure.

“I don’t know though,” I sigh and look down at my app plate, tear at a piece of bread. “I still feel like I should have a real job.” 

My mom takes a sip of her wine and thinks about it.

“If you do the work and they pay you, it’s a real job,” she says.