At least by appearance, the restaurant world is populated by plenty of young people. Order a sandwich at the counter. Ask the waitress for more ketchup. Order another beer from the bar.

Is it possible that all these people spent part of the Reagan administration watching cartoons, or don’t remember it at all?

Yes.

When the Restaurant Opportunity Center of Maine released a report on the state’s restaurant industry in February, the big splash was wages and benefits. But if the only thing taken away from that hefty document is the need for better pay, that misses a key point: Most workers who need better wages are younger than 44, with a big chunk younger than 25.

Not only does the state — if the report, at 525 people surveyed, is to be believed — have restaurant workers living below the federal poverty line, they’re the work force of tomorrow.

Who are these people and why are they choosing to work dizzying hours for low pay and no hint of benefits?

They’re people like Lynn Walker, for starters. Walker, 23, is a waitress at Duffy’s Tavern & Grill in Kennebunk. She started young and learned from the best after becoming a bus girl at age 14 in a restaurant where her mother was waitressing.

The thing with restaurant work is that it stuck, and it suited a need for in-between work or, on-the-verge-of-making-new-plans work. It offers prime conditions for young workers.

”I see people of all ages,” she said. ”But I do see a lot of young people coming in.”

And there are plenty of jobs, Walker said, thanks to Maine’s heavy tourist traffic. Once you’ve lured busloads of French Canadians and others to Maine, you gotta feed them.

Problem is, it’s not exactly the most lucrative work — though under the right circumstances, it can be.

”I think the wages are pretty low,” she said. ”When I started working in Maine in 2004, I was getting $2.73 an hour. Now I’m making $3.76 an hour,” she said. Of course, once you factor in tips, the take-home is not as thin.

But for Walker, waiting tables is a step toward something else. She’s hoping it’s a career in the military.

”I’ve been doing it for nine years, almost 10,” she said. ”It’s a way to make good money while in school and put money aside. I couldn’t do it for the rest of my life.”

There are the transients, the lifers and those in short-order limbo, when a quick stint waiting tables turns into something longer.

Claire Guyer hopes to go to grad school to study arts administration or dramaturgy, but for the moment she’s working as a waitress at Silly’s in Portland.

”For now it’s a wonderful way to be flexible and still pursue the stuff I want to do outside of work,” said Guyer, 23.

The truth is restaurant work is not hard to slide into, she said. It’s something that can be quick to learn and you can take with you anywhere. Guyer has previously worked at the Island Inn on Monhegan Island and at Borealis Bread.

But aside from that, it can also just be fun. In the right environment, with the right people, you enjoy yourself just like any other job, she said. Guyer said she likes meeting people and trying new things, so restaurant work is a good fit.

”It’s theater that is happening super, super fast. So fast you can’t talk about it or plan it,” she said.

At 27, Carolyn Laroche is almost a vet like Walker. Through high school and college until today, she’s got at least a decade in kitchens, behind counters, serving drinks, washing dishes and more.

”I know that for a lot of people in our generation, they went to college for one thing. It didn’t work out how they wanted and they’re doing the waiting-tables thing while figuring out what the next step is,” said Laroche, a waitress at the Lion’s Pride in Brunswick.

The flexibility of a restaurant job is not something that’s easy to give up, she said. Days wide open and a chance to pick up five to 10 hours of work with money you can take home.

”The attractiveness of the restaurant business is the hours,” she said. ”It’s convenient, you can have lives. A lot of people can earn in three or four nights more than what you would earn during a 40-hour-a-week job.”

Of course, that also means grinding. Weekends, holidays, vacations? Another big shift. Family time? Precious, Laroche said.

And yes, there is the pain. ”Every waitress or bartender has a part of their body that hurts,” she said.

Ah yes, health care. Another point in the restaurant center report that Maine needs to fix. Laroche said she absolutely believes restaurant workers need access to health care. But she also thinks everyone needs better access to health care. The issue, at least in restaurants, is costs, she said.

As someone who enjoys working in the hospitality industry — who treasures the idea of owning a place some day — she can see that costs of health insurance can be high for a business. The answers, she said, are not easy to come by.

Regardless, restaurants keep going. And thanks to a stream of people — be they 16-year-olds saving for a car or laid-off mill workers — who are always ready to work in or around a kitchen, business doesn’t stop.

”Some are in it for a lifetime and happy, others are trying to figure out what to do next,” Laroche said.

 

Staff Writer Justin Ellis can be contacted at 791-6380. See his blog at: www.pressherald.com