I had many jobs as a kid: shoveling snow (business was good during Cleveland winters), mowing lawns, raking leaves, and delivering the weekly local newspaper (RIP Euclid Sun Journal).
Starting when I was nine, if I wasn't working one of these jobs, I was most likely working on my golf game. My parents bought a set of junior clubs for my ninth birthday, which I outgrew in a couple years. But as a family of seven living on a middle-manager's salary, I wasn't getting new, full-sized clubs, so I used my older brothers' hand-me-downs.
Bear with me – this isn't about golf.
I hit a point when I was 15 that I was serious about golf and wanted my own set of clubs. It's only slightly hyperbolic to say I lusted after the Titleist 990s. The satin finish. The stepped weight in the back cavity. The barber pole stripe on the hosel. They were (and still are) a thing of beauty.
My parents made it clear that if I wanted new clubs, I needed a job. Titleist irons aren’t cheap, and shoveling, raking, mowing, and delivering the Sun Journal wouldn't cut it.
My then-best friend Tim helped me get a job as a busboy at a local party center. It was of those places that hosts wedding receptions, birthdays, retirements, and baby showers. You've most likely been to one of them – fountain in front that only usually worked, squeaky gold doors, decorative maroon carpet, beige fabric hanging from the walls, an aluminum-bordered parquet dance floor, and a smoke smell so deeply embedded that it will never go away even when the building is demolished. We'll call it Bonetti's Party Center.
I thought I’d share a few lessons from my first real job at Bonetti's that have stuck with me.
Deal with Pain
Mr. Bonetti himself founded Bonetti's. Born in Italy after World War I, he immigrated to the US as a teenager. After working various foodservice jobs for a couple decades, he started Bonetti's Party Center.
By the time I worked there, Mr. Bonetti's three sons (poorly) ran the business, but Mr. Bonetti was still a fixture around the kitchen. His biggest pet peeve was how the "weak" busboys used water that was too cold to "get the pots a-really clean." The man's hands looked like aged leather, and I swear he could touch boiling water and not flinch. He would often check the water temperature, add more from the hot water tap, and tell you to keep washing.
The first time he did it, I almost cried the water was so hot. But eventually, the water temperature became manageable. I learned to deal with the pain.
Whether personally or professionally, there's often pain to deal with in life. Sometimes it's physical pain like the workouts to stay strong as we age or stepping on a kid's Lego. Other times it's emotional pain like losing loves ones or watching our kids lose their innocence. Understanding that life involves pain and learning to handle pain like Mr. Bonetti's hands handled near-boiling water is a cheat code.
We're Capable of More Than We Think
Bonetti's had a party room on the main floor for parties of a couple hundred people and a smaller room in the basement (the "garden level") for parties of up to 50 or 60.
It was common for both rooms to have parties at the same time, with both rooms at (or over) capacity. Both rooms ate around the same time, so we had to get 400 dinners out at once from one kitchen. Getting meals to the garden level meant stacking plates with metal covers in three stacks of five on a tray, then carrying them downstairs.
I was 15 and MAYBE weighed 130 pounds. Carrying 15 plates plus metal covers down a steep, narrow, greasy flight of stairs was not my idea of fun. And the Bonetti sons, with hundreds more meals to serve, weren't thrilled when someone dropped a single plate, let alone 15 of them.
I almost refused the first time Al Bonetti told me to start carrying trays to the garden level. But I sucked it up, savored what felt like my last few moments of life, and grabbed the tray.
My arms are shaky just thinking about it, but I never dropped a single plate. I could handle way more than I thought I could.
In a world of risk minimization and fear of looking stupid, how often do we avoid taking risks? And how often does life throw us something that we think is just too much? We can handle more than we think we can. We just need to take a deep breath, grab the tray precariously stacked with plates, and go for it.
While I dealt with people in earlier jobs – paper route collections come to mind – the job at Bonetti's was my first experience in the real world. Until then, my world mostly consisted of family, classmates at small Catholic schools, teammates, fellow junior golfers, and neighborhood friends. Most people in my world looked, thought, and acted like me.
At Bonetti's, I met people VERY different from me. Not only Mr. Bonetti and his sons, but also long-time bakers with serious anger issues, chain-smoking busboy managers who sold substances other than cigarettes, waitresses and bartenders known to... fraternize together... after parties shut down, and fellow busboys with juvenile records. Read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential for a taste of some of the personalities in foodservice.
It was a lot for a sheltered Catholic school kid, but it opened my eyes to how different people can be. I was only ever involved in one fight, and I learned to get along with almost everyone. Since Bonetti's, I've been called "Switzerland" in multiple jobs thanks to an ability to remain neutral in workplace conflict. I trace that back to working with my hands submerged in near-boiling water while talking to my manager chain-smoking Marlboro Reds and listening to Linkin Park at full volume.
Nail the Fundamentals
I've talked before about how my dad beat the concept of fundamentals into my head through his artful coaching in Little League. My time at Bonetti's further engrained the importance of nailing the basics.
It's hard to get people to show up for foodservice jobs, especially if you're picky enough to want them to be sober. Despite being young, I was able to earn more responsibility at Bonetti's just by showing up. I obeyed the dress code, followed through, and did my job (though I did help myself to too many baked goods when the angry baker wasn't looking).
And a couple decades later, I still believe in the importance of nailing the fundamentals. At work, show up on time, do your job, respect your coworkers, and refill the damn coffee pot if you empty it. At home, respect your spouse and kids, follow through on what you say you're going to, and take care of your responsibilities. And refill the damn coffee pot.
Move your body. Eat vegetables. Lay off the booze. Get good sleep. Put down the phone and pick up a book.
Nail the fundamentals. Simple but not easy.
Celebrate the Wins
Some days at Bonetti's had one smaller party, coworkers who showed up for their shifts, friendly diners, and beautiful weather to enjoy through the big windows that opened over the pots and pans station.
Other days had big parties with both rooms at capacity, an angry baker who was even angrier that he had to stay late, coworkers that no-call no-showed, bartenders whose wives found out about the waitresses, and demanding diners. I once had to step in as bartender and had a guest yell at me for not knowing how to make a martini. I was 16.
I learned early on to enjoy the days that went well. And because Bonetti's was known for amazing food, I learned to appreciate that I was always well-fed during a shift. I ate fresh, house-made bread by the loaf and had access to five-gallon buckets of house-made salad dressing. My mouth still waters when I think about dunking still-warm bread into the salad dressing.
We also got to eat leftover food. Bonetti's was known for their cavatelli and red sauce, and there were often trays left after parties. We would also get whatever other food was left like chicken piccata, beef tips, pulled pork, and the most buttery green beans you've ever had.
And surf and turf. I think I ate my life allotment of steak and lobster thanks to surf and turf days at Bonetti's.
Bonetti's taught me to celebrate my wins. We often lament when things don't go our way – we catch all the red lights, the barista messes up our coffee order, our kids misbehave, we botch a presentation at work.
How often do we appreciate, I mean really step back and appreciate, when things go right? We catch all the green lights, the latte art at the new coffeeshop is on point, our kids hug us out of nowhere, or we nail the presentation. Celebrate your wins, big and small.
Get Your Hands Dirty
On a given night at Bonetti's, each busboy was assigned a particular job. You might work the party floor delivering trays of food and collecting bus bins, or you may work in the back on the dishwashing machine or at the pots and pans station. By far the most disgusting, yet most character-building, job was working the scrape station.
The scrape station was the first stop for the bus bins from the party floors. You would grab a bus bin, scrape plates by hand into a trash can then stack them for the dishwasher racks, put glasses into the dishwasher racks, and empty anything else so the bus bins could go back out to the party floor.
It's hard to imagine what people would put on their plates or into a bus bin. There's the usual stuff like napkins and uneaten food, but also used Kleenex, chewed wads of tobacco, and dirty diapers. I even once found a tooth, but I'm not sure if it was real or fake (I told the waitress and she couldn't find its owner).
While you hopefully never have to find a stranger's tooth, whether getting in the dirt to play with your kids or jumping in to help with a work project, you sometimes just have to get your hands dirty.
Because when you do, and your new set of Titleist 990s arrive at the door, it's completely worth it.