The Horrible Bosses of Kingston

Students reveal stories about terrible working conditions

The food service industry can be a tough place to work.
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I worked at one of Kingston’s most infamous restaurants, known for its tasty treats and above all, its terrible management. 

In my second year at Queen’s, I found myself in an uncomfortable situation. Between rent, utilities, Internet and overall living expenses, I felt the anxieties of a slim student budget. 

I made the decision to find a job and finally put my head and stomach at ease. Having only camp councilling and babysitting experience, I marched up and down Princess St. one September afternoon, determined to win someone over with my confidence and charm. 

The café I worked at served the people of Kingston for four years, bringing mouth-watering Instagram photos of desserts, homemade waffles and  elaborate espresso drinks. 

In my year and a half there, I saw everything from awkward first dates, to late night study sessions, parents visiting their children, and even a marriage proposal. 

It also brought me my first experience in the service industry. Within a week, I knew how to make a cappuccino, how to make food look appetizing and even how to charm my way to the highest tip amount. 

But I also learned that your bosses can make your life tough.

I worked for two older Middle-Eastern men, who were brothers, or cousins, or uncle and nephew — honestly, I still don’t really know; they never explained.

Regardless, it’s important to note that they spoke very minimal English.  I can’t tell you how many times I would get in trouble for doing something “wrong,” when in reality the task wasn’t explained properly. 

On one occasion, I left the air conditioning on when I was closing the restaurant. The next day, my managers were furious with me for letting it go all night. I recall them explicitly telling me to make sure it’s on. 

Turns out they mixed up the words “on” and “off.” They yelled at me and explained that it was because they didn’t speak English well enough.  

I’m the first to admit that I should have seen the warning signs from the beginning. Part of me did, but I swept it under the rug as I was in dying need of cash.

Only a couple days into my job did more unfortunate events occur.

The first thing I noticed was that the managers withheld my training pay. They informed me that I would train for eight hours at minimum wage. They also explained that not everyone lasted up to three months, so they would not pay us until we made it to that mark — sketchy. 

One of my co-workers, who had been employed there for a year and a half had yet to receive her training pay. The training was complicated to say the least. It consisted of barking orders and high expectations. 

It was my first weekend on the job when I got a call saying that the girl who was supposed to train me was “sick” — that’s code for “quit.”

That night I took a whole seven-hour shift, and I also closed down the place all by myself. I was the new girl and already, there was a ton of responsibility placed on my shoulders. 

I would like to say that I rose to the challenge and I knocked my managers off their feet, but it wasn’t pretty. 

Soon enough, I was not only expected to work the restaurant, but run it.

Given this responsibility, I’d like to pretend that I was the chosen one of all the new girls, but I quickly realized that there was a common pattern in the restaurant. 

Every night at about 8 p.m., the managers would come up to whoever was serving or in the kitchen. They would leave for the night and assign managerial duties to those who were there. 

Sometimes there were a few of us, but for the most part, two teenagers were left in charge of a whole two floors of a restaurant. 

While it was hard to manage this great responsibility, it was nice not having anyone breathe down our necks. We were our own bosses and we may have also eaten a waffle or two — a BIG no-no when the bosses were around.

One night, things got busier than usual. And did that stop them from leaving? No. On their way out the door, they mumbled something about putting a cake in the fridge after letting it thaw. Between serving, cleaning and running the joint, I completely forgot about the cake. It was hidden away behind the bar and I didn’t see it in my closing duties. 

When I got to work the next day, they told me how disappointed they were in me. They explained to me that they lost $70 from that cake and I would have to pay them back. At the end of the day, we negotiated me handing over my training pay, which I had yet to receive. To be honest, I was never expecting to get it anyway.

The café was also infamous for never being fully stocked. If we had 20 cakes on the menu, we would only have five in stock. If someone ordered a waffle, I would have to tell them to replace one or two of the toppings because we didn’t have it. I once made a pregnant woman cry when I told her we were out of our molten chocolate chip cookies. 

But if you really want to know the truth, you weren’t missing much. Those “homemade brownies” were actually crumbled up store-bought brownies. These guys were cheaper than cheap. 

One night after they’d left, the ice cream delivery people came (finally). I was excited to have stock, only to be told that we could have our next order only if we paid for the last two. Not so easy when you don’t know the accounts and the back office is locked. Doesn’t that also seem like something you should tell your staff before you leave for the night? Needless to say, I woke up my manager with a phone call and told him to come right away to pay the delivery. 

On other occasions, I was yelled at because the counters were streaky. How am I supposed to avoid making streaks when they refuse to buy soap? 

When I left to go home for the summer, I wanted to secure a job when I returned. When I asked them if I could get my job back, their response was, “If we’re still here.”

When I came back to Kingston in September with even more waitressing experience from the summer, I had a newfound confidence and hope that this year would be better than the last. 

I debated getting another waitressing job, but I figured why spend time getting to know another restaurant when I already knew this one? One night, two older gentlemen asked me how long I had been working at the restaurant. They were shocked to find out I was a part-time waitress looking for some cash. They said I looked like I was running the place. I just laughed and said, “You have no idea”.

Then I started to reach my breaking point. 

Everything that could go wrong did. The back fridges weren’t stocked.  The head office had shut down.  And, we ran out of toilet paper. 

Just when I was reaching my wits’ end, the inevitable happened. I started hearing rumors that they were shutting down and decided I would ask. I told them I would stay loyal and stick it out until the end. 

I asked for them to let me know when they were closing, so I could find another job. They reassured me that the restaurant was going strong. A week later, there was a note in the back room stating that the restaurant would be shutting down in two weeks. It was at that moment when I realized my misery was over, however, now I had to find a new job. 

But the café wasn’t the only restaurant in town with shocking management.

Erica Altomare, ConEd ’16, had a horrible experience working at a local restaurant and bar. She applied for a server position only to be demoted a couple weeks later — likely because the place was overstaffed. 

Shortly into her job, Altomare noticed that she wasn’t scheduled for three consecutive weeks. When she demanded an answer from management, they told her she was not the place’s “material.”

“Being [the restaurant’s] material was about having a party-girl magnetic style,” Altomare said — to use her manager's words.

Altomare’s workplace was a very superficial environment. 

“If you’re not looking your best, they can tell you to go to the washroom. They have straighteners in there and perfume. One of my friends went in and was told she looked like she was coming from the party, not going to the party,” Altomare said. 

There was even a strict dress code of how to wear your hair, how many pieces of jewelry to have, and there was a $65 Lululemon skirt that all servers had to purchase. 

“I probably lost more money working at this place than I did making it.”

Of course, most people see that work is a chore and start to feel animosity towards their bosses, but these two examples are the icing on the cake.

As I search for my next job, I want an employer who takes into account my best interests as well as wholeheartedly believes that the customers are as happy as the servers. 

I want to know more about my rights and be informed of what the Labour Board entitles me to as an employee. These experiences have given me a newfound mentality of where and when to draw the line.

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Corrections

January 16, 2016

The following article was edited to clarify that Altomare's comments about the "party-girl magnetic style" was a paraphrasing of her manager's words, not her own.

The Journal regrets the error.

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