116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Passion for the job keeps many in restaurant industry long term
IOWA CITY - Courtenay Bouvier is looking forward to the day she can say, 'Hi, I'm Dr. Bouvier, and I'll be your server this evening.”
Even when she finishes her Ph.D. in language, literacy and culture at the University of Iowa's College of Education, she doesn't plan to quit her job as a waitress at Iowa City's Motley Cow Cafe.
Bouvier, 42, has been working in the restaurant industry in one form or another since she was 15, when she got a job as a dishwasher at a fish restaurant in Connecticut.
At 19, she got her first serving job at a TGI Fridays, and she's been waiting tables ever since.
Though she's worked full time as an academic adviser at the UI for the past four years, Bouvier still takes Friday night shifts at the Motley Cow.
'The stability of a full-time job is pretty enticing, but I don't think I would be happy if the full-time job is all I did,” she said. 'Going to the Cow on Fridays is such a pleasure.
'There's something so incredibly wonderful about having the conversations I can have there.”
She also stays out of love for the food at the small, farm-to-table-focused eatery. Wanting to be able to afford to eat there was part of the reason she took the job in the first place, 15 years ago, after moving to Iowa City to attend the UI's non-fiction writing program.
She's far from alone in staying in the restaurant industry long term. According to a National Restaurant Association report released in August, seven out of 10 restaurant employees said they likely would continue working in the industry until they retired.
The report was based on a survey of 5,100 current and former restaurant employees and owners. The restaurant industry employees 13.5 million Americans and accounts for 142,800 jobs in Iowa - 9 percent of employment in the state, according the association.
Working through the ranks
Kurt Michael Friese opened Devotay, another downtown Iowa City restaurant, 18 years ago. He also edits Edible Iowa, a food-focused magazine.
Like Bouvier, he started in the industry while still a teenager - he lied about his age to get a dishwashing job at a pizza place. He said he's never wanted to work in any other line of business.
'It's a bit of an addiction. Once it gets in you, you tend to stick with it,” he said. 'People get as dedicated and geeky as they do about any other passionate hobby.”
His story, of working his way up from dishwashing to owning his own establishment, is common among local restaurateurs, he and others said. The National Restaurant Association report said 80 percent of restaurant owners started in entry-level industry jobs.
That's what James Adrian did. He is co-owner at Atlas, Basta and Jimmy Jack's Rib Shack - as well as chef at Atlas - all in Iowa City, but he started out scooping ice cream at a mom-and-pop diner.
When he enrolled at the University of Iowa, he worked as a server for UI Catering and then in the kitchen at the State Room, a now-closed restaurant that was housed in the Iowa Memorial Union.
He said he purposely stretched out his education, taking a few classes a semester, so he could continue the job, which was only available to UI students. Learning from the top-notch chefs who worked there refocused his goals - he had planned to become a history teacher.
Adrian said the local restaurant community is close-knit. Many of the owners, managers, chefs and other longtime employees know each other, and they sometimes collaborate.
'We borrowed a big pot from (downtown Iowa City restaurant) One Twenty Six last week. We are in competition with each other, but we always give and borrow,” he said. 'We are always there to help them out, and they help us out.”
To encourage that kind of collaboration, Friese recently started 'industry night” at Devotay. Every Tuesday, hospitality-industry employees can receive deep discounts.
He said he wants to give industry members a chance to socialize and talk shop when they're not working.
'There are many of us in staunch competition and some in cooperation, but we all know each other,” Friese said. 'Everyone either works for you or used to work for you.”
'It's absolutely possible to make a career and to make a great career,” he said. 'But it demands a level of passion that a lot of other jobs don't.”
For those not on the restaurant-owner or manager track as he and Adrian were, however, the industry can have its downside.
As much as Bouvier loves waitressing, her Motley Cow job lacked one key component - benefits, most importantly, health insurance. That's why she stopped doing it full time and took a job at the UI.
She also knows it's a job that will get more difficult with age.
'The amount of walking a server does is incredible. On a Saturday I feel like I performed some sort of elite athletic event,” she said. 'I don't remember it feeling that challenging when I was younger.”
Still, she said her co-workers and other members of the industry keep her going.
'They're a lot of very vital people, and people who tend to love food and wine,” she said. 'And, you know, that's really important to me.”