Running a restaurant dining room on a busy evening is far more complicated than it may appear to a casual diner. The entire staff has to be a well-oiled machine, completing individual tasks for a common goal, to please the guest. It can easily be likened to a running a successful football team—if one aspect of the squad is slacking, the entire team will suffer.
If that’s true, then dishwashers are the offensive linemen, a key part of a winning offense that usually spends the entire game with a face full of turf (or in the case of dishwashers, half-eaten food) and gets little to no recognition unless they somehow fail to do their job correctly.
“I’ve been in all different parts of the restaurant, and I don’t think the dishwashers get enough credit,” Carl “Kenny” Ward says. A dishwasher at the PaperMoon Diner for more than nine years, Ward finally earned the rank of manager about five years ago.
A tall stocky dude, with giant, rough hands, Ward doesn’t exactly remember his time as a dishwasher fondly. “It’s a mess,” he says. “A lot of the dirty work, a lot of heavy lifting, bringing out clean glasses and plates, taking out the trash. We work the dishwashing machine all shift, and that thing gets hot, boy! That water’s about 140, 150 degrees. Some mornings we used to leave here smelling like straight garbage.”
No one eating or getting drunk or chilling in any restaurant ever really notices that stuff, though. And the rest of the staff rarely does either, until something goes wrong—the dishwashing machine breaks down or there are no clean cups available for the bar because the dishwasher needed a break midshift after scalding his hand on a hot frying pan.
“I remember one night I was working and the dishwasher machine broke,” says Langston Rice, a construction worker who spent more than a decade as a dishwasher at a high-volume Inner Harbor seafood joint. “We had to stop taking customers, and the whole place had to shut down.”
As much as it is a thankless job, many dishwashers operate with a baffling level of passion. It takes a certain type of person to rummage through five hours of trash for a child’s misplaced retainer, or haul racks of piping-hot glasses from the kitchen to the bar, or scrub a burnt-up roasting pan with steel wool amid the chaos of a frantic Saturday night for less money than the smart-ass server who ends up with all the tips at the end of the shift. But if they ever decided to slack, or quit, the rest the restaurant would crumble in their absence.
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