By Allyson Larcom '17
When my best friend and I were hired together as waitresses for the brand-new Mediterranean-inspired restaurant in Salt Lake City, Gusto!, we were fairly certain it was going to be the best summer of our lives. We imagined exchanging banter as we waited on regulars, making sandwiches while talking about our lives at home, and earning an extra dollar or two by winking at the right people. We were hired on the spot, without the owner so much as glancing at our resumes.
That really should’ve been the first sign.
The next day, I arrived at 9AM to an utterly empty restaurant. I was introduced to Drew. Drew was a lanky, blond young man with his own name tattooed at the junction between his shoulder and neck and a perpetual scab between his collarbones. Drew made it immediately apparent that he was a vitriolic misogynistic, racist homophobe and that he was high on horse tranquilizers most of the time. Drew worked maintenance constantly. It was like he never left Gusto!.
After my brief, unpleasant introduction to Neck-Scab Drew, I was given a crash-course on my waitressing duties by Tiffany. Tiffany, an overbearingly motherly woman of around sixty who wore exclusively too-short dresses from Forever 21, had a famously grating, scratchy voice, and she referred to my best friend and me as her “children now.” The “lunch rush” consisted of about two couples at window seats. I followed after Tiffany as she took orders, returned to the kitchen, and began preparing the meals by herself—no hairnet necessary.
“Where are the cooks?” I asked, concerned that they might not have made it today. Tiffany looked at me, head tilted to the side.
“There are no cooks.”
“There are. No. Cooks,” she repeated, slower. “We make all the food here.”
I blinked. “Oh. I don’t have a food handler’s permit, though.”
“Eh.” She swiped my worry away with a wave of her be-gloved hand. “Get it in your own time. It’s not that important.”
I was pretty sure it was that important, but she was my supervisor, so I believed her. The realization dawned on me that I had been hired not only as a waitress, but also a cook and barista. Never mind that I was only being paid for one of those jobs. I was too new on the job to feel bitter towards the Gusto! establishment yet, but something like it wheedled my heart.
Weeks went by. I started bringing my laptop to the shifts I didn’t share with my friend, since the restaurant went long hours without a soul entering the doors. I wrote most of my novel. The health inspectors came once, claiming they’d received complaints about a person living in the basement of the restaurant. I told them that that wasn’t true. They came back, a second, a third time. There was no one living in the basement; there couldn’t be. Who could possibly be living in the basement? But at least my lack of food handler’s permit was the least of their concerns.
One bright, shining moment sticks out to me from the early haze of listless days: A beautiful girl, with short hair and freckles, giving me her number but forgetting to give me her name. I was too nervous to ever text her, but Tiffany started giving me knowing looks after that. From that moment on, any time a woman between the ages of eighteen and thirty walked into the restaurant, Tiffany would make a joke. Her jokes never landed.
It went unspoken amongst the staff that Gusto! was failing financially. Another friend of mine started coming in regularly, helping with barista duties during my shifts without asking for payment. Tiffany referred to this friend as my girlfriend.
“Tiffany, Sonia and I aren’t girlfriends,” I explained, finally grown exasperated with the unfunny lesbian jokes (not to mention the fact that I’m not a lesbian—but I figured Tiffany probably wouldn’t have understood what bisexual meant anyway). Tiffany paused.
“So you’re single then?”
Tiffany laughed, boisterous and wheezing. “Well, don’t look at me!”
I narrowed my eyes at the plush tiger head over the owner’s office.
“Although,” she continued to wheeze, “I bet you don’t want any of these powdered milk jugs.”
She all but shoved her boobs out of the little black Forever 21 dress.
“…I think I need to slice some more tomatoes.” I hurried into the back to the sound of Tiffany continuing to laugh and wheeze.
The health inspectors came back again—yet another report of someone living in the basement. Tiffany was sure someone was out to sabotage us—what kind of outrageous report! As for myself, I was beginning to wonder why it was Neck-Scab Drew was always there.
More weeks went by. Another waiter and I failed at making an omelet one morning when Tiffany was not there to instruct us. I started making avocado toast for myself with the overripe avocados that were too brown to serve to customers. The second of our three managers adopted a dachshund puppy and brought it to work several times (another Health Code violation, but once again, hardly the least of our Health Code concerns). One more moment is distinct from the rest in my memories: alone in the restaurant with Neck-Scab Drew—Drew threatening to stab our third manager Jorge, who was almost never there, in the parking lot—Drew telling me he’d stab me too if I tried to tell anyone. The next time there were multiple people in the building, I rushed to Tiffany with my account. Drew was immediately fired.
“Where am I supposed to live?” I remember him asking as Tiffany gave him the hard news out on the smoking patio. Apparently our owner had allowed him to take up residence in the basement for free, so long as he was always available to perform handy-man duties around the restaurant. I felt the oddest sense of victory or clairvoyance. One of the two.
Even with Neck-Scab Drew gone, our situation had gone from bad to worse. Our boss had to take out a loan to cover our paychecks. The landlord finally evicted Gusto! from the space in mid-July.
The owner, too cheap to hire cooks for his restaurant, was certainly not going to rent a U-Haul to move all of the restaurant’s things to our new location. Not when he had two plucky waitresses and one of them had a 2005 Toyota Highlander that could clearly work just as well. He didn’t rent a trailer, either, so my friend and I were forced to make multiple trips from old Gusto! to new Gusto!. We would load up the trunk, drop off the stuff at the new location, and, since our boss was refusing to pay for gas money, take our sweet, sweet time coming back for the next round. We took a long breakfast. We went bra shopping. We strolled leisurely around a park and spent our afternoon in the sunshine.
After most of the things had been moved to the new location, my boss told us not to come back for a few weeks while he got the new location in order. He painted the inside of the new location the same garish green as Shrek the ogre. Or, as my friend put it once:
“It looks like someone e-Shrek-ulated all over the walls.”
By the end of July, the restaurant went completely under, taking my final paycheck with it. I probably could’ve gone to anyone with even basic legal expertise about it, but at that point, Gusto! needed to rest. I never got a chance to work at the new location. I spent August blissfully unemployed.
Sometimes I still wonder about Gusto!. I wonder where Tiffany and Neck-Scab Drew are now. I wonder if the owner ever tried to start another restaurant, or if I was right in my assumption that it was possibly a front for something else. I wonder what the customers I served actually thought of it.
I checked Yelp once, several months ago. It featured several 5-star reviews from people I know were personal friends of the owner, a one-star review coupled with an angry rant from someone going by the username “Salty D,” who I am at least 85% certain is Neck-Scab Drew, and one brutally honest review that calls the place “decidedly unwholesome and unappetizing.”
I wish I could say I learned something from this experience. I suppose I could say I learned how to operate one of those large espresso machines they have in coffee shops. But other than that, I’m really not sure. Some days, I’m not even sure it happened at all. I have to agree with the brutally honest Yelp reviewer on this subject: “I could call it charitably a unique experience, but I won’t, opting instead to call it what it more accurately is: confusing.”
Yes. Confusing, indeed.
From April 2016 issue