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Essay: A Pizza Shop Morality Tale

A 'Help Wanted' sign is displayed at a gas station on June 23 in Los Angeles. After surviving the pandemic, small businesses across the country are struggling to find workers.
Mario Tama
After surviving the pandemic, small businesses across the country are struggling to find workers.

Lake Effect contributor Dusty Weis shares a tense experience he had at a pizza shop. He touches on the current labor shortage and the broader tendency for people in positions of privilege to mistreat service industry workers in his essay, 'A Pizza Shop Morality Tale.'

I’m in rural Wisconsin, I’m grabbing a pizza via contactless pickup, and the pizza is late.

15 minutes and counting.

I wander into the shop; I just want to make sure the app is accurate, or that the pick-up instructions aren’t bunk and my pizza isn’t actually waiting for me inside, getting cold. Nice place, lots of reclaimed wood, wine bottles, lots of character.

I walk in and this hulking dude in a polo, 35ish, is leaned in over the desk giving the business to a flustered-looking 19-year-old hostess. His pizza’s late too. He’s been waiting for 45 minutes, and he’s not happy. It’s all I can do to get the hostess’s attention.

I ask her about my order. She starts to answer, but he butts in, “They can’t do anything right here. They knew my pizza was gonna be late too. They could have called. They could have emailed. Nothing. This place is a disaster.”

The hostess is focused very intently on the screen in front of her. I wave her down again. Should I sit down and wait? Go back to my car? Leave and come back? She starts to answer, but Bro-Dude talks over her again, “They can’t give you any answers. They don’t know anything.”

“I’m just going to wait here,” I announce to two people who aren’t really listening.

The manager hustles up. She’s 60ish, short—big, watery eyes and soft-spoken. Seems surprisingly in-over-her-head here, and avoids eye contact with Bro-Dude.

Undeterred, Bro-Dude lights up the manager now. The service sucks. The staff are incompetent. What’s she going to do about it? She’s trying very hard to keep it together and this guy is just berating them both.

Now a server scoots over—probably 25, just guessing, but she probably worked on the family farm until it went under. She hands an order to another customer, and Bro-Dude starts in on her. “I’m not speaking to you,” she informs Bro-Dude, and scoots back to the kitchen.

“Are you going to let her disrespect me like that?” Bro-Dude demands of the manager. The manager tries to respond, but he just keeps berating her. It’s apparent this guy has been at this for at least half an hour. He just keeps repeating himself and getting louder.

I take a deep breath. “Hey man,” I say, gesturing toward the door. “Let’s take a walk, you and me.”

Bro-Dude’s head snaps around like I just brained him with a salami. “What?”

“Let’s take a breather. I think we’re all gonna be a lot happier if you and I just get some air.”

“You’re on THEIR SIDE?!?” he whines.

“No sides, I want my pizza too. This just… isn’t helping…”

He’s so blindsided by this it’s almost comical, and for a minute his head whiplashes between the desk and me, like he can’t decide whom he wants to thunder at some more. That’s fine. I can take it. These folks need a break.

He’s winding up to tell me about all the injustices he’s endured over the last 45 minutes (again), when the server scoots over with his order. She holds it out to him, looks him square in the eye, and grits, “Here. Please leave.”

The manager is wringing her hands so hard the knuckles are white. Bro-Dude is sputtering like Daffy Duck. “Are you going to do anything about your employees talking to customers like that?”

“Sir, I’m sorry, but you have your food now,” the manager murmurs. “Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“No there’s not, because I’m never coming back to this dump again,” he bellows. Stomp-stomp. Door slam.

The relief is immediately apparent, but the mood is still super weird. I don’t know what went down before I got there, but it must have been heinous to upset these people so. The server tries to do something on the screen, but her hand is shaking too badly to do it right.

The manager says, tersely, “You shouldn’t have spoken to him like that.” She cups the server’s shaking hand in hers. “It’s okay. Step in back and have a few deep breaths.” They’re both on the verge of tears. Something is VERY unsaid.

What the hell is with this pizza shop?

I spin around and I’m face to face with another server. He's a high school-aged, small-town gay dude. When I was in high school, he’d have been bullied and closeted, but thank goodness rural Wisconsin has at least moved beyond that ugly phase a little bit.

He pushes a $20 bill into my hand.

“Thank you,” is all he says, and starts to book it back to the tables. I’m baffled for a minute, then realize he’s trying to show some appreciation because I tried to draw some of Bro-Dude's fire.

“What, hey, no man I don’t need this.” I push the 20 back on him. “Guy was out of line is all.”

He nods. I swear to god he’s fighting tears too. What the hell is going on in this place?

I stammer, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who have worked in the service industry and those who haven’t.” Seems like a pithy, appropriate thing to fill the silence.

The kid smiles. “He clearly HASN’T,” he snaps, and he shoots off to the tables.

Holy crap. What is with this place? I blow out a deep breath and sink down onto a bench to wait. I really just want to get my pizza and go.

The fella next to me lifts an eyebrow as more people come in, looking for their pizza, which is also late. He's an older guy, and it’s apparent he’s lived here a long time and knows everybody in town.

“Tough night here,” he observes, deadpan.

“I’ll say,” I shoot back.

“Not usually like this,” he observes. “But help is short, and SHE doesn’t even work here.”

He points at the befuddled manager. “The owners are out of town and she’s helping out.”

“Everybody needs a vacation,” I say, but he shakes his head.

He fills me in. The owners are a married couple, and the husband has been sick—cancer. He’s put up a good fight, and they’ve both been working real hard to make the restaurant work, but he’s getting sicker. Their “vacation” is a last-ditch chance to spend some time, away, together.

Everyone at the pizza place has been double-timing it to cover while they’re away. Seems the owners are pretty well-liked, by the staff and the community. By necessity, the trip came together last-minute, so things are in disarray. Plus, they’re short-staffed. Every place is.

So yeah, the pizza is slow. We all got inconvenienced. It sure sucks when that happens.

But Bro-Dude made it suck more, on purpose, for a bunch of people who were working extra hours to basically show up and grieve a friend they hadn’t lost yet.

It’s exhausting to be a human, I get it. But there’s no situation so crummy that it can’t be made worse by piling on more crumminess.

So just be good to one another, folks.

There are a lot more morals that you can probably extrapolate from this story, but that’s the biggie.

Dusty Weis
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