Server of My Own Demise

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Life is full of annoying necessities: laundry, washing dishes, paying taxes (though that last one wouldn’t be a necessity if it weren’t for those meddling tax software company lobbyists), I could go on and on. We put these things off until the very last minute, rush through them as quickly as possible, and blissfully enjoy life until they rear their ugly heads again. Or maybe that’s just me.

But working in the service industry is no exception to this rule. And there was one minor annoyance that popped up repeatedly during my time in bars and restaurants, no matter the job or state. Every few years or so I would have to go to a clunky mess of a website still stuck in the 90s, pay around 40 bucks, and then work my way through a dull-as-dishwater online course full of cheesy stock photos in order to take an even duller online exam. Passing was about as difficult as producing a pulse, at which point you were rewarded with a certificate you showed to your manager so you could start working. I’m not sure if the certification was required in the states I worked during my time, but I do know almost all of the businesses I applied at expected you to have one, and at the very least it looked good on your resume or was helpful for the business’ insurance/liability. Sometimes it was training for food handling safety, for myself it was usually alcohol safety since I mostly worked in bars. But every time it was a certification course provided by a company named ServSafe.

Imagine my surprise when lo and behold, after all those years and a hundreds of dollars, I learned that the company I’d been paying was using that money to lobby against workers rights and fight off minimum wage increases. Like most of the workers interviewed in the article, I’d never given much thought to where my money was going. I suppose I just assumed some wealthy businessperson took my $40 and laughed all the way at the bank without delay, gleefully parting fools from their money after cornering the market in restaurant certifications. Why make things messy when they could just sit sit back quietly and keep making easy money until the end of time? I never had a clue there were any other alternatives to this company the entire time I worked in restaurants. ServSafe is the Band-Aid of restaurant certifications; the article believes at minimum they control 70% of the market, but I would be shocked if it was any less than 85%.

Not to say that the courses aren’t important, basic as they may be. Food and alcohol handling should at least have some kind of base-level competency requirements in every state. We all want basic good hygiene in our restaurants to avoid food-borne illnesses. And as boring as they are, the alcohol courses were always a good reminder to not fuck around when it comes to serving drinks in order to avoid ruining someone’s life and probably my own as well. But if courses like these are going to be required by the states then it seems unethical that the same bodies facilitating these courses are actively involved in any political lobbying efforts, regardless of whether or not they conflict with the aims of the customers. The article’s description of what defines a “business league” was something I found especially vague and troubling. The National Restaurant Association serves the needs of their members, namely restaurant owners. But as a result they only serve the interests of restaurant workers so long as they align with those needs. I can say from experience that these two groups diverge constantly on some very important issues the hospitality industry is currently grappling with.

I won’t get into the minimum wage debate right now, that’s a whole other post for another time. But suffice to say that even if the money were being used for something else, I still wouldn’t be comfortable with it. I’m not sure of the ideal scenario but it would probably involve a government body, either local health departments or a federal agency (though I’m not sure which would have jurisdiction over the matter, maybe the FDA?), or a nonprofit company handling these certifications. One good example would be the NYC Health Department, which offers its own food handling training, though it is certainly easier for a department of that size servicing a metropolitan area. Really any organization that would put the money towards something less political would be a better option. But I can’t imagine that happening anytime soon. With such a niche focus, ServSafe is probably going to stay entrenched in its monopoly for a long time short of some remarkable organizing work.

Outside of lobbying your representatives, really the only other option is to fight with your wallet. I tried searching around for alternative trainings, but the only national option I saw was Learn2Serve, another private company so who knows where that money goes either. I guess my only real advice is to check out local alternatives if you work in the industry, and ask your leadership if they accept any alternative certifications. It’s no easy feat and I certainly never did this back in the day, but finding out where your money goes is a good a place to start as any. Who knows, maybe in a few more years this annoying necessity will be a little less annoying.