It was the summer after my sophomore year of high school when I made that transition, and to be completely honest I was excited. I didn't have a concept of work, or how menial and stressful it could be. All I saw was the paychecks and the freedom that came with earning money for myself rather than asking my parents for it.
In my hometown of Ludington, Michigan, the town lives and dies by the season, with beaches along Lake Michigan and a picturesque state park beckoning outsiders to kick back and take a load off. Little clothing shops and restaurants line up the main avenue, selling the name of the town and its amenities before the warm grasp of summer slips away. Music festivals and art fairs come around every so often, and the county fair serves as a proper finale to the season where Ludington is at its best. In the midst of the summer of 2014, I agreed to sell away my summers of rest and relaxation for biweekly pay and late nights closing.
My first job came at one of the staples of my town, an ice cream parlor/restaurant called House of Flavors. My mom had worked there when she was my age and knew the owner personally. My interview was five minutes, basically asking when I could work, what I could do, and what size shirt I needed. I worked on and off in that place for almost 3 years, mostly in the prestigious position of ice cream scooper. I spent those summers working the madhouse that was the ice cream line. As the sun set below the lake, all the sunburned beachgoers seemingly found themselves lined up at the east door, dying to get a taste of any of the many flavors we had to offer. Night after I night, I found my head buried in a cooler, slopping these cold treats into cups and cones, handing them off with a smile, and replicating that routine until the door was locked. The first summer, I enjoyed the dynamic. The neverending slew of customers rocked us all night long, but that slam made the shifts fly by. Work wasn't the chore that I had always been told it was to be.
That feeling didn't last very long. Towards the end of summer, after countless nights of the same routine, something mentally changed. My outlook on work flipped, as my usual positive, optimistic view on clocking in was replaced with a sense of dread. On days I was scheduled, instead of looking forward to seeing my coworkers and seeing the happiness in people's faces I served, I thought about the downsides. I became selfish. I would "use the bathroom" during rushes, only to sit in the room behind the cone line and take a break. I would skimp out on some closing duties, hoping the closing manager would somehow overlook them (they never did). I constantly pondered calling in, and at times I switched with coworkers for BS reasons. I didn't care about the coworkers, my managers, or even the business. I was going through the motions, doing just enough to get by and not get canned.
Flash forward to the summer of 2016, and my family was in the midst of one of the most crucial moments of our lives. My dad has been a chef his entire life, and since I moved to Michigan from South Carolina, he had yet to find a job where he was in a true "chef" role. He had worked 3 or 4 restaurant jobs, each one a little better than the last, but he craved a larger role. His talent was boxed in these businesses, and he needed to spread his culinary wings to truly love where he was. This opportunity had finally come in the form of a little corner spot in the heart of Ludington, a restaurant that came to be known as Table 14. This was minuscule compared to the scale in which my father had worked back down south, but this corner is where he could finally have the control he had sought since arriving. His menu, his plating technique, his style, from the sauces accompanying his signature dishes to the color of the chairs in the dining room, he crafted a dining experience, unlike anything our small town has ever seen.
Despite his immense talent and years of experience, my dad couldn't do it alone. In an industry where reputation falls on the individual, my mom played the part. She is the jack of all trades, professional with distributors, customers, and potential branch-out opportunities, with a warm smile and southern comfort that made even the farthest of travelers feel right at home. Families face difficulties, and businesses twice that, and at times the clash of the two can make for some rough times both at home and at work. My mom isn't perfect, and balancing and organizing aren't strong suits for my family, but at the end of the day it's about effort and grinding through, and 3 out of 4 members of the family had it down pat from the get-go.
The member who struggled with that concept was, well, me. My parents stressed to me the magnitude of this business, saying this was all our chips in one pot. This was my brother's college, my college, and the opportunity at making an impact in our town, one plate at a time. Immaturity got the best of me. For my first full summer, I was off my freshman year of college, and my primary focus, once I got back, was in the wrong place. I wanted a fun summer, one spent catching up with buddies I used to see every day in high school, spending long days at the beach and long nights around the fire. There isn't anything wrong with keeping connections, but my heart was in the wrong place. I spent my first summer working lunch shifts, knowing dinner was where the money was at. I worked all of my shifts, but that attitude I mentioned previously reared its ugly head once again. Complaining, skimping out on duties, I was continuing my downward trend from my last job. I went that whole summer with that mindset and would have most likely kept it up if not for an intervention.
The second summer began like the last, and rather than reach for the ladder to climb out of my rut, I opted for the shovel. My parents had had enough. One night they sat me down, and let me have it. Closing duties, mentality, effort, they hit on everything I was coming up short in. Two years prior, I had made a commitment to this business. Everyone else was doing their part, and I was lagging behind. They knew that I could be a pivotal part of Table 14, and I was too busy prioritizing temporary events to even glance at the bigger picture. This was the push I didn't know that I needed, and the next night when I clocked in I knew what was needed from me. I look up to my brother, Blaise, who works in the kitchen with my dad. The hardest worker in the business, putting his all into prepping, cleaning, knowing that no matter how menial the task, he was contributing to something bigger than himself. I took it all for granted, and no one inspires me more than he does. In times of stress or seemingly impossible circumstances, I look to him for strength, even if he doesn't see it in himself.
I am not a finished product. This summer was my best, but it isn't my ceiling. The microcosm that is a family business can be applied to infinite situations in the real world. I was blessed to be put in this situation, and for every time the biz has knocked me down, it's lifted me into heights I couldn't have touched without it. The growth and maturity that I have endured are one of my proudest accomplishments, and my family deserves all the credit. Never take them for granted, as every pedestal they knock you off of is for your own well-being.