Service 101: Energy Crisis in America

Huckleberry Restaurant, a good place to work

“There’s an energy crisis occurring in America and it’s happening in the hearts and minds of its people,” said my friend Ari Weinzweig, in a recent conversation. He shared with me how clear he was that there’s an energy crisis going on–one that’s just as serious as the one centered around our planet’s resources– in our nation’s workforce. Working men and women are checked out, uninterested, frustrated, unfulfilled, and looking forward to going home and doing something else. Poll most people and they’ll tell you the only place they can find emotional rewards or intellectual stimulation it’s outside of the workplace. It seems that the happy and fulfilled worker is a lucky, rare bird with the good fortune to have stumbled across a very special job in a very place.

People who are truly happy in their work naturally give off a positive energy. Those that are happy in their work have a way of making the people around them happy. And unless you are a shut off individual with no ability to read energy, the good feeling coming off happy individuals is contagious.

I recently had an epiphany about the power of good energy the other day while spending some time at Huckleberry, a neighborhood bakery and gourmet café in Santa Monica, California.

Happiness is a transferable energy source

Huckleberry was packed the moment I arrived. Despite having secured a table off to the side of the small eating area, I was stepped on, brushed against, and more than occasionally jostled by the long line of customers waiting to be served. I didn’t really care about the unconscious manhandling of the hungry guests, however. I had a bowl of silky and dense yogurt covered in a blanket of golden granola to savor.

But it was more than the power of oven-toasted oats that made me feel so content. It seemed that my good mood was a direct result of the energy of the place. The positive energy was so abundant I could tap into it—like my laptop plugged into the wall jack–and fill up for later.

Rather than write, I watched the happiness of the front of house staff and kitchen workers dressed in tee-shirts and bandannas. I wasn’t sure what I was witnessing at first, it all appeared like a gauzy mirage of smiles. But the more time I spent studying the activities of the room, the more I observed the important nuances of the human interactions of the little storefront.

Zoe Nathan, Co-owner of Huckleberry

I grew increasingly aware that the positive energy of created by the cheerful Huckleberry staff came from them doing good work and openly enjoying the simplest of tasks. A teenage worker methodically placed a vase of flowers and dried wheat on a table with a subtle grace. A baker eyed a counter top and brushed flour from it before depositing a heavy plastic container on top of it. The impish Zoe Nathan (owner and culinary visionary of Huckleberry) rubbed a hand over a tight tee shirt, pulled snug across her round, nine month-pregnant belly, as she sampled a salad from behind the counter. Huckleberry had a recognizable feeling to it, like the touch of a memorable textile. That feel-good, esoteric texture reminded me of a handful of other favorite eateries across the country that shared a similar vibe of good work and great products.

The more I watched, the more aware I became of my own energy level. Realizing how I came to my elevated energetic state brought an important insight: being in the general vicinity of so many happy workers made me whole percentage points happier. What I was witnessing, appreciating, and—ultimately–plugging into like an energy source, was a group of people pursuing a vocation they loved. It was then that I understood: the source of my contentment was a direct result of my proximity to the cheerful staff. Happiness is a transferable energy source.

The Importance of a Vocation

A society built on the foundation of work that is without reward, is one that’s heading for collapse. Without renewable internal energy sources, our workforce will have nothing to pull from to motivate them except external “fuel” that can be derived from entertainment, food, wine, drugs, hobbies, and some times even destructive behaviors to take our minds off the mundane activities required of us to pay our bills.

In Ari’s newest book, he quotes Emma Goldman, a turn of the century activist, for her very modern perspective on work. In 1917 she wrote:

Freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual…is only possible in a state of society where man is free to choose the mode of work, the conditions of work, and the freedom to work. One to whom the making of a table, the building of a house, or the tilling of the soil, is what the painting is to the artist and the discovery of a scientist—the result of inspiration, of intense longing, and deep interest in work as a creative force.

Though Goldman was writing about anarchism, her point still holds true for the workforce of today. In order to be a fully realized and satisfied individual we must find work that fulfills us to the core.

In order to maintain a healthy, professional eco-system we must become a self-sustaining workforce. But ask an every day American to dig down and figure out what really makes them happy isn’t an easy task. We’re too busy hating our jobs and constructing a hodge-podge of personal distractions to find the time to figure out what kind of work truly fulfills us. And when we do take the time to see what we truly enjoy, we must contend with deafening sound of commercialism and fear mongering. Every day we are told by television, radio, print, and online chit chat that there are lots of things we should want. We should want a life filled with technology. We should want nice clothes. We should want to travel to exotic places. We should want a fancy car or expensive home.

But beyond the should’s, what do we really want?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of what energy and happiness in the workforce lately, because I am certain that the work that I do in restaurants is important, valuable, and fulfilling. I love what I do and feel a sense of pride every day I go to work and humbly step up to the plate and serve people. It’s my job to get out of my own way and listen to what people have to say. In the grandest and smallest ways possible, I go out of my way to make sure every customer (and employee) knows that I care about them and what they are experiencing.

And yet…

Every day I encounter people who think the work I do is menial, without merit, and unworthy of respect. I read rants on message boards and stories that suggest that people who work in restaurants “should shut up, stop complaining about not getting respect, and get a real job.” Even here on my own website, people tell me without hesitation or an inkling of any prejudice, that the work of servers is “easy”, something anyone without a college education can do, and doesn’t merit pay (tips). But the truth of the matter is, the work that I do requires a high level of skill, education, talent, and commitment.

Despite all the work that goes into serving the public the level of disrespect that people in the service industry get is hard to bear. Our industry requires physical stamina, long work days, multi-tasking skills, memorization, study, humility and professionalism. It took me years and various degrees of self-loathing, before I could truly admit to myself that I enjoyed working in the food business. Once I recognized that I had found my vocation, I forsook my screenwriting career and embraced my true calling.

The more I look around me, the more I realize that many of us in America have forgotten the meaning (and importance) of the word vocation. Vocation is a job that calls to you. It is work that creates a strong feeling of being destined or called by a higher power of some sort—or inspiration—to undertake a particular kind of work.

The butcher, the stock trader, the candlestick maker, and the actuary

All of us love doing certain things. Some like to cook, others to sew. Some are thrilled by the unraveling of atoms, for others, it’s numbers. Some wear protective gloves, while others require the precision of bare skin. Who are we to judge another for the line of work they love?

Cities are filled with businesses, but few companies that are filled with happy employees. You can see it in the face of business people, waiters, retail workers, gas station attendants, DMV workers, state employees, teachers, and employees all over this country. There is so much self-hate—its origins may start with all the judging and resentment they field from the people around them—that people throughout our country are turning to addictive activities and mood enhancers to take the edge off. But where is there to hide when the problem is inside?

It’s time we took a look at ourselves and how we treat the people around us. Some would say we are all children of God. Isn’t it time we did something about this energy crisis in America? Are we not all worth the love and respect of a proud parent? In cities all over America, there is an opportunity for all of us to find a great source of energy in the happiness of its people.

What makes you happy?

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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.


  1. December 4

    As someone transitioning from one vocation to another, I’m enjoying your Service 101 series. It is invaluable insight for me trying to absorb everything that I can as fast as I can while working the insane schedule that this industry demands. Still, I’m having fun and I hope it shows.
    Our crew is the main reason and every day they laugh and play. Fun is infectious and as long as we’re having fun, we can hope to brighten the day of our customers a little bit too. Of course, it helps to work in a candy store. 😉

  2. December 6

    “A society built on the foundation of work that is without reward, is one that’s heading for collapse. ”

    Truly insightful, even brilliant. I think I’ll be spouting about this post to some friends.

    • Food Woolf
      December 6

      Mia, thanks for the kind words! They are greatly appreciated!

  3. Excellent post Brooke and an observation of a state of affairs that doesn’t get much exposure.
    For what it’s worth, I’ve noticed much the same thing as well. I think many people are frustrated by society’s desire to micromanage everything. Individual initiative is, more often than not, not encouraged for this reason- there are far too many “rules and regulations” that must be adhered to and personal initiative just gets in the way. The overall message of course is that workers aren’t bright enough to figure things out for themselves and thus those workers have less and less control over their work – and the result is a deep dissatisfaction with what they do on an everyday basis.
    We need to unleash people’s ability to be productive!!!!!

  4. bunmy
    December 6

    Hi Brooke,its my first time of reading through your article,couldn’t take my eyes of it till I read the last line. I think every job is honorable,as such people should respect every profession. In as much as it is almost impossible to serve oneself in every resturant,those doing it should be respected if for no other thing but the orderliness maintained. And as for the servers,whatever is worth doing is worth doing well. Thanks

  5. December 6

    Well said, my dear. You are right on the money. xox

  6. Sandie
    December 7

    Are you sure you’ve found your true vocation? Because, after reading this, I’m pretty sure that you’re a great writer: poignant, modern and full of integrity. This was the first piece on vocation; happiness, and one of the few pieces of writing in general, that has taken my breath away.

  7. Debbie
    December 7

    I love your article, I coudn’t agree more.

  8. December 7

    Lovely post. I have often noticed that the “menial” work people have little respect for is often very difficult. Sadly it is often poorly paid as well.

  9. I can’t tell you how often I think of you, and your take on service, when I go into a store or restaurant and run into service that is either remarkably good or remarkably bad. Please keep spreading the gospel of finding satisfaction and joy in service! Now, if only the guys in my local pizza place would read it …

    • Food Woolf
      December 7

      🙂 I’m so glad I’m with you when you encounter service, good or bad. It’s nice to be in your wonderful world! Your words inspire me as well. If I lived near a forest and saw wild turkeys every day I’d think of you and your incredible adventure you’re living. Thanks for being such a great inspiration!

  10. vonmoishe
    December 7

    Anyone who tears down others is clearly unhappy and/or unfulfilled. Their sense of self-worth can only measure up by bringing others down to their level.

    Anyone, in any profession, who is unhappy in their job should envy those who, in any profession, are happy in their jobs.

    By the way, as someone who has worked as a waiter, I commend you for aiming to be the best that you can be. Being a waiter is very hard work if you want to do it right. Someone who takes pride in their work, especially those in customer service, invariably ends up with a happier customer.

    Great post – thank you for writing it.

  11. December 7

    You’ve hit on an important effect of the economy. It’s unfortunate that people think of certain professions poorly. Perspective is a funny thing.

  12. December 7

    I am truly moved by your analysis and deep understanding of how work is what we have to offer to the world, and if we seek our true “vocation”, our own contentment will spread like concentric circles around us.

    • Food Woolf
      December 7

      Yes! That’s it exactly! “spread like concentric circles around us”! I couldn’t agree more. The more positive energy there is the world, the more positive energy there is! Yeah!

  13. December 7

    What a beautiful post! Helping people is one of my greatest joys. Getting to help people learn how to cook healthy on a tight budget has been one of those rare opportunities of matching my job with my passions. It definitely has it’s tiring moments where I wish I could take a week off and not need the money, but I never tire of doing what I’m doing.

  14. Christina in Eugene
    December 7

    F-ing love this. Wonderfully said. Inspiring! You’ve put into words what it has taken me years to distill within my own frame of thought. I am halfway through a degree towards my own, beloved vocation. Thanks for elevating my personal goals to a level that benefits society as well.

  15. December 9

    What a wonderful post, Brooke. I struggle everyday to figure out what would make happy. I think I have a clue but most of the time I get paralyzed by the fear of failure, which keeps me from pursuing what I think will make me happy. Thank you, again for this lovely reminder about seeking happiness.

  16. Josh Loeb & Zoe Nathan
    December 12

    This piece is great! Zoe and I love what we do, and work hard to make sure the place feels homey and alive, and our staff does a wonderful job embodying this spirit. It means so much to us to read that we can actually make a difference in someones day. Thanks so much for including us in this thoughtful piece, it made our day!

    • Food Woolf
      December 12

      Josh and Zoe, YOU made my day. And make my day week after week after week. Thank you for being an example of great work and a beautiful vocation.

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