Credit: Stephanie Rudig

If a server or food runner drops off plates with an extra serving of exuberance, it could be because they’re a policy wonk, real estate agent, or financial planner whose happy place happens to be the dining room. A growing legion of professionals with day jobs are seeking (and being hired for) entry-level gigs at area restaurants. They’re donning aprons not for supplemental income but because they just want to be a part of a burgeoning dining scene. Many are so dedicated that they have to apply under-eye makeup before scooting to their desks just hours after closing down the bar.

“It’s challenging, but no more challenging than my friends who run marathons or who work very hard in professional organizations,” says Heather Messera, who yearned to be a part of the Rose’s Luxury team after dining there. “It’s just a very intense hobby.” The 35-year-old started as a hostess in November 2013, when she was between jobs, but has stayed on despite being employed full-time doing policy work for a large nonprofit organization. She now dabbles at the molten-hot Barracks Row spot as a food runner.

“So many jobs in D.C., you’re kind of a cog in a wheel of a big machine, but in the restaurant industry, you have the ability to change someone’s day every five minutes,” Messera says. “That’s why I didn’t quit when I got a full-time day job. It’s Rose’s, I can’t quit Rose’s.” She says running food is meaningful because the position bridges kitchen and customer. 

Shonna Burgoyne, a 37-year-old who develops financial reports for NASA as a NeoSystems Corp. employee, feels similar warm fuzzies for Kyirisan in Shaw, where she’s a weekend hostess. “I think it’s fun. I get to meet a lot of people and be a part of something—be a part of food, and things like the review,” Burgoyne says of Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema’s recent praise of the restaurant.

Restaurants like Rose’s Luxury and Kyirisan now have rock star status, thanks to social media and the proliferation of chef and bartender worship. Being a loyal diner is no longer satisfying enough for those who want to be a part of the party. For some, running food or tending bar is like playtime, while others have gotten hooked and left behind significant salaries in favor of full-time restaurant careers. What they have in common is that someone took a chance on them despite the fact that, in many cases, they lacked any relevant work experience.

According to the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, one-third of all American workers get their start in the restaurant industry. But for those who pick up shift work for fun, it’s probably been a while since their high school table-bussing days. It’s worth wondering whether restaurants would take the same risk on people without college diplomas or impressive day jobs as they do on hobby jobbies with little to no hospitality experience.

For example, 51-year-old Margie MacDonald, a loan production manager and real estate agent, was a pinch hitter during Restaurant Week last summer when Trummer’s on Main was in the weeds. Her son Ian MacDonald is a junior sous chef at the Clifton, Va. restaurant and recommended her to help relieve the overworked team.

“We were like, she’s literally never worked in a restaurant, but she obviously wants to, so let’s start her at the bottom polishing glassware and plates,” says Victoria Trummer, who co-owns the fine dining restaurant. In a year’s time, Margie MacDonald (everyone calls her “Mom”) has climbed the ladder to become dining room captain (think head waiter meets chief schmoozer).

Trummer says MacDonald didn’t receive an unfair advantage. “Degrees don’t mean much when it comes to hospitality,” she says. “We look for and hire on personalities. I think Margie’s experience and degree certainly show in her eloquence and professionalism, but without those qualities she would still have her passion and contagious positivity, which are the most important qualities.”

MacDonald generally begins work at 4:30 p.m.—after putting in at least seven and a half hours at her day job. “I’ll work when I get home from Trummer’s, whatever I need to do to, because I could be having the worst day in the world and then I walk into the restaurant and it’s my happy place,” she says.

MaryCropper, a 28-year-old support services manager for Youth for Understanding, bartends at City Tap House downtown for kicks. But she’s taken steps to limit her time at the bar by working only Mondays and Thursdays because she’s aware others need the work more than she does. (While the D.C. metropolitan area’s 3.6 percent unemployment rate is well below the national average, there are still people in need of entry-level hospitality jobs.) “I don’t work weekends, and I did that on purpose because there are people where bartending is their full-time job, and those are the most lucrative shifts,” she says. “I bartend for the change of atmosphere.”

But it’s not all laughs with colleagues and reduced-price meals. Derek Brown of Columbia Room, Eat The Rich, Southern Efficiency, and Mockingbird Hill has advised many Washingtonians looking for tips on moonlighting. He’s worked in restaurants since he was 16. “People who do this for a living, we often start out as shiftless losers without a lot of other options,” he says. “I know that sounds damning, but a lot of us start that way.” Now 42, Brown says there are certain realities particular to the industry.

First, he says, the restaurant industry ranks No. 1 for substance abuse. Those who have had trouble controlling drinking or drug use should proceed with caution. “It’s too easy,” he says. “The lifestyle I did live, now I’m a dad and shit, is that of a petit rock star. You’re not praised, but sex, drugs, and alcohol are all over the industry.”

Applicants should also ask themselves whether they’re in a happy relationship and whether one partner supports the other’s desire to work in a bar or restaurant. “Because of the access to alcohol, and because you’re dealing with a bevy of attractive people between 25 and 45 who tend to be good looking, friendly, and flirtatious, that can really fuck up your relationship very quickly,” Brown says. “You have to have physical stamina and impulse control.”

For his part, Brown hesitates to hire people with day jobs because of scheduling. “Our job is in real time, so if that person doesn’t show because of their other job, which becomes a priority since it’s their major means of making money, then all of a sudden everybody’s out,” he says. “There are special people who can do it and still maintain their jobs, but they’re unicorns. When you find them, they can be a great addition to lifers.” 

“Lifers” is what he calls career hospitality workers. Sometimes he’ll meet someone and know they’re a “lifer” before they do. Among them was LaurenPaylor, a 24-year-old bartender who rotates between Brown’s 7th Street bars. “She was in nursing school trying to figure it out, and I saw her personality and uniqueness,” Brown says. “She would have stood out in any job, but she has a beautiful way of connecting with people.” Maketto, Jack Rose Dining Saloon, and Minibar are among other restaurants with at least one former-professional-turned-lifer on staff.

Most who moonlight in the food world do so as bartenders, food runners, or hosts because those jobs enjoy later start times, enabling smoother day-to-night transitions. But there are exceptions. Carey Russell, for example, maintains a grueling balancing act as co-owner and general manager of forthcoming vegetable-centric restaurant Rooster & Owl, the name of which is a nod to the fact that the 29-year-old rises early to work as associate director of stewardship at Children’s National. Her husband, Yuan Tang, is the owl because he closes down the kitchen late at night.

Russell got her initial taste of the local food scene when she picked up shifts as a hostess at the now-shuttered Rogue 24, where Tang was cooking. Chef RJ Cooper brought her in and convinced her to give it a try. “I wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t showed me that it’s about picking the right people, so I felt special,” Russell says.

She has advice for those thinking of picking up a hobby jobby. First, show an interest. “That’s how we got most of our captains—people cold-called us,” she says. “You can really tell who has a passion for it.” Second, be fearless. “You gotta just do it. You’re going to spill a drink on someone, I guarantee it, but it’ll be OK. You’ll learn and get better.”