Youngsters are increasingly working part-time at cafes and food chains for that extra buck and new experiences

When poet Maya Angelou passed away last week, the Internet was flooded with her words. One quote said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” That’s a lesson Angelou probably learnt at 17, when she was a single-mother waiting tables to stay afloat. It’s a profession that society often looks down upon but Kochi’s youngsters are increasingly working part-time as waiters, delivery boys and kitchen help at cafes and food chains; some to earn an extra buck, others, just to make ends meet.

Praveen R. moved from Palakkad to Kochi for an education four years ago, but food and accommodation here proved too heavy on his pocket. So he worked at the Lotus Club canteen for two years, KFC for another year and is presently a mid-level employee at Dominos, all the while managing his studies and now a day-job at Cochin Shipyard as a supervisor. “I found that my daily expenses reduced when I spent all day working. It was tiring initially, but I’ve gotten used to it. After all, it’s about my livelihood,” he says. Rahul I.R, a student of hotel operations by day and a waiter at Kahawa cafe by night, adds that besides reducing the financial burden on his family back home in Malappuram, the job has given him a practical understanding of his course. “Our college encourages us to work part-time. Once I’ve learnt everything in servicing, I hope to move to the kitchens,” he says.

Rahul’s employer, Midhun Mathew, co-owner of Kahawa, says he encourages part-timers to join him because he’s ensured of employment till their courses conclude. “They join us young, and I find them easier to train,” he says. That Kahawa also provides its staff meals and lodging makes it lucrative for out-station students. “We take three months to train new recruits, right from handling the menu to table manners. It’s about finding their strengths to suit our needs.”

Besides college students, many part-timers have day jobs and are looking to expand their income. Nikhil Raj, for instance, was a maintenance engineer from Nedumbassery who moved to Kochi with his college loans to repay. At Milano Ice creams one day to pick up some gelato, Nikhil met the Italian owner couple Sara and Giancarlo, and asked if they had a vacancy in the evening shift. They got back to him when they did, and Nikhil says the job has opened many doors for him. “I was shy at first, but I’ve learnt how to engage with customers across social classes. I’ve made friends and connections with many of our regular customers and the job has taught me about business as well as interpersonal relations.” Akshay T.S., a BCom student in Palluruthy, who works as a delivery boy at Dominos, seconds his opinion: “Customers are usually happy if we speak well and get their order details correct, but there are certainly those who get angry with us when orders are late. I’ve learn to reason with them calmly now.”

All isn’t hunky-dory for part-timers though. While some are paid by the hour, others are given fixed monthly salaries but employers often see them as cheap and available labour. “Sometimes, companies tend to overwork part-timers but I’ve been lucky to have good managers that treat us just like the full-timers,” says Praveen. Few part-timers get days off, and especially those paid by the hour rarely take leave as that means a day’s wage is lost. G. Devi Gopinath, operations manager at Abad Food Court in Bay Pride Mall, says he doesn’t recruit part-timers at all because their schedules don’t suit the Court’s working hours. “Many college students who come are too tired to work well or don’t have the time to be trained properly.”

Nineteen-year-old Joshua Verghis, who’s just finished school and is waiting for college to open, is spending the months in between serving at Chai Cofi. He took up the job because he loved interacting with people and says he’s happiest when people have had a good time at the cafe. The only catch preventing more youngsters from part-timing is the worry that society might be judgemental. “I don’t see anything wrong with this work,” he says, “Part-timers are earning their own money. That’s to be respected!” “For me, this is just a ladder to better things,” says Nikhil. Watch out diners; will the next waiter at your table be another Maya Angelou in the making?