Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez learned some of the greatest lessons for her congressional campaign in an unexpected place: while waiting tables at a restaurant. In an interview with Bon Appétit, Ocasio-Cortez said she had spent most of her days working at Flats Fix, a taqueria in downtown Manhattan, up until last year.
“My campaign started in food, and in a lot of ways evolved out of food,” she told the publication. “For 80% of this campaign, I operated out of a paper grocery bag hidden behind that bar.” In that short time, she beat New York Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in the primaries, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
Waiting tables is a standardized test in patience, often with enormous amounts of physical labor and arguably little upside. In a restaurant like New York’s Le Bernardin, waitstaff is bound to a 129-rule guidebook, which includes avoiding cardinal sins like lack of eye contact, entering a guest’s conversation without an invitation and the holy grail of them all: Never mess up a drink order.
And the pay isn’t so great, either. The minimum wage in New York City for a tipped food service worker who works for a large employer is $13. Meanwhile, the average cost of living for one adult in the New York metro area is $4,277 a month, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s budget calculator. At minimum wage, that requires almost 11 hours of work every single day — just to break even. “I am very, very much for all restaurant people making a living wage,” the late chef Anthony Bourdain told Thrillist in 2016. “Because as it is now, most restaurant people cannot afford to eat in their own restaurants.”
A number of other politicians, too, did the laborious work of being a waiter or waitress. Mic decided to take a look at some politicians’ early forays into the restaurant world, including one senator who worked at a school cafeteria and a mayor who lost part of his finger on the job. Below, a few of the lessons they learned at the front lines of the front of house.
As a teen, Barack Obama scooped ice cream at a Baskin Robbins in Oahu. “I was less interested in what the job meant for my future and more concerned about what it meant for my jump shot,” he wrote in a post on LinkedIn. “My first summer job wasn’t exactly glamorous, but it taught me some valuable lessons. Responsibility. Hard work. Balancing a job with friends, family and school.”
At 26, Governor-elect of California Gavin Newsom opened his own wine shop. Inexperienced, he once arrived at his store to discover $40,000 worth of wine had exploded because he hadn’t purchased an air conditioner. Newsom has since invested in several San Francisco-based restaurants and started his own hospitality firm. “In a couple of years, you’ll see me as the clerk of a wine store,” he told the New York Times in 2010, fending off future political ambitions.
Current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan worked at McDonald’s for a time. “I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up when I was flipping burgers at McDonald’s,” he told a crowd of high school students in 2012. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m the American dream on the path or journey so that I can find happiness however I define it myself.’” He was later criticized for projecting a supposedly working-class image, despite his family’s wealthy background.
When Senator Elizabeth Warren was 13, she waited tables at a Mexican restaurant owned by her aunt. “I spent summers and holidays working for her, and I saw firsthand the kind of commitment and energy it takes to launch a small business and to keep it going,” Warren wrote on her website in support of small businesses in Massachusetts.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel worked at an Arby’s as a teenager and accidentally cut part of his finger off while cleaning a roast beef slicer. “I ended up with five blood infections, two bone infections and gangrene and had a 105-degree fever and was this close to dying,” he told a classroom of students in a CNN video. “Prior to that, I was a total screw-up and I took that experience and I said, ’Everyday, I’m going to make sure I get everything out of life. I’m not going to let a day go where I won’t make a difference.’ It was the biggest emotional thing that changed me.”
Abigail Spanberger, a member-elect in the House of Representatives representing Virginia, worked as a waitress, a postal inspector and an English teacher while waiting on an extensive background check for a conditional job offer from the CIA in 2002. “I loved the idea of understanding people, places, concepts, concerns and large international questions,” she told ABC News in an interview, “and being the one to go out and get the answers.”
Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), who recently picked up a key Senate seat during the midterms elections, worked as a banquet waitress while supporting her career as a computer programmer and software developer. She also waited tables at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and joined the Culinary Workers Union. In a full-circle moment, Rosen celebrated her Senate win with a victory speech given at Caesar’s Palace. “I had to tell you I’m a little sentimental tonight because a lot of times you don’t get to see bookends in your life. And 40 years ago, I was a young college student working my way through school,” she said in her speech on Nov. 6. “I was working right down the hall here at Caesar’s Palace as a cocktail waitress to pay my tuition. I put my tips in those envelopes that paid for my next year of college.”
South Dakota Governor-elect, Kristi Noem, worked on her family’s farm and helped manage her mother’s restaurant. “Time and again, South Dakota is ranked as a top state to start and run a business. We have more than 83,000 small businesses in the state, and I’ve always been proud to have contributed to it,” she wrote on her campaign website. “I’m grateful for those experiences and now use them to write better policy.”
Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida, once owned and operated two donut shops. A vehement opponent of taxes, he spoke of his businesses in a State of the State address in 2011. “Taxes and regulations. They are the great destroyers of capital and time for small businesses,” he said. “Almost every dollar I earned as a shop owner went toward growing our little doughnut shops. So, every dollar taken in taxes slowed that growth.”
Moira Walsh, a congresswoman currently representing Rhode Island in the House of Representatives, was a waitress for 10 years up until her campaign run in 2016. “A couple of years ago, a co-worker of mine tricked me into coming to an industry night for the Restaurant Opportunity Center,” she said in an interview with the Atlantic, explaining how her political ambitions came to be. “All of a sudden, I was surrounded by these really amazing union organizers who were explaining to me that while it might not feel like it, I did, in fact, have rights as a worker and could stand up for them if I so decided.”
Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono worked as a cashier in elementary school cafeterias to help support her mother. “I had to do everything I could to help her go back to work,” Hirono told HonoluluAdvertiser.com in 2002. “My mother was my whole world. I was frightened. ... I know what it feels like to be discriminated against, to feel powerless, to have landlords who threaten to kick you out, and not having a place to go. So, equality and fairness, equal opportunities are driving principles for me.”