The Hobo Guide to the Melbourne Hospo Scene
Melbourne is a city that takes pride in being the self-proclaimed “cultural capital of Australia”, which is largely down to it’s multitude of art galleries, shopping strips, old and architecturally-impressive buildings, music scene and of course an utter fuck-tonne of places to eat and drink.
From Michelin-star restaurants to nine-dollar pho-houses, dingy nightclubs, rooftop bars, cocktail lounges, pubs older than federated Australia, and, of course, a miasma of trendified cafés. Because of this, there are literally limitless opportunities for the cash-strapped hobo to make a bit of coin slaving away (most probably on wages that are technically illegal) as a proud member of the Melbourne hospo crew.
The life of the Melbourne hospitality warrior typically revolves around spending eight-to-10 hours on the clock, endlessly bashing out coffee, pulling pints or running plates, working on less than three hours sleep, fueled only by caffeine, cigarettes, rum and sheer willpower; then knocking off, cracking a beer, finding a late-night bar and pounding down shots until two hours before the next shift starts; catching 30 minutes sleep (known in the business as a “disco nap”) crawling to work, knocking back a double-strong coffee and doing it all over again.
It’s a rapid-paced, high stress world of early starts, nicotine, raging hangovers, screaming drunks, 50-hour weeks, organic sourdough, boutique beer, locally-sourced ingredients, grumpy customers, tempestuous chefs, demanding managers, caffeine, amphetamines and treating every weekend like it’s an end of the world Roman orgy.
It takes a special breed to run this kind of race; you need a thick skin, quick mind, mammoth work-ethic, a will of iron and a talent for being chirpy and effervescent at 8am despite putting eight pints and a bottle of Tanqueray through yourself the night before.
Breaking into the scene is surprisingly less difficult than it seems; Melbournians love travellers (especially from Europe and the Americas) and chances are, at least half of the people in any place you apply for are from somewhere else too, so just print out a huge stack of resumes, go anywhere that has a coffee machine/kitchen/bar/humid fridge full of mouldy sandwiches and be the most outgoing, confident version of yourself you can possibly dredge up from the deepest trenches of your persona. Or, alternatively, go out every night of the week, drink like a sailor on shore-leave, talk to people and hope that sooner or later you’ll cross paths with someone who works in the industry (trust me, we’re everywhere, and very friendly if you can keep up with us) and convince them that you’re a bar-tending rock-star and that they should introduce you to their manager ASAP. Whichever method you follow, (I recommend doing both and with gusto) eventually, someone will like you enough to give you a trial shift.
The trial will no doubt be a baptism of fire. A three hour sink-or swim ordeal spent in a state of barely-contained panic, doing work you barely understand in an environment you are completely unfamiliar with, doing things like frantically asking where the milk is when it’s sitting right in front of your face and saying things like, “How was everything?” and, “Can I get you another drink?” so may times your tongue bleeds.
Depending on what kind of job you’re going for, this is what to expect:
FLOOR STAFF (Waiter/Waitress)
You turning up at some ungodly hour, trying frantically to memorise the table numbers and menu in less than five minutes then running around like a lunatic doing literally everything anybody tells you to, usually doing around eight semi-complex tasks simultaneously without fucking-up, dropping anything or pissing anybody off, whilst maintaing a pleasant demeanor and acting like you’re happy to be cleaning up after grown adults who have somehow been alive 30 years yet never learned how to eat rice without spilling half of it all over the floor.
You splitting your time between being hunched over a sink that seems like it’s level with your knees, plunging your hands into water so hot your skin comes off in small, waxy flakes, scrubbing an infinite amount of pans, bowls, cups, platters and arcane cooking utensils you never even knew existed, and performing tedious, time-consuming tasks that are vaguely related to cooking like peeling 15 kilos of prawns, prepping 150 serves of mash or deep-cleaning an industrial oven with just a bucket of water and a wad of steel-wool, all the while being screamed at to go faster, work harder and do more.
You trying to keep up with an endless supply of drink orders, many of which involve multi-step processes to perform correctly, employing skills that take years to fully hone, trying to memorise vastly different cocktail-recipes/coffee-making techniques, running from one side of the bar to the other because someone asked for the brand of vermouth that happens to be at the very back of the highest shelf which is inaccessible without stacking a bin on top of a stool and balancing on top of it, then performing somewhat complex monetary calculations in your head instantaneously, all without fucking up, dropping anything or pissing anybody off. If you get really unlucky, you might even have to deal with some drunk and hostile cock-head trying to fight you because he thinks you short-changed him, gave him the wrong drink or momentarily glanced at his girlfriend’s rack out the corner of your eye.
It sounds fairly daunting, but if you make a decent enough impression then survive the first week or so, you’ll pretty much be made, so long as you keep your head down, pay attention and work your arse off.
Once you’re there, the tricks for staying employed are pretty straightforward and can pretty much be covered under two headings:
DON’T BE A DICK
Your co-worker’ are going to be spending a lot of time with you, so if you make an effort to befriend them they’ll be more likely to want to keep you around despite the fact that you keep fucking up the till and keep accidentally giving people who are lactose intolerant full-cream milk. So be friendly, ask them how they are, talk shit with them, crack stupid jokes and go for after-work drinks. As one manager once said to me after I forgot to charge someone for two rounds of Peroni, “You’re lucky we all like you so much or I would have fired you weeks ago”.
Be too much of a “here to make money not to make friends: type and no matter how good you are at the work, expect to be fired on the spot the first time you turn up 10 minutes late so that they can give your job to someone who your manager actually enjoys spending most of their week with.
A sub category of this that is cause for some debate, but I personally believe is important: DON’T SCREW THE CREW. Don’t fuck your co-workers. Yes, I know they’re fun and down to earth enough that it seems like it’d be no big deal but this is an extremely stressful environment and often enough people get so tightly wound that they snap and start screaming at each other over petty bullshit like someone forgetting to give a customer an oyster fork. So any underlying tension you have with a co-worker about you trying to fuck them, or fucking them and not wanting to spoon afterwards, is going to be amplified and will almost definitely combust spectacularly in a supernova of shouting and crying and probably get you both fired. Some people will refute this and tell you that they met their partner of six years when they were working bar together, but this happens so rarely it’s barely worth mentioning and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not even close to worth the risk. Don’t screw the crew.
WORK HARD AND DON’T BITCH
Nobody cares how hungover or how tired you are, so turn up on time, stop complaining and do some fucking work. Chances are they’re just as destroyed as you are and they’re still managing to do their job just fine so there’s no excuse for not doing the same.
We’ve all had that moment where your so wrecked you crouch down behind the bar, hold your pounding head in your hands, try to ignore the sharp pain behind your eyes and the dull ache that starts in the soles of your feet and ends somewhere around the mid-thigh and whisper, “I can do this I can do this…” to yourself a couple dozen times. This is totally fine, as long as afterwards you stand up, pull yourself together and do some fucking work.
It’s amazing what you can overcome just by simply refusing to let yourself give up; I can’t count the number of times I’ve been mid-shift towards the end of a six-day week and felt like I was moments away from throwing whatever was in my hands at the nearest wall, shouting, “FUCK THIS!” and storming out to never come back. But I’ve always managed to get a hold of myself, draw up that last reserve of energy and stick it out till the end of the shift. If I can do it you can, and if you keep your head and maintain a semi-decent standard of work, you’ll get used to it, the work will start to feel easier, people will start to show you some respect and you’ll keep getting paid.
At its worst, the hospo world is harsh, demanding, and on the rare occasion, soul destroying, but it is in many ways a young person’s industry, which means at its best it’s an easy way to make friends, meet babes, score free booze and get drug connections as well as being a fun place to make money, and once you start building your skill-set to a point where you can take pride in it, experience that can get you employed just about anywhere in the world. If there is such a thing as a traveler’s dream industry, hospo comes pretty fucking close to being exactly that.