“This is the Most Stressed I’ve Ever Been”: A Crumb Cafe Special

My name is Rocio Guay and I’ve worked at Crumb Cafe for four semesters, as long as anybody currently at Swarthmore has. If you’re a customer with complaints, consider this article insider knowledge. If you’re a first-time Crumb employee this semester, think of this as an early notice. And if you like going to bed at a reasonable hour, this’ll convince you that you’re not missing out.

Crumb Cafe is a student-run late-night dining option. The school likes it because we’re cheap labor, the workers like it because pretty much anyone can get hired, and the customers tolerate it because we feed them quesadillas. It used to be housed in Sharples but is now in Essie’s until the renovations are complete (never). Try the nacho fries.

Last semester, the heart of Crumb’s problem was staffing. We were lean on workers at the beginning of the semester, and it never got better. Instead, people quit. This left the remaining workers with more work to do at the same pay, which led to burnout, which caused more people to quit and created a vicious cycle. By the end of the spring semester, each night ranged from understaffed to severely understaffed. And wouldn’t you quit? As a one-night employee said, “This is the most stressed I’ve ever been!” Starvation wages for a hectic job meant we weren’t adequately compensated for the ordeals of a triple workload while trying to placate hangry customers. Every last one of us who stuck it out to the end of last semester needs to be checked for Stockholm Syndrome.

Staffing was far from the only problem; we had those in spades. The grill and other equipment constantly broke, and the college was slow to fix or replace them (if they did at all). In one instance, something died in the ceiling above the storeroom. It stayed there rotting long after we told the college about it. The smell was exactly as bad as you’d expect. Students at Paces parties next door routinely broke into our storeroom and destroyed things. When OSE learned of a few isolated cases of past Crumb workers submitting incorrect timesheets, they embarked on a crusade of unnecessary emails (remember that Swarthmore has the tenth-highest endowment per student in the country). There was a night when an angry customer kept breaking into the kitchen over a personal grievance with an on-shift employee. Another night an outside group cooked a special, only to ditch before cleaning up. Not to mention the power outages. Again, this is all from one semester. Previous semesters have had incidents with gas leaks and alcohol poisoning, but this is my first time seeing incidents at this frequency.

The result of poor staffing, poor pay, and general dysfunction was predictable: everything got worse. We didn’t take so long to make your sandwich because we were too busy sitting in Lay-Z-Boys and smoking cigars; we took so long because the person in charge of sandwiches was also in charge of nachos. We didn’t cut things from the menu because we relished the tears of French toast fans; we cut things because we ran out of people to make them. And for working tirelessly for the past three and a half hours, closing time would reward us frazzled few with a monster of a cleanup. Working at Crumb last semester was like Prometheus’ punishment, only the eagle yells at you if your liver doesn’t taste good enough.

But despite it all, I don’t hate the job or most customers. There are even some regulars that I really like. The customers I hate are those who make shifts unnecessarily difficult or stressful for us. It’s popular on campus to complain about Crumb workers, as if Crumb’s defects are personal failings of ours. Instead, issues are an obvious result of Swarthmore exploiting its workers. So this semester, consider choosing kindness if you’re a customer and good luck if you’re an employee.

1 Comment

  1. Beautifully written Rocio! Vivid imagery and compelling narrative. You deftly weave together the often conflicting and contradictory experiences of Crumb employees and dining students. You spare no words and pull no punches describing the shittyness of working at Crumb, but you do so with a nuanced empathy and tenderness for the employees which is often missing from diner critiques of Crumb. I am so proud and happy to hear that you have stuck with Crumb even through all the shit you all went through last year. I am filled with admiration for you and everyone else at Crumb. You are the backbone of this establishment – it was truly a pleasure working with you.

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