Danler tells Moneyish how working in restaurants helped her land a bestselling book deal and TV show.
Waitressing was more than just a day job for this bestselling author.
“Sweetbitter” author, creator and executive producer Stephanie Danler turned working in restaurants into a two-book deal reported to be in the high six-figures and a hotly anticipated TV show premiering May 6 on Starz. And she says being the best at her serving job is what helped her make it all happen.
“The restaurant industry gave me my work ethic, which made me finish the book in two years,” Danler, who got her first restaurant job when she was 15, told Moneyish. “I’d never had a Saturday night off in my adult life. I loved working Saturday nights. I loved the intensity of them, and I love how wild everyone is. I love those sloppy people that come in at midnight. So many stories.”
One of which became her own. “Sweetbitter,” Danler’s fictional debut novel loosely based off of her own experience working in restaurants, hit shelves in 2016 and was praised as the modern-day “Kitchen Confidential.” The coming-of-age story, now adapted for TV, follows Tess (played by Ella Purnell), a 22-year-old who moves to New York City on her own to pursue a new life. She gets invited to train at one of the best restaurants in the city, where she becomes overwhelmed and immersed in the fast-paced, chaotic and messy restaurant culture. She quickly becomes intoxicated by the hospitality world: savoring oysters and expensive wine; doing cocaine in dive bar bathrooms; hooking up with the hot bartender — and, most importantly, earning respect from the other servers.
Danler, 34, worked as a waitress at Union Square Cafe for a year after moving to the city from Los Angeles at 22. She went on to work at other upscale New York restaurants such as French bistro Buvette, and said she’s never had a desk job. The charismatic poetry lover says she’s “incredibly grateful” for her success, and still shocked by it all. She has nearly 20,000 Instagram followers; the TV show has already garnered more than 5,000 fan posts with the hashtag #Sweetbitter on social media; and there’s even a new line of tote bags colored the same salmon pink as her book cover slated for May 7 that read “f—k brunch” — a direct quote from the book.
“The speed of all this has little to do with me, and more to do with the culture of being ready for a book about young women, and for a different side of the restaurant industry,” Danler mused about how quickly her book became a TV show.
Spotlighting a young woman experiencing the sexual politics of kitchens first-hand is a timely and important show for television amid the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, as once top-shelf chefs like Mario Batali and John Besh have come under fire for their alleged inappropriate behavior towards women.
“We’re showing what it felt like to be a 22-year-old woman in 2006 in the restaurant industry,” said Danler, who experienced it all. “It’s not so dramatized; it’s real. It’s about abuses of power that actually happen; the microaggressions that actually happen; and flirtation that actually happens. Just in being about a young woman, the show is already in dialogue with this movement, and evidence why the movement needed to happen.”
“Sweetbitter” also highlights the importance of female leadership in restaurants. Simone (played by Caitlin FitzGerald), a more seasoned and sophisticated waitress who can tell what region a wine is from after one sip, takes Tess under her wing to mentor her in a maternal way; an empowering female relationship you don’t typically see portrayed on TV, which often defaults to cat fights and one-upwomanship.
If anything, Danler hopes that people will have more respect for service workers now; the industry carries the stigma of being for those who have failed at their careers, or aimless people who haven’t found anything that they’re passionate about yet.
“For a long time, it wasn’t a legitimate industry. It didn’t provide benefits, it didn’t provide wage increases. Your pay fluctuates, so it’s thought of as a job with no stability. There were no HR departments, and there were no rules or laws, and the health inspector was someone you paid off in the back alley,” Danler noted.
“Part of the reason it has changed so much is because it has rules and it’s not operating like a subculture like the Wild West anymore. It has become a more and more legitimate profession,” she added, highlighting restaurateur Danny Meyer as an example in offering health benefits, hourly raises and a no-tipping policy aimed at enforcing wage equality to workers in the back of house at his restaurants.
So, bottom line, don’t knock the service industry. Danler shared the career advice she picked up while using her service gig as a springboard for other opportunities.
Don’t shove your project down people’s throats
Danler was waiting on an editor at Random House for two years before she approached him about her novel. She says it’s important to build relationships and trust before giving someone influential in your network the hard sell.
“You never talk about your own projects at work unless you are invited,” she explained. “You should be focused on doing your job as well as possible; that’s what makes people notice you. Boundaries are really important … and that isn’t to say that the relationships that you make will not cross boundaries. Once they’re open, it’s a free-for-all.”
Don’t mix work with pleasure
Being around indulgences like wine and cocktails can be tempting at an office happy hour or work event, but Danler advises against staying out late to drink with co-workers.
“My advice is to not go to the bar after work. The job has a time-to-money ratio that will be in your favor as long as you don’t indulge in the extracurriculars,” Danler suggested, adding: “When I went back to school, I was waiting tables, working until 4 a.m., and I was watching this culture that’s always going to exist, exist. But I was in my early 30s, and I wanted to go to sleep because I was working on a novel.”
Set a time limit
If you know you don’t want to be stuck in your current job position forever, set a timeframe of how long you want to stay there, and how much you plan to save. Then keep working toward those goals.
“I hired a woman once who was coming to the restaurant to save up money to travel around the world … and I thought, ‘You will never get out of here. You left your corporate job; you’re going to fall in love with this bartender; you’re going to try cocaine and I’ll see you here in 10 years,’” Danler recalls. But this woman proved her wrong. “She did it: One year, and traveled around the world. She did it and didn’t go back to restaurants.”
© 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved