Meme makers capture the laugh-cry flavor of hospitality work at a time when the industry is experiencing great precarity—and more visibility than ever
Ivy Knight began making memes about the service industry during the darkest period of her life. A Toronto-based food journalist and former cook, Knight is behind the Instagram account allezceline, which has more than 28,000 followers. During the height of the #MeToo movement, Knight was reporting on an alleged serial predator in her city’s restaurant industry, and, to communicate her rage, she began posting jokes about chef egos and front-of-house stereotypes to her personal account. A friend with a meme account suggested she try her hand at the genre: Knight had a knack for distilling tropes into biting jokes that explain big truths. She began using images of Céline Dion, beloved icon and a fellow French-Canadian whose first name Knight turned into a play on the call from Iron Chef: Allez Cuisine!
One of Knight’s Dion memes, from December 23, 2020, used a red-carpet photo of the singer giving a withering stare—representing the feelings of “every single resto worker on earth” after Eater published a story about chef David Chang’s toxic management style. Dion’s knowing, cutting stare communicated both anger and boredom in a cultural moment when many people were hell-bent on acting surprised that service work wasn’t all big tips and family meals.
Hospitality memes have become a cathartic outlet for restaurant workers and owners over the past few years. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the naked truth about how essential yet disrespected those who cook and serve food are in the United States and beyond. (Line cooks had a higher risk of death during the pandemic than any other profession, according to a 2021 study from the University of California.) Memes have emerged as a perfect medium to express the industry’s specific tedium, jargon, and humor. They can do what food magazines historically have not: treat restaurants as workplaces, rather than as holy ground, and chefs as mere cogs in the machine that gets plates from the kitchen to the table.
For Knight and allezceline, no one is above ridicule—from owner to customer to sourdough-bread baker. A recent series of images presented the new King Charles III as the child of a restaurant owner taking over after their parent passes away. “Anyone got any cocaine?”
Another post jokes about showing him the fall menu: “Just put some nice mashed tatties on there and call it a day.” Owners have a lot of say over menu development, though they usually don’t work in the restaurant day-to-day and often don’t have the same level of taste and experience as restaurant workers. These interactions can be fraught—and ridiculous—in ways allezceline makes clear in an image and a few lines of text. In a rigidly hierarchical industry where the people with the money call the shots, workers at the bottom of the ladder—the ones not interviewed for magazines or tapped to star in episodes of Chef’s Table—use memes to speak.
“I can make fun of [the industry] with impunity, because there are so many bad actors in it,” Knight says. She worked at restaurants in both Canada and the United States before turning to writing in the past decade. “I can get away with a lot even though my experiences in kitchens are from 10 or 15 years ago. Nothing changes in this stupid industry.” Whenever she thinks her well of inspiration has dried up, she goes out to eat, sees workers overwhelmed and in the weeds (restaurant speak for falling behind on serving customers), and is taken back to her own years in kitchens. “Also, if I see a funny picture of the Olsen twins, it reminds me of front of house.” Their disinterested affect and the fact that they’re often photographed smoking is particularly suited to folks who work for tips. “I’ll just be like, ‘Oh, that’s a meme.’”
Whether you’ve worked at a Waffle House off the I-95 or sold a $500 bottle of wine at Eleven Madison Park, restaurant-work experiences are, as Eli Sussman knows, universal. Sussman makes the memes shared by thesussmans, an Instagram account with nearly 70,000 followers, which produces some of the most popular hospitality memes. A former line cook and now co-owner (with his brother Max) of the Manhattan restaurant Samesa, Sussman points to the vast number of people who have passed through the restaurant industry at some point in their lives. (The industry employs 15.1 million people in the United States, according to the National Restaurant Association’s last count.) There are the lifers, the folks making money during a lull in their other work (the writers, actors, artists), and everyone who did time cleaning deep fryers during teenage summers. That huge swath of experience, covering many levels of education and economic class, has created an enormous audience for industry-specific memes that might seem niche.
“The general manager and the owner and the crazy person who works in the kitchen—those exist everywhere,” says Sussman. “The characters and the tropes and the ups and downs of a day of service—they remain the same no matter how many years you’ve been in the industry and how many different places you’ve worked.”
In other workplaces, people may slot into common types (or stereotypes). But restaurants have the Escoffier brigade system, which was developed in the late 19th century by the chef Auguste Escoffier and made the kitchen chain of command identical across the industry. These cookie-cutter roles are a goldmine for recognizable narratives—and memes. Most visible in the white-chef-coat fine-dining sphere but present even in fast food joints, the brigade is modeled on the French military and establishes the order of authority in the kitchen. Someone washes dishes, someone else calls the shots, everyone is trying to keep their heads above water. This structure is also legible to people outside the hospitality industry because this is how many work environments function, whether you’re in corporate law or at a creative startup. Hierarchies are everywhere.
The meme accounts are merciless. It’s not just the owners, cooks, servers, and media being mocked but also the finance-bro customers who, in one post, thesussmans predicts will put on chef whites for Halloween to dress up as Jeremy Allen White from The Bear. (This meme takes me back to a former job at a Brooklyn bar, where, while I was sweeping up, a guest overstaying her welcome asked me in which neighborhood she should buy a brownstone.) “Everyone is represented and no one is safe,” says Sussman.
Sussman can get deep into industry-specific jargon, too, with language like “tweezerhead stagecels”—referring to male fine-dining obsessives who work for free for famous chefs, staging perfect plates with tweezers in hand. To those of us who understand the reference, it provides a satisfying (if somewhat deranged) sense of belonging.
The scope of these meme accounts continues to expand, drilling deeper into ever more niche corners of the industry. Creators such as allezceline and thesussmans traffic in distinct but broad points of view, while shittywinememes mocks natural wine trends and servermemes dishes out posts for those who ask what you’ll be having tonight. But even these more specialized accounts are big draws. For comparison, the publishing industry’s most popular meme account, publishersbrunch, has approximately 21,300 followers, while shittywinememes has 66,700—more than three times as many.
Bartender memes are the most popular of all: the Instagram account moverandshakerco, which sells cocktail-related merchandise, has more than 140,000 followers. The account is run by Nick Hogan, a bartender and brand ambassador based in Jacksonville, Florida, who has tapped into a desire for jokes about how many “riffs on a classic” can possibly exist or customer requests for “masculine” glassware. The emotional labor required of bartenders is a common theme, and the account sets alight the idea that bartenders are willing therapists for everyone who takes a seat on a stool.
Hogan attributes the account’s success to the screen time he puts in. For instance, he knew exactly when the cocktail Negroni Sbagliato went viral, and he pounced. “A lot of it is just, like, being really timely,” he says. “I follow a lot of stuff on Reddit, just general pop culture. I find interesting meme templates that haven’t been used [for bartending jokes] or funny photos of celebrities. I try to keep my finger on the pulse.”
Alexandra Vazquez, a former bartender and current restaurant manager in San Juan, Puerto Rico, calls moverandshakerco “the masters” at hitting a tone in the sweet spot between laughing and crying at the issues workers face in the industry. “They also remind us that common sense is not that common,” she adds. One popular meme highlights the reluctance of customers to start a tab when they could close out … for now. moverandshakerco and its fellow restaurant-world meme accounts focus on the lack of understanding most workers in hospitality deal with on a daily basis—the stuff that wears you down over time.
For Knight, allezceline also offers a place for her to say in memes what she cannot in her journalism. Most people who work in the industry know which chefs are toxic and who should be avoided: whisper networks were in place long before reporters brought stories of sexual assault and “rape rooms” to the public. These realities can be hinted at through dark humor in memes long before they have been investigated thoroughly enough to pass muster with a newspaper's legal department. In her memes, “I can actually say what I think and bitch-slap these motherfuckers,” she says. “Whereas I can’t really in my writing, because there’s nobody that wants to run that article.”
The ability to say things that cannot be said in print or to a customer’s face is central to these accounts’ success. Gabrielle Reagan, a PhD student at Temple University who has spent twenty years working in restaurants, explains that hospitality memes make her feel less alone. “Sometimes you'll be waiting on somebody and be like, ‘Why is this situation so annoying? Is it just me?’ Then you’ll see a meme that’s the exact same situation—just insert a different menu item,” Reagan says.
The accounts also provide a glimmer of hope that people who have never worked in service will catch a glimpse of these memes on social media. Maybe then they’ll understand why they should be nicer and tip better in restaurants (though proof of this remains to be seen). From my perspective as an ex-hospitality worker, the memes reflect the reality of an ever more stressed and overextended workforce. A TikTok video of a waiter in the United States trying to make Europeans understand that they shouldn’t tip $2 on a $122 tab makes me wince with recognition. The comment section, however, shows people debating the merits of tipping at all, as though not tipping will somehow lead to the abolition of the practice.
While the people working in hospitality continue to deal with rude customers, clueless owners, and abusive bosses, they will continue to cope through meme-making, sharing pain and ridicule in search of release. For me, as someone now covering restaurants rather than working in them, these images keep me in touch with the specific agony of the work and also the stakes involved in writing about that labor with integrity.
Memes are immediate: that’s where their power lies. They are a passive pleasure that will occasionally punch you in the gut. You’ll be scrolling along and all of a sudden you see Christian Bale in a beanie, and he’s a dad, and he’s a creative director, and he’s just gotten into amaro.
Then bam! You’re time-warped back behind the bar at your old job, listening to someone tell you everything they just learned about natural wine and having to pretend to care. You’re reacting to the models who, hoping you’ll be impressed by their taste, lean over the bar to whisper, “Do you have any orange wine?” I never want to forget those moments. They keep me angry! Alive! And, most of all, amused. Memes give us the funny and the furious in one tidy little package.
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