Working in the restaurant industry will haunt your dreams

Why people still have nightmares about 10-table sections even years after they quit serving.

Working in the restaurant industry will haunt your dreams

Why people still have nightmares about 10-table sections even years after they quit serving.

Donald Goodman dreamed that his high school in New Jersey had become a restaurant. He was a server, and his section was a packed gymnasium. Stretched from one end of the basketball court to the other, demanding customers sat at round tables, long tables, and two-tops.

The kitchen, located in the cafeteria, was on the other side of the school. He ran from one end of the building to the other carrying trays of food, but he wasn’t fast enough. He had too many tables, too many customers. Unable to juggle all of their needs, he ended up in the weeds — restaurant industry slang for being overwhelmed.

When the tension became too much to endure, his eyes shot open, and he sat up, feeling stressed, anxious, and angry. “I was robbed of rest,” he said.

Hearing about other people’s dreams might be boring for some, but nightmares like this are shared so often among restaurant industry workers that there’s a slang term: “waitmares,” which can continue long after a server, bartender, or line cook has switched careers. Goodman, 28, left the restaurant industry three years ago to work in a warehouse, but every few months, he still gets a nightmare about being weeded. I stopped waiting tables in 2018, and I occasionally get waitmares too.

Most adults dream about work, but, according to Tore Nielsen, director of the Dreams and Nightmares Laboratory at the University of Montreal, having nightmares about a former occupation likely indicates that the job had “well-defined rush hours in which contact with the public was involved.”

For an event coordinator, that rush could be the first day of a trade show. For a paramedic, it might be responding to a pile-up on the freeway. In the restaurant industry, the rush hours are both dreaded and necessary, since being busy means you can pay your bills. With the exception of seven states where restaurant workers earn a full minimum wage, servers and bartenders depend on customers’ tips for their income.

Money is only one of the stress factors. The challenge of juggling multiple tables at once, while navigating a chaotic kitchen, gives people a lot of anxiety. However, working under this kind of pressure can be exhilarating. Nielsen, a former sous chef himself who told me he doesn’t have waitmares, said that restaurant workers who successfully navigate a dinner rush are displaying peak efficiency under duress.

“They come from anything with levels of anxiety tied to it. That’s why a lot of us still have nightmares about losing your locker combination or forgetting about a test in high school.”
Tore Nielsen, director of the Dreams and Nightmares Laboratory

“Like athletes who are ‘in the zone,’ [servers] are working at their very best and in an automatic way,” Nielsen said. “It’s tough but rewarding, and that can make one feel uber-competent. It can also be addictive.”

I was hooked on the charge of adrenaline I’d get as I greeted and tried to charm a new table of customers, which I did with my next list of tasks lined up inside my head. The adrenaline and the money are why I went in and out of the restaurant industry for over a decade.

Lindie Hardee loves the money and adrenaline the industry provides, too. She started waiting tables as a teenager, but took a four-year break in her mid-20s to be an assistant manager of an Ulta Beauty store in South Carolina. While she worked in retail, she had waitmares at least once a month. One night, she dreamt that the Ulta store had become a restaurant. “There were tables of people in each aisle,” she said. “I ran around, trying to sell makeup and wait on people.”

Customers play a large role in Jen Regnier’s nightmares, as well. Regnier, a 34 year-old who left the restaurant industry in 2018 to return to college full-time, said she has a recurring dream where she’s waiting tables in an ever-growing section of “Karens,” which is slang for a middle-aged white woman who demands to speak to the manager when something minor doesn’t go her way. “All they think about is themselves,” Regnier said.

Disgruntled customers as a common theme in waitmares might have more to do with how our memories work than the customers’ behavior. Nielsen said that humans remember emotionally intense events that involve other people more than other memories. “It is probably not that unusual that they remain in memory and come out in the form of dreams, even years after quitting the business,” he said.

Researchers haven’t identified which occupations cause the most nightmares, according to Michael Nadorff, director of the Sleep, Suicide, and Aging Laboratory at Mississippi State University. “They come from anything with levels of anxiety tied to it. That’s why a lot of us still have nightmares about losing your locker combination or forgetting about a test in high school,” Nadorff said. “You usually see it with professions connected to trauma. First responders have a ton.”

Nightmares are a main symptom of PTSD. Nadorff and Nielsen agree that waitmares could indicate that a former restaurant worker was traumatized by their experiences. But it also could be an idiopathic nightmare, which means they have no known cause. Nadorff said there are two reasons why no one has discovered a cause for idiopathic nightmares: people really don’t like hearing about other people’s dreams and there aren’t many researchers dedicated to the topic.

Goodman believes his waitmares are the result of trauma. For three years, he worked at a chain Italian restaurant that he described as busy during every shift. The money was good, but it caused him too much stress. “I was an actor all day,” he said. “It was always a marathon. You aren’t allowed to slow down. And being in the weeds is like drowning. You have so much to do; your body operates like a machine, shooting through tasks. Inside you’d rather be dead than take on another table, but you need the money, so you deal with it.”

The pressure connected to falling into the weeds is rooted in money: If you become overwhelmed, then you give bad service, and don’t get a good tip. A lack of control adds to the anxiety. A server doesn’t know who they’re waiting on, what their expectations are, or if they are about to get another table, and they have no power over the quality or timeliness of the food. If the kitchen workers fall into the weeds, it could screw the wait staff out of money.

Melissa Lynaugh Mayhew, who was a chef for 30 years before becoming an office manager, said the waitmares she has had since leaving the restaurant industry usually revolve around the ticket machine. In one dream, she’s trying to close the kitchen, but the manager keeps seating customers, and a stream of order tickets spit out of the little gray machine. She runs out of room to pin them up, so she starts holding them in her mouth.

“We all kind of joke about how we have PTSD from listening to the ticket machine go off,” she said. “You still feel like you can hear it go off in your sleep sometimes. And you immediately feel the anxiety that comes with it.”

Nielsen theorizes that non-PTSD nightmares can be a sign of low-grade trauma or adversity. He said adversity could be defined to include emotional or physical neglect, poverty, chronic illness, and separation from parents at an early age. Imagery Rehearsal Therapy, a cognitive-behavioral treatment for reducing the intensity and number of nightmares, is the leading way to treat people with PTSD, according to Nadorff. He also said he often urges people without PTSD to use the Dream EZ app, which was developed by the Department of Defense for veterans.

The restaurant industry has one of the highest rates of mental health issues in the country. As restaurant owners begin to address that crisis, they need to include trauma-induced chronic nightmares along with depression and addiction. The haunting might end, long after the aprons are hung up.

Gavin Jenkins is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Vice, Mel, and Narratively.