There are certain rules for family members. You don’t borrow money, and you don’t work together. You do anything to avoid tension with the people you can’t avoid.
But when you’ve grown up first generation in an Italian family, and you own a restaurant, all the rules go out the window.
For 40 years, my father has owned and operated a successful Italian restaurant in the Hudson Valley of New York state. For two-thirds of his life, he’s had the same schedule, the same workplace, and the same, ever-changing, entrepreneurial expectations.
Our Italian restaurant has employed a rotating cast of characters in our storied past, and 90% of them were complete strangers. But the backbone of the employees are family—aunts, uncles, cousins, daughters, wives. And for the last 24 years, since I was born, I’ve been along for the ride.
I’ve worked at my family’s restaurant since I was 12 years old and could help out bussing tables during the busy weekend shifts. For literally half my life, I’ve been working with my family, with various degrees of success. Here’s what I want you to know.
I owe my sense of family to the job
The worst part of being a restaurant owner is the long hours. And the worst part about being the wife or daughter of a restaurant owner is that you’ll never see your husband or your father.
When I was a very young child, I hated that I never got to see my dad because he left early and came home late. So when I was old enough to hold two plates on one hand, I begged to be able to work so that I could always be around my dad.
I also joined my two older sisters in the ranks of busgirl/server, my four cousins, three aunts, and an uncle, as well as my father. Because we spent so much time together working, I got to grow up constantly with my family. My father encouraged us to work so that he didn’t miss out on time with his family, which was a huge priority for him.
Work was what brought us together. Now I’m extremely close to my family, whether it’s immediate or my extended second-cousin thread, and I owe those relationships entirely to my time working in our family restaurant.
There will always be fights
The common wisdom is that you shouldn’t work with your family, because they’ll end up driving you nuts and you’ll end up hating each other. But the reality is that even though those fights definitely will occur, they’re not always that catastrophic.
Working with your family is a challenge, because you can’t hate your co-workers if you’re family. Or, you can’t really show it. But you have to make a choice: would you rather work with strangers, or spend time working with people you love?
Your dad as a boss comes with certain perks
When I was a teenager, working on weekends gave me structure and discipline, but it also meant that I could take off much more easily than my friends could (those who had weekend jobs, that is). When your dad is your boss, he’s strict but fair. He’ll let you have off sometimes, but he’ll also teach you the value of hard work and of working for everything you have.
I stopped getting an allowance when I was 12, i.e. when I finally got my way and started working a few shifts here and there. My parents took that opportunity to let me earn my own money. From that day, I stopped asking them to buy me things, and saved as much as I could to buy the things I wanted, from movie tickets to new purses.
Your job becomes a second home
Before I started working, I spent my weekends at the restaurant coloring, hanging out with my cousins, and growing up in an atmosphere every bit as familiar and precious to me as a childhood home. So when I started working, I took more pride in my job than I would have if I’d been working for strangers.
When you’re emotionally invested in a job, you’ll perform better. You care more when your performance makes a difference, however small you think it is, in the success of the business. And when you do well and develop skills that’ll last you a lifetime, you feel twofold pride: that you’re capable, and that you’ve contributed to the success of a family enterprise.