Get All the Juicy Details on the Rags to Dishes Service Industry Podcast

We sat down with the restaurant issues podcast creators Max and Dan for a (somewhat profanity-free) interview to learn more about the show. 
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Dan Cotter and Max Messier Richter of the Rags to Dishes podcast.

Max Messier Richter and Dan Cotter are former restaurant colleagues and friends who run a popular service industry podcast called Rags to Dishes. They created the podcast about eighteen months ago in the middle of the pandemic to discuss issues that the hospitality industry is facing and to vocalize stories about what really happens behind the scenes in kitchens and dining rooms across the state.

They call it “the best service industry podcast” and they’ve worked hard to produce fifty-two (warning: often foul-language-filled) episodes that resonate on both local and national levels. Subject matter includes everything from restaurant war stories, sexual harassment, poor treatment of staff, mental illness and more, always punctuated by good storytelling and humor, straight from the sources.

We sat down with Max and Dan for a (somewhat profanity-free) interview to learn more about the podcast.

Jamie: What made you want to do this podcast? 

Max: It’s coming up on a year and a half. I had previously done a hockey podcast by myself, but it didn’t really work out. I wanted to do a podcast about something I know. I know about hockey and I know about food. Then our friend Kacey Silvia expedited the idea and said why don’t you make it about “the Establishment” [the restaurant that shall not be named made its first appearance in Episode 1: “Origins”] that me and Dan met at, and it kept building. When the idea started coming together, I was like there’s no one else that would work as well with me as Dan. Me and Dan have a history and he’s funny.

You met at “the Establishment” and connected through mutual employment?

Dan: Everyone who worked there always thought it was such a dramatic place to work with all this juicy drama going on behind the scenes. We always say it would be the best reality show ever if there could be a reality show about “the Establishment,” but that obviously never happened. A podcast was almost the next best thing. We could get the crazy stories out into the ether, but then it evolved from there to being about the restaurant industry in general, specifically in Rhode Island. It’s taken off from there.

I know some of the themes you have tackled are on a broader national level, but the podcast focuses on situations that happened locally too. Why do you think it’s important to share stories from people who come on your podcast?

Dan: Since the pandemic started, the service industry has been having a moment. People are realizing that people who work in the service industry are really important to our country and how our world functions. I think it’s important to get these stories out there so that people understand what it’s like to work in the service industry and hopefully they’ll think differently before they yell at a server. The first idea was to get these crazy stories out there. And now it’s turned into more like maybe we can change the way that people think about working in the service industry.

Yes, and maybe treat people differently. It’s gone through all the phases right? It’s gone from suddenly losing your job and being unemployed and trying to figure out how you’re going to survive, to now having your jobs back and being so under-staffed. Did either of you experience that?

Max: I got super lucky because my boss saw what was coming a couple days before we actually shut down, so I was able to collect unemployment before the system jammed. I didn’t have a job for six months, then I had a job for two months, and then covid ruined that. Then basically, it was a year without work. I can’t complain. I definitely took advantage and made some pretty good money from the government.

I know many service employees were making more money than they would in the restaurant industry. 

Max: That’s how the podcast came together, basically. That first $1,200 check I spent on our equipment in order to launch the podcast.

Investing is something that can give you a future, too. Then you go from that to getting your job back, and all of a sudden, dining out is back. Everyone wants to dine out. Then you have to enforce the mask ordinance and go through that whole phase. You guys were in the kitchen and probably didn’t have to deal with that part.

Dan: Actually, I have been out of the industry for awhile now. I work in the cannabis industry at a medical facility in Massachusetts. We never shut down. I was working throughout the whole pandemic so I was very fortunate for that. I had never experienced the pandemic from working in the kitchen.

That’s a good industry to be in as of yesterday in Rhode Island. 

Max: As of today, it’s legal.

With things in the dining industry being back in full swing, everyone has had to go through this roller coaster of events. What are some of the most memorable stories that have been told to you in terms of episodes? For the beginner coming to your podcast.

Dan: The most memorable story for me has to be from the episode “The Baseball King.” Would you agree Max?

Max: Top five. No doubt. You’ll have to listen to our episode “Barista Baseball” with my manager Mark Hundley. He got into a home run derby with a customer.

Dan: That was a good one. Our friend Jimmy had a three episode run. He has some wild stories from back in the day. We used to work with him at “the Establishment.” Back then, he used to regale us with his stories about working for Amtrak back on the railroad and we finally got him to go on the podcast [“The Railroad Trained Me to Be an Animal”].

Max: Jimmy is now sober, and he got into a lot of crazy shit he did when he wasn’t sober. That’s a really good one. I always say the one with James Mark from north and Big King [“Only Do It If You Can Afford It“]. That one is the definition of what we are going for with the podcast. He tells this super violent story of a woman’s arm getting mashed in a commercial mixer, but at the same time, you get the camaraderie of his friend letting him live with him when he got kicked out of his house and was living out of his car. He touched all the bases that we go for with the podcast.

James clued me into your podcast, too.

Dan: We owe him a thanks for that, but his episode was mostly great because he was one of our first guests to come on and just be extremely real and upfront and no holds barred about what the industry is really like. He came on and was like, “I don’t make any money doing this. And if I did make money, it would be at the expense of the people working for me.” It would mean getting cheaper ingredients and stuff like that. At the dispensary I work at, the guy who runs the kitchen, he went to Johnson and Wales, and James actually spoke at the graduation. And he told me that James was the only person who was honest with the graduating class. He was like, “Listen, if you are not willing to be your own plumber, to be your own electrician, to be your own therapist or dishwasher, then don’t get into this.” Because it’s not like the Food Network where everything is nice and clean all the time.

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A young Max and Dan working together at “the Establishment.”

I am sure James touched on many things like abuse in the kitchen and all of the things that he experienced, which is a common theme where it used to be cool to talk down to your staff. 

Dan: We talked about that a lot. I look back on my behavior specifically. I used to work in kitchens and I was a monster. To say I was toxic was the tip of the iceberg. I used to think it was cool to be like “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” I think it’s one of those things where if I’m being mean to you and you can handle it, then you’ll make it, but if you’re crumbling under the pressure, you won’t make it. And looking back on it, it’s like hey, maybe don’t be mean to people. Maybe don’t force people to have this baptism by fire, where they have to make it through you to actually have a job there.

It’s almost like because you probably experienced the abuse from someone else, then you turn around and deliver it to someone else. I think that stereotype is getting broken down the more people get called out for it. I’m sure it still exists in some kitchens. 

Max: It’s trickle down fu@%anomics. You get shit on and in turn, shit on the person below you. But behavior is now very quick to be exposed. We had the Bucktown episode [“Don’t Donate to Bucktown!“].

That was the episode I saw the most people talking about and it drew a lot of attention to what you guys were doing. 

Max: We got a huge boost in listeners and followers after that one dropped. Sometimes we drop one and it will catch on a little bit, but that one, I woke up and I was like whoa. A lot of people were listening to this.

Anything dealing with sexual harassment too. I know many people have experienced it. It’s a whisper network where people know, and people tell you in person, but people are sometimes afraid to go on public record to say anything. 

Dan: It’s been great to have people come on and go on the record about some of these businesses. There are establishments that frankly don’t deserve not to be called out. They shouldn’t be allowed to keep treating people the way they are treating them. And if no one will go on the record, it’s just going to keep happening. We saw a new direction, a new door open up we could go through. We don’t want to be known as the “let’s drag a restaurant every week” podcast. We’re not here to drown small businesses. We’re here to lift up small businesses. But there are some small businesses where people should know on the record what’s going on behind the scenes so that they can make an educated choice about whether they want to support that business.

Max: Building off of what Dan said earlier about the pandemic, it’s weird timing that the industry is so fragile right now. Businesses are very sink or swim. If they are not adapting to the way the pandemic has changed the industry, they’re failing pretty hard. That’s why you have businesses that can’t find people who want to work for them.

It’s a trickle down effect. If they don’t have enough staff, they can’t open and they can’t satisfy their customers, then obviously the customers are going to be vocal about that. It’s survival of the fittest with restaurants. 

Are there places that through your podcast you have come to respect more or that deserve more credit than they are getting?

Dan: With James and north and Big King, obviously those are pretty well established and famous restaurants in Providence. I already knew north and respected how good the food was, but after meeting James and hearing him talk about how he was not making any money but making sure his people were getting paid, it gave me so much more respect for him as a business owner. He is a person who is doing it the right way. He might say it differently. “If I was doing it the right way, maybe I would make money.” But he knows how to run a business correctly with respect to treating people the right way, choosing ingredients the right way, and not cutting corners, except for not paying himself.

He has said he’s a terrible business person. And unfortunately, we’re losing both restaurants as they are closing next month.

Max: I know. I was about to say that. When we had Frankie from Figidini on [“The Evolution of the Dough“], it gave me a better appreciation for what he does. I know Frankie. Great guy. And I’ve always liked Figidini’s food, but after hearing him break down the science of how he makes the dough, I was like wow, I am going to taste that pizza dough with a different bite next time. You know what I mean?

Did you know you used to not even be able to take a pizza to-go there?

Max: He told us, and he still doesn’t cut them.

Can we talk a little about the theme of sexual harassment? Can we talk about how that has come to light and how you think the industry has changed now that people talk about it a little more?

Dan: I would say personally, especially the early episodes, we would talk about some of the wild stuff we were up to back in the day in the kitchen. So much of it wouldn’t fly, or shouldn’t have flown at the time. I agree that the industry is moving in the right direction in regards to sexual harassment and people are more comfortable calling it out. It’s so intertwined with the restaurant industry. It’s a day one thing. You watch movies or TV shows that are about the restaurant industry, and so much of it is about stuff that is just not okay.

Max: Like that moving Waiting. It’s a somewhat unrealistic movie, but I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that working in the industry, you get a job at a restaurant and get put in this social bubble. A lot of sexual harassment in the industry is super immature. There are also evil people out there doing messed up stuff.

Dan: The restaurant industry is also famous for inter-company dating and stuff. I feel like most of the problematic sexual harassment doesn’t result from stuff like that, it’s more like owners of restaurants treating staff members in a weird way. I used to hear stories like when I had one of my first restaurant jobs in Narragansett. The owner only ordered one size of black T-shirt for the waitresses, and if you don’t fit the T-shirt, you don’t get the job. Bro, that is so messed up.

Max: There is some business, they used to strictly hire just blonde girls. A friend of mine couldn’t get a job there because she was a brunette. This is back when I was in high school ten years ago. It’s an industry where it’s easy to get away with bad shit. It’s easy to be exploited.

Dan: Most restaurants don’t have an HR department, unless you work for a national chain like Applebee’s or something like that. There is no HR person to go to, and even if you brought that situation up, a lot of people would be like “why don’t you go cry in the walk-in.”

Max: Where I work now, it’s not like “the Establishment” at all. Things are very well behaved. It’s a mature and professional place to work. But me and Dan say every once in a while, we want to go back. There is something about that chaotic lifestyle that people like. I’m a morning person now. When I was twenty-one and loved to party, it was the best industry to be in because you made fast money. You got out of work late, you went straight to the bar.

Dan: You are already with your friends, you go to the bar with everyone. Get wasted all night, get up tomorrow, and do the same thing. It’s really fun in your early twenties and it’s very taxing in your late twenties, then you get out of it in your thirties. Every once in a while, we get an urge where I would want to take a celebrity dish shift, but only for one day. I wouldn’t want to do it regularly.

Not all of it was bad, I’m sure. It’s a place where you probably made some of the best friends of your life through working and hanging out after work, and that is not a bad thing. But yes, there is the culture to drink a lot and do shots and have a shift drink. I worked in restaurants in college. It’s been a long time, but we had that vibe going on. Do you think that has changed or is it still a thing where people want to party hard?

Dan: I still feel like it’s definitely a thing. That thing, besides the money, might be one of the reasons why people aren’t leaving the industry in droves. People love that lifestyle. If you vibe with it, there’s nothing better. I do miss laughing and joking in the kitchen all day, then it gets so busy and you can’t do anything, but work your ass off. You turn around and your shift’s over, and you’re looking at each other like “wow, we just went through some shit, man.” It’s that camaraderie. It’s like being on the battlefield together. It brings you so much closer. Then you go out and party all night. I don’t think that will ever leave the industry. I think that’s always going to be a big part of it. As long as it’s a chaotic atmosphere and as long as people are getting their asses handed to them in kitchens, it’s going to be like that.

If someone out there working in the local restaurant industry has a story to share, what’s the best way to pitch you to go onto your podcast?

Max: the most effective way would be to DM the Instagram at Rags to Dishes Podcast. I don’t want a cover letter, but maybe a little intro and chat it up. Elevator pitch. Here’s my name and here’s my story.

I know some of the issues that come up are pretty controversial like the Bucktown situation, or other issues involving sexual harassment and things like that. Do you have any decision-making between the two of you on what you’d run with, or a way to check facts before you go with a story?

Dan: We always tell people when we go to record episodes, we edit this, so if you later feel like you said something you shouldn’t have said or used somebody’s name, and you want to leave the name out, we can bleep out names. The whole reason we say “the Establishment” and not the name of the restaurant was because we didn’t want to drag this place where we worked by name all the time. To be honest, the juiciest stories we have about “the Establishment,” we haven’t gotten into. I don’t know if we ever will get into it because there could be legal implications and things we don’t want to get into.

Max: A lot of people Direct Message us trying to be like “hey, I have the juice on this.” That’s not really what we are looking for. We want some juicy stories, but we’re looking for good stories in general. I want to hear from someone who has had an illustrious career. Not just this place treated me like shit and I don’t want anyone going there.

Listen to Rags to Dishes.

Follow @ragstodishespodcast on Instagram.

 

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