Most podcasts about food and restaurants are told from the point of view of customers and self-proclaimed foodies. But do you ever wonder what the staff behind the counter or bar or in the kitchen have to say? In March, Brooke Van Poppelen and Andrea Wallace launched One Star Network, the first podcast network dedicated to shows solely hosted by service industry staff. They crack wise about the highs and sometimes gross and unsanitary lows of the service industry, but also humanize the waiters and waitresses who take your order, take your shit, and take home lousy pay.
To date, the network’s podcasts include Marlon Joseph and Danny Davila’s The Modern Waiter Podcast; Qualin Harris’ Confessions of a Server; Michael Munoz’s In Yo Mouth; Danny Palumbo and James Austin Johnson’s The Macaroni Zone; and James Beard award-winning podcaster Katy Osuna’s Copper & Heat. Collectively, the hosts represent women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.
“Instead of just liking each other on Instagram, we wanted to amplify one others’ voices by becoming a team,” says Van Poppelen. “We’re trying to shape the narrative of the service industry. This is just the starting lineup. We want more diversity and more voices.”
Van Poppelen, who lives in Glassell Park, and Wallace, who lives in North Hollywood, have nearly 30 combined years as servers. Originally from Rochester, Michigan, Van Poppelen has worked at some two-dozen restaurants in Detroit, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Chicago, and L.A. Her last, pre-pandemic job was cater-waiting for Guerilla Tacos, including at the Modern Family cast wrap party. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Wallace worked at Buca di Beppo, the faux-old-school Italian restaurant chain, in not one but two cities. She’s now a full-time esthetician at Being in L.A., a skincare boutique in Silver Lake.
While waiting tables, both Van Poppelen and Wallace pursued improv and sketch comedy. The pair met at an improv class in Chicago in 2002 at what was then known as ImprovOlympic (later, iO Theater). They even started their own live comedy night at a local restaurant. Along the way, Van Poppelen also co-hosted truTV’s Hack My Life and has written for and produced several MTV shows.
In 2018, they created a podcast together, Side Work Podcast.
“We’re a very comedy-driven show,” says Wallace.
In each episode, the two discuss food-related news headlines and interview fellow servers, bartenders, and chefs, as well as comics like Matt Braunger, Dave Holmes, Sasheer Zamata, Jen Kirkman, and Beth Stelling, all of whom have had restaurant experience. They talk about fine dining, fast food, and all the places in between, from Hollywood Boulevard to Times Square. They cover such topics as 24-hour restaurants, airport restaurants, haunted restaurants, restaurant bathrooms, restaurant injuries, sports bars, cruise ships, buffets, cat cafes, the popularity of cheese wheels, and dreaded holiday shifts.
Van Poppelen and Wallace agree that the worst holidays for servers are Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. The worst customers? Bachelorette parties. The worst meal? Brunch.
“Brunch is terrible across the board,” says Wallace. “There’s just too many moving parts. Everybody wants ten extra things. Everybody wants five drinks in their face.”
“You’re meeting people at their most vulnerable and their worst,” Van Poppelen adds. “They haven’t had their coffee. They’re hungover. They’re with their family. We’ve had a lot of pushback against the after-church crowd. They’re the rudest people to wait on, hilariously enough.”
The two also read from server-submitted emails that range from heartwarming to cringeworthy to criminal. Like the time a female customer dyed her hair in the bathroom of a fish restaurant at the Jersey Shore. Or the time an Applebee’s waitress in North Carolina used a fork to stab the hand of a female customer whom she suspected was sleeping with her boyfriend. The customer didn’t press charges.
During the height of quarantine, Van Poppelen and Wallace offered laid-off servers advice on pandemic relief and unemployment. But even as restaurants gradually reopen, and COVID-19 restrictions are still in place, Van Poppelen and Wallace say that employees are now dealing with a new set of challenges, including a rise in sexual harassment aimed at waitresses.
“It runs the gamut,” says Wallace. “We’ve heard beautiful stories about loyal customers tipping well above what they should, and communities pulling together to keep restaurants afloat. Then we hear the other side. There’s an uptick in sexual harassment during the pandemic, especially in women. Their faces are covered. They’re being verbally and physically harassed. People think that waiters are now faceless drones just bringing your food, so why would we tip you? Whoever you were before COVID is just amplified now. So if you were a kind-hearted, loyal, huge tipper, you were ten times that during COVID. If you were a shitty customer who was a bad tipper, you’re probably worse than you were before.”
“Entitlement is one thing,” says Van Poppelen. “But now it’s entitlement added with a bit of ‘I don’t give a shit about rules during a pandemic and I don’t give a shit about you.’ Servers more than ever are being treated like dispensable robots. We’re dehumanized in a lot of ways, but now you add a mask, and people have been cooped up…there’s a total lack of empathy. People act like the server is the government who made the COVID laws. They’re angry about it and they take it out on servers.”
Van Poppelen and Wallace say their podcast is more than just a platform to air grievances about restaurant culture. They take pride in having worked in the service industry and say that waiting tables has shaped who they are both as performers and people.
“It elevated my knowledge of food and wine,” says Van Poppelen. “It gives you the ability to multitask at such a high level. We’re completely fine wearing a bunch of hats. It’s a job that as long as you know what you’re doing, you can absolutely fall back into. Your skill set is still there.”
“Any given night you could be in the weeds and have your ass handed to you,” adds Wallace. “Customers could hate your guts. You could get injured on the job. But I worked my ass off. Being in the restaurant business has informed me as a professional in every aspect. I work hard. I care about the people I work with. It never leaves you. That’s why we love our show. We never run out of things to talk about. Once you’ve done it and you’re in it, you know.”