Sitting at the bar of a California Pizza Kitchen isn’t a priority for most of us right now, though I’m sure some are still doing it. The comfort of a mediocre chain restaurant is nevertheless something I miss deeply — the calorie-bomb appetizers, the drink specials, and above all, the people watching. Benji Smith’s TikToks are currently the next best thing to actually being there.
As @benjispears, Smith, 31, is best known for his bartender roleplays, which have earned him just under 57,000 followers and amassed 1.2 million likes. Like so many others, he took to TikTok for fun once the pandemic began, having been laid off from his corporate restaurant job in Rochester, New York. The restaurant eventually re-opened, but only briefly, eventually closing for good, so Smith ended up moving back with his family in Cooperstown, New York. It wasn’t until September, though, that he got the idea to set up a green screen and make TikToks pretending he was behind the bar.
“When I would just make silly videos, I’d only get like, 300 views,” he says. “The first night I did a bartending video, I posted it, had dinner, checked my phone and saw I was at 30,000 views in the first hour.”
“COVID has us all kind of stranded,” he continues. “A lot of viewers are people who were working in the restaurant business that aren’t right now. I feel like a lot of people are watching because they miss the bars.”
His videos aren’t just designed for fellow bartenders and servers, though. “Everyone can relate with the ‘Karens’ we deal with in customer service, not even just serving and bartending. Anyone that’s dealing with the general public is dealing with difficult people. My videos are what I wish I could say to my guests.”
For the people who relate more to the experience of being served rather than serving, the appeal of Smith’s TikToks is two-fold — the viewer relives the familiar experience of being in a bar and witnessing the people within it, but also learns a bit about their own behavior as customers.
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“In my fan base, I have a lot of older people,” says Smith. “I’m getting a lot of moms. A lot of the time the comments are like, ‘Oh no, this is totally me, it’s so eye-opening.’ I’m hearing people tell me that they’re more conscious of how not to act at a restaurant, or that they’ll think twice about what they say to servers.”
What’s perhaps most interesting about Smith and his videos is the worldview he provides. Although he’s been working in restaurants for most of his adult life — spending six years working various service gigs in L.A., including the flagship California Pizza Kitchen location and similar jobs in Rochester — any time he’s been home in Cooperstown, he’s worked an entirely different day job: As a garbageman.
“My grandfather started a garbage company in Cooperstown, and my father took over the company around 40 years ago, so I was born into it,” he says. “Since we were kids, we were riding the trucks with my dad. It’s always been part of my family. Growing up, I always had restaurant gigs in the summer, but my brothers and I were always helping him on the garbage trucks. Any time I’ve been in Cooperstown, even just for vacations, any time I had a day off I would hop on the truck.”
Given that he wasn’t able to work in restaurants during the pandemic, Smith’s been working on the garbage trucks with his brother Billy every day. “One day my brother was like, ‘Why don’t you come out of the truck to help with the paperwork?’ I stayed behind, but my brother came back and was like, ‘Ben, that guy in there is like your biggest fan!’”
Hoping to capitalize on his recent success, Smith moved back to L.A. last week in hopes of getting some work as a background actor. “I know the industry is down right now,” he says. “But I want to do whatever I can before I sell myself to a restaurant again.”
In the meantime, he’ll keep happily serving patrons on TikTok instead.