Working in a restaurant is unlike any other job out there. It’s fast-paced, collaborative, and always interesting. You never know who’s going to sit at your table or at your bar.
If you love meeting and working with people, then a Front of House service position might be job for you.
But even the best servers and restaurant workers have difficult days. When things get busy and chaotic, sometimes the best reward can be that one big tip.
Getting those tips doesn’t have to be the luck of the draw. In fact, every great server who pulls in the big tips has pretty much the same set of skills and qualities.
And those skills and qualities were the very same ones that got their foot in the door in the restaurant business.
In this post, we’ll guide you in how to get a job at a restaurant, the hard and soft skills you need to get the job and then how to translate those skills into a successful career in the restaurant business.
The Pros and Cons of Being a Server
If you’re thinking about joining the restaurant industry, the first question you need to ask yourself is this: Is a job as a server a good fit for me?
Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of restaurant work that make it unique.
Flexible Work Hours
Restaurants need servers who can work weekends, evenings, mornings, and mid-day shifts. You may work all weekend and have Monday and Tuesday off. Or you may work evenings and have the entire day to yourself.
On the flip side, scheduling is a big challenge for a lot of restaurant managers. At times, you may find out your schedule only a few days ahead of time, although cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York now require adequate notice for scheduled workers, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.¹
And your schedule can affect your tips. If you work busy weekend nights in a neighborhood hotspot, you may bring in better tips than if you worked the quieter lunch shift.
A Dynamic Atmosphere
Restaurants have up times and down times. Some are expected. For instance, the row of fast-casual restaurants in Boston’s Fenway area, right near the ballpark, are busy just before a game, but slow down a bit after the game starts and fans head to the park.
(Servers have fuller tables and more tipping opportunities as fans fuel up before the game.)
Some are unexpected. A restaurant with a large patio may have a slow lunch if an unexpected rainstorm closes their outdoor seating area.
And you never know who is going to walk through the door. Even if you work in an upscale establishment that takes reservations months in advance, you still don’t know what kind of customers you’ll get on any given night.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to be on your toes, constantly adapting to a changing work environment, then working in a restaurant could be for you.
On-The-Job Training and Kudos for Experience
Restaurants can struggle with being short-staffed and have a high turnover rates. In a survey of 161 restaurant managers conducted by the Nation’s Restaurant News and Informa Engage, 61 percent of respondents admitted that high turnover and hiring was their number one concern.
Because there is such a high churn, some managers and restaurant owners are willing to train employees with no experience.
And if you do have experience (and good references), you are highly desirable.
Working Closely with People
Teamwork and collaboration is a big part of success in restaurant work. Restaurant employees work closely to create the best possible experience for their guests.
But it can also be very stressful, especially when shifts are busy and everyone is working hard. Tempers can boil over and mistakes made, and that’s ok.
As a front of house service professional, you’ll be interacting with all kinds of people, from all walks of life, with many different personalities and moods.
Eventually, you’ll have to serve guests who may be unhappy with their food or their service, harried parents trying to keep their kids under control, or guests who are simply having a bad day.
It’s important to be friendly and helpful in all situations, and patience with guests who can stretch your skills.
Don’t take unhelpful comments personally. Let bad nights go, and treat each new shift as a new opportunity to earn yourself a good living and provide amazing service customers. With an attitude like that, great tips will flow freely.
Find a Restaurant That’s a Good Fit
Just like any other company, a restaurant should be the right culture fit. The type of restaurant, the concept, the people who work there, its popularity, and employer expectations should all fit well with your own personality, working style, and needs.
And good culture fit can be the key to getting hired even if you have little or no prior experience in the restaurant industry.
Aim for the type of restaurant you know you can succeed in. If you are a foodie who obsesses over exotic or artisanal ingredients try to find a position in a high-end dining establishment. If you’re new, look for restaurants that offer on-the-job training, start a host, barback or busser to learn how things work–then work your way up. If you’re an extraverted socialite, or sports fan, try to find a sports bar, a lively fast-casual, or night-time hot spot.
William Hickey is a recruiter for California-based The Party Staff Inc., a restaurant and event staffing agency. He agrees. “People like Peter Luger Steak House and Outback Steakhouse for different reasons. The right server will fit into a specific climate if their values, goals, and expectations align with the values, goals, and expectations of the restaurant.”
Try eating at the restaurant before applying. Watch the waitstaff and see how they interact. How many tables are they covering? What is their demeanor like? Are you drawn to them, or not?
Kasey Fielding has worked in several positions at a number of restaurants over the last 12 years. She recommends shadowing a server, if you can. “I think it’s always a good idea to try to do a stage shift (like a shadow-a-server kind of shift) somewhere before you take a job and start training — see if the vibe works for you, see if it's a place you can see yourself working.”
Once you’ve found an ideal work environment and a culture fit, it’s time to prepare your resume and get ready for the interview.
Server Skills for Your Resume
We took a look at several server job listings on Indeed.com. Here is a quick bullet list of the skills restaurants look for in a waiter or waitress:
- A strong sense of team
- Great with people
- High-energy, outgoing
- Ability to take food orders and deliver them to the kitchen accurately
- Ability to deliver food to tables in a timely, friendly way
- Strong problem-solving skills, particularly with guest complaints
- Knowledge of the menu with the ability to make suggestions
- Ability to work in a fast-paced environment
- Ability to multitask
Your resume should reflect at least some of the requirements listed above, but it should also include any ‘soft skills’ you might have developed.
And when you go in for an interview, make sure those soft skills shine.
Hickey says he looks for positivity and adaptability in his candidates. “When an applicant walks in the door, I like to see how they interact with our receptionist, office staff, and fellow applicants,” he says. “After all, they will be at the forefront of the guest dining experience. For that reason, I want to know that they will be hospitable from the get go. In most cases, a genuine smile and a pleasant hello will go a long way.”
These are the very same skills that will help you earn big tips, too.
Every resume you submit should be tailored to each restaurant you apply to. Don’t write a generic resume for every job. Highlight skills and experience that speak directly to the type, concept, and size of each restaurant.
There are some key elements, however, that should appear in every resume you submit, according to Indeed.com:²
- Your resume should begin with a clear, targeted objective statement that highlights your previous experience.
- The objective statement is followed by a detailed list of your previous jobs, particularly in restaurants, and your education.
- List any certifications or special skills (certifications for pairing wines with food for high-end restaurants, experience with kids for family restaurants, etc.).
- If you have no previous experience, list jobs, internships, educational experience or awards that speak to the skills you need to work as a server.
For a sample resume, check out Monster.com.³
3 Ways to Land Your First Big Tip
Whether you’ve worked in restaurants before or you’re just learning how to get a job at a restaurant, there is always a learning curve when you start a new job. You’re going to have to learn the work protocols, the menu, the specials, the busy and slow times, and how to navigate the personalities of the staff and the customers.
Once you start to get the hang of it, though, you’re ready to start impressing your bosses by making customers happy (and make great tips in the process).
1. Anticipate Needs
Monique Medina worked as a server for five years in two restaurants with a pub-like concept: LIR and Democracy Brewing in Boston. She recommends new servers learn how to read the table. Greet your table right away and use that time to gauge their needs.
“You can’t have one specific style of service. I’ve received compliments on helping liven up the party and I’ve received compliments on ‘ignoring’ people and allowing them enjoy their time together without a server or bartender interrupting.”
You should keep a close eye on your table, though, even if it means from afar. Keep track of when they put their menus down, the pace of their meal, and when they’re drinks are getting low. Don’t wait until their eyes begin wandering, looking for you.
In a fast-paced environment, there are bound to be mistakes. If you make one, the best thing you can do, Medina says, is to own up to it and fix it right away.
“Honesty is the best policy in most jobs. Don’t blame the kitchen, who is working just as hard back there, just say ‘I’m sorry’ and fix the problem.”
Then, she says, move on with your shift. “Serving and bartending is stressful on its own, don’t make yourself more flustered. It feeds into the customer’s evening and they’re less likely to feel good about you and the restaurant.”
And if a problem arises that’s out of your control, do your best to fix it quickly and immediately. Remember, your job is to make this the best meal experience you can.
3. Be Friendly and Include Personal Touches
There are all kinds of articles out there on the psychology behind getting big tips. Some are as obvious as being friendly, while others are as strange as wearing an ornament in your hair (for women).⁴
And while Jedi mind tricks may or may not work, there are several small gestures servers can use to raise their tips. The Washington Post gathered some of them together.⁵
Introduce Yourself: Once your guests are seated, go over and introduce yourself by name. Doing so creates an immediate connection.
Use a Light Touch: This one really only works for female servers. One study, according to The Post, found that tips went up by five percentage points when a serve touched their guest lightly on the hand. We suggest using this trick sparingly and with caution.
Personalize the Check: Even a simple thank you can increase your tip by four percent.
Smile: There’s no study to back this one up, but it’s just common sense. A friendly, open server puts his or her guests at ease, and what better way to show that than with a smile?
Essentially, how to get a job at a restaurant and how to earn great tips boil down to practicing and building the same skillset. If you are a friendly, adaptable, team-player who can read people very well, you will most likely have no problem finding a server position and making your bosses and your guests very happy.