How to be server with NO experience
March 18, 2009 8:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm graduating at the end of August. I would like to expand employment opportunities by working as a waitress/server. I have NO experience.

I'm a willing and ready learner. I live in a large metropolitan area. Fluent in Spanish. Yet most job postings want someone with experience. I have been in a number of odd jobs, traveled abroad and love food. I would like some temporary work that will add some well needed money and experience. Any suggestions, tips, direction?
posted by lifeonholidae to Work & Money (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Rather than offering entry level positions right now, many organizations are offering internships. If you could find a paid internship in your major, that could be very beneficial to you. That would give you the temporary status you're looking for now, while opening up the possibility for you to become a full-time hire later. Definitely stress that you are bilingual when you are applying for any position, full-time or an internship. That gives you an edge over your competition. I hope this helps. I am in a similar situation.
posted by Buttons at 8:16 PM on March 18, 2009

I used to work at Steak N Shake in Riverview, FL. I can't tell you about the business in general, but I can tell you about my experiences working there and what I observed.

If I remember correctly, they also said they wanted someone experienced. I think this was mostly a move to cover their ass and not have people apply who just wanted a job. Obviously everyone wants someone with experience, but if nobody hired people with no experience nobody would get experienced.

Part of my interview was to sit around while the manager was ignoring me talking to people behind the counter. His logic was that anyone who wanted the job bad enough would sit around and wait for him.

When I was finally talked to we sat in a booth and he asked if I wanted anything to eat and drink. Being a summer in Florida I would have loved to have a milkshake. But I passed on everything except maybe water. This is an interview, not a meal.

I think a large part of the reason I was hired was because I was willing to work the graveyard shift. It's actually a pretty decent set of hours if you can get your body adjusted. Not that many people came in, so I was paid to sit around.

The actual job is not that hard. You get orders, you bring food, and you make sure your tables are taken care of. With adults I would refill the drinks when they started to get low. I would ask with kids, because sometimes parents don't want their 8 year old to have that 3rd glass of Coke. Appetizers, soups, salad, and chili came out first. Meals next, and milkshakes when they were ready.

Pretty much you can think of all the times you went out to eat and how you liked the servers there. Finding the balance between attentive and annoying is the key. There's one restaurant I really love in Rock Hill, SC that knows when I'm about to finish my drink and very sneakily gets me another one. I barely notice they were there. One of the waiters even remembered that I always took the lemon from my girlfriend's tea and put it in my coke, so he put it there for me. Obviously you have to have regular customers for that sort of thing, and don't try anything like that unless you're absolutely sure you're right.

Keep the bad stories to yourself. Nobody wants to hear about the nightmare table you just finished with. And unless you know the people anyway, you're not their friend so don't try to be.

If you bus your own table this paragraph can be skipped. If you don't, then make the job as easy as possible for the people who do bus the tables. Clear off plates as people finish. Take the empty glasses. It's really not that hard.

Don't be afraid or have too big of an ego to ask for help. One of my first nights there was a big table of around 8 or so. I thought I could handle them by myself, and for the most part I did. But they managed to get away without paying. Not a good way to start out.

Learn the menu. I was told to take one home and memorize it. Even if you just learn it well enough to know what page everything is on, when people ask for a suggestion it looks a lot better than watching you read the entire menu looking for something.

Make sure you know your responsibilities. One night my table wasn't getting their shakes. When I went to ask about why I was told that servers had to make their own shakes after 8. Make sure there isn't anything you should be doing that you're not.

Don't try to be nice and get people free stuff. Most people tip based on the bill. And when they do that, the free cheese sauce you got for them is only going to hurt.

That's all I'm going to write for now. But feel free to ask if you have any other questions.
posted by theichibun at 8:22 PM on March 18, 2009 [6 favorites]

theichibun's advice is great. Emphasize at interviews that you learn quickly and are a people person. Also, have wide-open availability. Those things will almost guarantee you a job.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:40 PM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if I'd recommend doing it, but I got my first serving job by writing on my application that I had experience serving when I actually didn't. I had worked at a restaurant before (in the kitchen) so I just added that I had spent some time there serving, as well. It got around the no experience requirement, although I'm not sure if I'd recommend it if you have zero restaurant experience. If you do try this, only apply at smaller restaurants with fewer customers. Took me a few months at a slow restaurant to get a feeling for the job, and then I went and started working at a better, bigger, busier restaurant.

That said, serving is all about multi-tasking and knowing the restaurant. You'll have to learn the latter anyways, but if you can handle the former you should be fine.

Other options would include applying as busser or host/hostess. Restaurants will generally prefer to promote someone already working there to a server position, rather than someone fresh off the street, as they'll already be familiar with the place.
posted by yellowlightman at 8:54 PM on March 18, 2009

If you can't get a job serving right away, host first, and then you will usually move up to server pretty fast. I worked at a big restaurant (also a chain) in high school and they were dying for me to become a server the day I turned 18, and I'd only worked there for a couple of months.
posted by fructose at 9:41 PM on March 18, 2009

theichibun's strategy is wise. Do these things and you can't go wrong.

Don't sweat actually landing the job - in my restaurant experience (about a decade), "Fluent in Spanish" = "You're hired."
posted by EatTheWeek at 12:35 AM on March 19, 2009

I misread the question - I thought you said "beyond working as a waitress/server" - but I figured I'd post my answer anyways since it may be an alternative:

Health care is always a good field to be in and some quick-to-get certifications are LNA (licensed nursing assistant) or CNA (certified nursing assistant). I worked as a CNA while in college; it paid better than most of the other low-to-no qualification jobs I might've gotten. It can also serve as a good stepping stone up to more skilled professions with more schooling like Radiologic / xray technicians, respiratory therapists and various other specialists like those, or nurses or doctors.
posted by XMLicious at 1:52 AM on March 19, 2009

I got a restaurant job one summer in college by walking in and asking if they needed anyone. Huge, somewhat infamous crab joint in Annapolis, MD. They hired me as a bus-boy, no questions asked. Didn't do as well as the waitresses, and only worked there two months. It wasn't horrible money though, especially on weekend nights (we got tipped out by the waitrons). It would have been easy as pie to move up the totem pole if I'd stuck around.

Be willing to start at the bottom. Hell, tell them you'll wash dishes.
posted by bardic at 2:22 AM on March 19, 2009

Best answer: Lie about your experience. As a former restaurant manager (fine casual dining, not a chain, two dining rooms and a separate bar area seating about 250 total) I never checked references because it was a pain in the ass and I figured most of them were made up anyway (just make sure that restaurant X where you claimed to work before is in another town, because the industry is pretty tightly knit and it's likely that the hiring manager will know someone from restaurant X). If you're not comfortable with lying, say that you really want the job, you know you can do well, and you're willing to take on a couple of training shifts unpaid to prove yourself.

Anyway, If I needed a server, I would pretty much take on every clean, presentable, and articulate candidate who applied, throw them on the floor with my most experienced servers to train, and then let them sort themselves out. The ones who caught on in a couple of days stayed, the ones who couldn't keep up were relegated to bad sections on slow shifts until they either shaped up or quit. This is how pretty much any restaurant where you can make good tips will operate.

Once you get the job, WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN. Even drinks for two people - you WILL find yourself standing at the drinks station unable to remember the order you took 20 seconds before. Remember to write orders starting with the person closest to the kitchen (or whatever consistent, arbitrary position you choose) and go clockwise - number your order pad first, because they won't order in the order you want, and nothing looks less professional than 'auctioning' plates at the table (who had the chicken? who had the spaghetti? etc.). If you work with busboys and/or food runners, be nice to them and tip them out more than the minimum when you can, they can make or break you. And get in the good books with the kitchen, too. Don't EVER take a substitution or a special order without asking the cooks. If it's a slow shift and you don't have many tables, ask the cooks if you can get them coffee or sodas, or offer to help them out by preparing garnishes or folding side towels or whatever. When you make a mistake and you need the kitchen to help you fix it, either by remaking something or sending it out faster because you forgot to put the order in the computer, the kitchen's good will can be priceless - conversely, if they don't like you, you're pretty much screwed.

I could go on about this for days. If you have any questions you can me-mail me.
posted by Wroksie at 3:20 AM on March 19, 2009 [10 favorites]

There's always going to be someplace that's willing to hire you without experience if they like you. You just have to pound the pavement until you find it.

I don't know if they do this in your city, but take a look. On Craigslist, often when restaurants advertise jobs they say "drop in between 2 and 5 on Saturday" or something like that. You don't schedule an appointment, you drop in during a range of time, fill out an app, and meet the manager. If you can find a day that you can drop into a bunch of these in a row, you'll increase your chances of finding a place that likes you. Dress sharp, look attractive, smile, be charming.

Restaurants will put up with a lot of surliness from very experienced and efficient servers, but they'll also take a chance on someone with less experience if they like you and think customers will like you, and you seem smart. From their perspective, really, if you suck? They fire you, you take home your night's tips and they never see you again. It's not like they're setting up a 401K for you.
posted by lampoil at 6:54 AM on March 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I had first serving job at a country club. It was lower pressure than a traditional restaurant, and you never had to handle cash because everything was charged to members' accounts. It paid $10/hour or so, so you can often do better at places where you get tipped, but it gave me a feel for being a waitress.
posted by Airhen at 7:18 AM on March 19, 2009

Best answer: Hi. I have a professional career but for about 12 years, while getting established, I waitressed on and off at four different locations, all upscale-ish, and all on the East Coast. These were wonderful experiences. I loved the restaurant environment - still do - and my knowledge and skills from that field have served me incredibly well in everything else I've done. The money was much higher than the entry-level positions I was taking in my field to get established. You're making a smart choice, though not everyone will see it that way.

First of all, disregard what is said in ads. You need a good search strategy - so don't just respond to ads. Choose your own targets and pursue them. Places that have to advertise in the paper might already have a bit of a strike against them - many places can fill a staff by word of mouth and by interested walk-ins, like you're going to be.

First, survey the scene. You have choices about what kind of restaurant to work in, and they really make for a very different work experience. I recommend avoiding the chains completely. They're exploitive, the food isn't very good so it's quite hard to represent it in a positive light, and the clientele isn't that wonderful a customer base.

Instead, look for upscale-casual, owner-operated, single-location restaurants or tiny regional chains where the owner has a presence. You could also go into fine dining, but things get a little fussy at that level for me. If you can aim to work in a place with entrees running $18-25, you are at a pretty good price point for making good money in tips. Also, work somewhere that serves alcohol. Alcoholic beverages are responsible for a large portion of the customer bill, and since you make tips on a percentage of that, it's in your interest to work where you have that advantage. Look for a place that makes food you genuinely like and can be proud of - much of waiting tables is sales, and if you can represent the food with true enthusiasm and passion, your sales will be better. Look for a place that has staff that's been around a while, not a place with frequent turnover (big red flag). Look for a place you'd like to eat.

Once you have identified a few places, put on a nice, contemporary outfit that's dressy-casual, but not a suit. Have copies of your resume and a pre-printed cover letter. Drop in in person; don't call. Go in the late afternoon/very early evening - that's when the staff will be there, but they won't be overrun with customers, they'll be in the prep phase. Whatever you do, don't bother anyone about filling out an application while lunch or evening dinner service is going on. The best time is probably between 3:30 and 5:00. Walk in, and tell the first person you see that you're interested in putting in an application - is the front of house manager in?

From that point, you may get to talk directly to the manager if they're there. Or you may have to leave your resume with a host or bartender or shift manager, which is fine too. That's why you have the preprinted cover letter with a short summary of who you are and why you want to get into foodservice (definitely include your interest in food and travel, and talk abuot supplementing your income while you work on [goal] - waitstaff are ambitious people and usually on their way to something. Mentioning your goals or current activities indicates you aren't a slacker, that this is part of a career plan for you, and that you have some incentive to do well. Be wary of mentioning an end point, though - the restaurant wants to be sure that if they train you, you're likely to stick around for a decent amount of time. Make it sound like your period of employment with them could go on indefinitely, or that at least it's long {eg, 'while I complete my graduate degree in ___.').

If you get to talk to the manager, and if they are hiring, they'll size you up then and there, chat with you a bit, and probably say "I'll check your references and get back to you." In this conversation, be bright, friendly, outgoing, and make eye contact. Show your social skills and attentiveness, because that's a big part of your job. During the first conversation you might be asked about your availability, so make sure you know that. How early can you get there in the afternoon for a dinner shift? Many dinner shifts start at 3:00 or 4:00. Can you work lunch? Brunch if they have it? How late can you stay? Do you mind working weekends? (The answer, of course, is no - in fact, you want as many weekend shifts as you can get, because they are the most lucrative). How many shifts a week do you want? Be flexible. If you're hired as a server, you'll be lowest on the totem pole for a while. The awarding of shifts works differently in different restaurants, and people can get a little proprietary. The goal is to work your way toward the good shifts by being competent and pleasant on whatever other shifts you get.

Ask about sidework - what tasks beside waiting tables the waitstaff do. Ask about how many different menus they run. Ask about what systems they use - most will use a POS system that communicates with the kitchen by computer, and these are all a little quirky, so you'll need training on it - not a big deal, because everyone needs to be trained on them - even experienced waitstaff, because every restaurant's menu is different. Same is true of all systems - different restaurants, different systems. You will be told how things are supposed to be done, and that precision is really valued. So do things as you're instructed to, exactly, at least until you're comfortable in the job and feel you can make suggestions. Other intelligent questions you can ask that make it appear you know the business - ask about the clientele, are they neighbors, tourists, families, couples? Ask about specials and the wine list - are there changing features, or a standard menu?

Emphasize your transferable skills - qualities you've developed in other jobs that will make you a good waitress. These include: a good memory; a pleasant personality; great customer service; sincere interest in and knowledge of food; punctuality; organization; good at prioritizing; cooperative; works well in teams; moves fast and doesn't mind hard work; keeps your head together at stressful times; care about quality; comfortable in high-energy work environments.

Visit as many places like this as you can identify, and have as many conversations like this as you can. If you're in a competitive region, you might not get a chance to start as a waitress. It's the best job in the place. So if you find you are getting other offers with a promise of working your way to waitressing, then take them. A lot of places will start you as a shift manager or host, let you do that a while, then transition you to waiting when you have proven you aren't a flake. Other places might have an opportunity for you as a food runner (person who picks up food from the kitchen and brings it to tables, to assist the server). Still others might offer you a chance to start with a lower-stakes waitressing shift, like lunch or (gasp) breakfast - if it's a place you want to work, give it a try, especially if there aren't any other possibilities turning up. I would turn down offers for busing jobs - that's the lowest-skilled job in the restaurant and doesn't pay a lot. It's generally the province of high school students. Whatever you do, just make sure that if you're being told you can trade up from your initial job to waitressing, that there's some kind of timetable to that promise. Sometimes it's so hard to get a good host, or there aren't enough waitresses vacating their positions, that you'll end up in the dugout forever. Don't stick around for that. Make sure you have some kind of concrete goal like "By July we'll get you two serving shifts a week."

Others are going into detail about how to be a good server - I won't do that, because your main task first is to get hired. At that point, there are a lot of resources for you. You'll learn a lot from other waitstaff. Identify the ones doing the best, staying the calmest, and making the most money and watch what they do - even ask them for their pro tips, it's very flattering. Be sure you get training with a few different people to see a range of styles and, inevitably, some do's and don'ts. Pay attention to instructions from the kitchen; stay on their good side and do things as they like. It takes a while to learn to be a really great waitress. But at this stage, all you have to do is be a really great candidate, and take it from there.
posted by Miko at 7:20 AM on March 19, 2009 [12 favorites]

Oh, and some thoughts since Miko commented on the type of restaurant to work in: toward the end of my serving career, I started training at a Bone Fish Grill. Since I found a full time job in my field before the training was over, I never ended up working there, but even the training was a great experience. They're partially manager-owned and philosophically close to fine dining. They'll train you really thoroughly in stuff like wine pairings and presentation, so the skills are transferable to fine dining. And their employees get benefits starting at 20 hours a week. I'd highly recommend it. Just a warning, though--you need to know three varietals of wine for their application.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:29 AM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I waitressed one summer because they advertised and I showed up. I didn't have any experience but they said I looked like I could carry a tray (not sure if this was supposed to be insulting or not).

Bottom line, a great deal of the restaurant industry is kind of shady. If you show up looking competent but not hugely overqualified, you should have a good shot. Major employer fears are turnover, employees stealing, being drugged up, that kind of thing. Appear to have not one of those problems and you'll be set.

I started out in "banquet" which required fewer "skills". I'd certainly recommend that "side of the house." And I'd never want to be a dishwasher... but maybe that's just me. This was not a chain, which probably helped.
posted by AquaAmber at 12:54 PM on March 19, 2009

Oh and it's lots of fun, stressful, and tiring. But there are "industry" happy hours and the like which will make you feel part of the club.
posted by AquaAmber at 12:55 PM on March 19, 2009

Response by poster: Guys I can't thank you enough. I will take all of your wonderful responses and put them to good use. Un millon de gracias!

I will put all of this to good use and I will keep you updated! Wroksie I'll take you up on your email offer!

posted by lifeonholidae at 3:24 PM on March 19, 2009

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