how to wait tables?
December 24, 2016 8:02 PM   Subscribe

I have a gap year due to a career change and would like to make some money during this time, preferably at a part time job waiting tables. I'd like to see how a restaurant works, and I like the chaotic energy of restaurants.

I've never had a service industry job and would like to work at places in the Bay that I love to visit, like Plow or Zunie or Zazie, etc. The problem is I have ZERO experience. I'm in my early 30s, used to be a banker and am transitioning into a science field, so I can have references to indicate that I'm reliable, but how hard would it be to find a job at a nice restaurant? Would it be appropriate to offer to work at a reduced or fixed rate initially, or on a trial basis for, say, one month?
posted by flyingfork to Work & Money (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I hate to say this, but it's hard to get into a nice restaurant with zero experience. Do you know anyone that has an in with a restaurant/ service industry job? Maybe expand your network and ask family members and friends if they know anyone that can help you get a leg up. If not, I would go in person to every restaurant I could think of during a lull (early afternoon, or right at opening time) and ask to speak to a manager, and sell yourself! Personality can go a long way. Best of luck!
posted by Champagne Supernova at 10:12 PM on December 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

Would it be appropriate to offer to work at a reduced or fixed rate initially, or on a trial basis for, say, one month?

Huh, no, wtf. That's only saying that you're not worth as much as anyone else.

You get restaurant jobs by knowing and talking to people. If these are places you frequent and you're not a total stranger, just talk to the bartender and waitresses, and ask whether they're hiring. If they're short on staff, they'll let you know! That's how I got my restaurant job in college (also: don't be unattractive).

And for god's sake, don't offer to work for less money than any other person who'd be hired to do the same job. It's not enough money to live on as is, don't think that you'll gain an advantage by undercutting those rates--if anything, employers will be much less likely to take you seriously as you'll come across as someone who doesn't actually need or want the job.
posted by halogen at 10:16 PM on December 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

For those who are familiar with restaurants, is it easy to get a good waiter or waitress? Or are those hard to even come by? Even for restaurants that have gone fixed price/no tip? (I'd LOVE to work for a no-tip restaurant!)
posted by flyingfork at 10:46 PM on December 24, 2016

You're probably not going to get a job at the type of restaurant you seem to be aspiring to with no experience as a waiter. Those places live and die by reputation, so having a novice screw up a few orders can have a ripple effect, no matter how cheap they might be working for.

I'd LOVE to work for a no-tip restaurant!

I'm sorry, but if you're thinking of places like Lazy Bear, Bar Agricole, Sous Beurre Kitchen, or Atelier Crenn, imagine if I walked into a bank and asked for a job as a loan officer for $1-20 million dollar business loans, based on my experience working as a waiter at Applebees.

You can probably get a job as a part time waiter, but your expectations of the type of position you can get and the amount of fun it will be seem out of alignment with reality.
posted by Candleman at 11:35 PM on December 24, 2016 [15 favorites]

You're probably not going to get a job like that with no experience unless you seriously have an in (and maybe not even then). It sounds like you're talking about restaurants at which people working at lesser restaurants aspire to get hired. But who knows, you might get lucky!

In my experience, the way you get hired is to bump into the manager on a day when they feel like hiring. The way you do THAT is by putting together a resume, dropping it off, filling out their own application if they want you to do that, and then asking the staff member who helped you when would be the best time to come back. I would go up and down a street with a lot of restaurants, hitting each one and keeping notes on when to come back. Do this at a non-rush hour, like 2 pm. Then come back when the manager is there. If the manager thinks you feel like a good fit (looks play a part here so dress to match their place's image) and you have a nice chat, you might get lucky.

Don't worry about getting paid too much; the restaurant system works such that you have to be good and build seniority before you get the shifts that pay well. (I don't know how this works in a no-tip restaurant.) They'd assign you some training shifts while you get up to speed. They may well start you off as a host, seating people. And probably the first thing you'll have to do is something grody like mop the floor, so be prepared for that. Every time I return to restaurant work, I realize I forgot about the less appetizing side of it, like cleaning the restaurant's bathrooms.

In addition to reliability, you might want to stress your people skills (dealing with irate customers?), times that you've had to work at a fast pace and juggle many things, and things that you've done that show you have the physical stamina to be on your feet for eight hours. My most recent place considered my day job and career plans a strike against me: I might not stay long, I was one of Them with my high falutin' degree, etc. (Hopefully you'll find someone without that kind of chip on their shoulder. The restaurant manager literally did say to me "OH, you're one of THEM" while rolling her eyes.) I wouldn't act like you're doing this because it's fun (i.e., optional), and don't call it a gap "year," because they'd rather train people who will be there awhile. I'd say "I was a banker. I didn't like it, so I'm going back to school and need to earn some money." Why didn't you like it? "I don't like being behind a desk all day. I like to be up and about doing things."
posted by salvia at 11:54 PM on December 24, 2016 [12 favorites]

When I thought about doing this, I talked to people (and applied to a ton of places) and learned that it takes ~2 years to go from 0 to fine dining, via either a) a job serving at a casual, high-volume place, b) catering, or c) first hosting or expediting (at a fine dining place) for a while.

(Also, the only jobs I was actually offered, with my officey, zero-hospitality resume [except for some time at a bagel shop, around the same year most working servers were born] were full-time admin/management roles in the back office. Wanted something p/t and active while studying :/ Also, at least one restaurant owner was offended that I'd walked into his place, with no serving experience, expecting to get hired. It's more professionalized than you might think.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:57 PM on December 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have a friend in the fancy restaurant world in New York City. He was a server at places like this for a long time (now a manager). He started out as a bar back and worked his way up to waiting tables. So that's another way - take the least desirable jobs (bar back, bus boy, dishwasher, etc) at a very nice restaurant, work your ass off, and be really impeccably nice no matter what. I imagine being able and willing to take odd shifts will help too - night or early morning at a diner, say.

Waiting tables well is definitely a skill. I enjoy it, but I'm terrible at it.
posted by jrobin276 at 2:30 AM on December 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

The traditional path to table waiting on-the-job training and jobs is bussing. You will be more likely to get a gig bussing tables and working up. High-end waiting jobs are very competitive, and staffed by skilled wait staff with experience and references.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:17 AM on December 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

FWIW, Sous Beurre Kitchen stopped being no-tip a year ago and they closed completely six or eight months ago. So don't try there.

Ordinary restaurants in my neighborhood (the Mission) have a hard time keeping staff because they can't afford to pay what the fancier places pay - demand for experienced staff for both from and back of the house is high. Your best bet (probably) is to check in with your busy but ordinary neighborhood places. I agree with everyone else that you are very unlikely to get a job at a higher-end place with no experience. But your ordinary neighborhood place will have plenty of chaotic energy!
posted by rtha at 7:37 AM on December 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd also point out that what counts as "responsible" in the corporate world and the restaurant world are not equivalent. Unless you are actually dead you are expected to show up for scheduled shifts at a place like that. Or they'll fire you. Most restaurant managers are not going to hire someone with years of real job experience simply because their expectations for how employees are treated will be so out of line with how restaurants work.
posted by fshgrl at 9:56 AM on December 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Also - I'd suggest maybe thinking twice about aiming for actual restaurants that you currently like to dine at. Spend a few months serving every dish on the menu repeatedly, throwing the remains in the bin, tidying up, cleaning, and generally seeing behind the Wizard of Oz curtain will probably end your days of enjoying dining there (or at least change the experience profoundly).
posted by penguin pie at 10:49 AM on December 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your best bet for a foot in the door is host/essing, bussing, or expediting. There's much more competition for jobs at nicer restaurants, for obvious reasons, so it's going to be very challenging to convince them that they should give their one open slot to you instead of someone with a few years of experience in the service industry. Offering to work at a reduced rate is unlikely to sway them, because they care more about their reputation and standard of service than they do about the few bucks that would save them (and would, as already covered above, reflect poorly on you).

I echo rtha above on finding a neighborhood restaurant that maybe doesn't have the big famous name attached to it, and trying for a host/busser/expediter position there. You'll still get the chaotic energy and opportunity to interact with a lot of folks, and you'll learn pretty quickly how restaurants work. That experience will make you much more likely to be considered for a server job at the same restaurant or in a similar one.
posted by rhiannonstone at 11:46 AM on December 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

The way to get a job waiting tables is to go to every normal restaurant you can (think: diners, chains, I got my first gig at an IHOP), emphasize that even though you have no experience, that you're smart, reliable, willing to learn, and open to taking any shifts they offer.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:47 AM on December 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Coolworks is where I have found gap year style restaurant jobs in the past.
posted by aniola at 10:29 PM on December 25, 2016

Whenever you're looking to get a job in a different industry, one you might not have experience in there are always going to be a lot of people (usually people already in that industry or people who are otherwise personally invested in it) who want to discourage you and tell you how difficult it is, especially if you have no experience. Take that advice with a grain of salt. If you really want to do something, there's always a way.

Serving tables is not difficult and it's not a difficult industry to get into. I work in marketing/communications and I worked in bars and restaurants in my late 20s/early 30s in a career break and also between travelling.

The best way to get a restaurant job is to come in, in person and ask to talk to the manager during a non-busy time. After the lunch rush but before dinner is usually a good time. Bring in a one-page resume and only include experience they would care about. Customer service experience, handling money, etc. For your non-related work just leave your title and the dates you worked there.

Explain what you're looking for and be upfront about your experience and where you're willing to start. If you're friendly, eager to work, they need someone and the manager gets a good vibe from you, you have a good chance.

For someone with no experience I'd recommend a decent chain-type restaurant because they'll usually have standard procedures, rules and training and it will make things a lot more straightforward for you. Independent places might be more interesting and could be great but they're also more of a gamble.

This isn't difficult, you can do it. Put yourself out there and get some experience.

Also, although I'm ambivalent about the practice of tipping, it's kind of the best part of a serving job. And it's part of the challenge and what makes the work fun.

Good luck -- get out there, you can do it! It's not as hard as you might think.
posted by Pademelon at 9:20 AM on December 26, 2016

You might have more success getting a job as a banquet waiter for a hotel, catering company or any other kind of place that has parties. You will get a lot of experience in waiter type skills and the experience can be similar to working in a restaurant.
posted by lester at 7:57 PM on December 26, 2016

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