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How to Become a Waiter or Waitress

By Lauren Gerber

If your image of a waiter is a pig-tailed girl on roller blades, or even a tuxedo-wearing man bowing down to your table, get a new picture in your head. Waiting tables is hugely popular among twentysomethings, most likely because it is super lucrative, fun, and in many ways a fulfilling job. It truly involves much more than ordering and delivering food: servers interact with tons of different people, learn about food and wine and often create a new social circle. If you are talkative, energetic and outgoing, serving tables can be a perfect side-job. But keep in mind, energy is key because the job can really dry you out.

It also requires a particular attention to detail: placing a utensil just one way, or keeping your speech fine-tuned and proper, can be deal-breakers. Fall short on any of these categories, and you might easily be ripped apart by a manager—especially in big cities like New York or Los Angeles, and especially in high-end dining spots. You must be on top of your game at all times or you can easily jeopardize your job.

With that said, there can be flexibility. Many managers encourage you to extensively discuss food and wine with customers, if they are interested. You can potentially become a wine aficionado or social butterfly, even if not by choice.

Experience? Sometimes, none necessary.

Many restaurants in huge food cities—NYC, LA or Atlanta—will not even consider you if you lack serving experience, and some even require experience in that particular city. Some servers make up to $50,000 a year, so filling these spots is taken very seriously. However, as in all corners of the professional world, there is always a way to the top, even if it is from the very bottom. It is best to start small. If you have no serving experience, there are always ways to become more qualified for a bigger gig.

  • Get a gig for a few months at a low-key place that will hire with no experience. Examples? A small chain restaurant or a café.
  • Work as a coffee barista. Tough hours, fast-paced, and not a ton of money, but it will give you many tools you will need to wait tables.
  • Host at a restaurant, upscale or not. Most hosting jobs do not require experience but are a great way to get your foot in the door in the restaurant biz.

Once you have had one of these gigs, you will give a future employer more confidence that you know what you are doing.

Where to Look

Although it may be tempting to walk around town and go into restaurants you know about, there are much more effective ways to find and apply for available serving positions. Although many restaurants say they always accept applications, it is not often that they are actively hiring. To save yourself time, you want to find positions posted by restaurants so you at least know they are looking in the first place.

  • Craigslist is always a good start. Many, many restaurants post listings everyday. The listing also tells what kind of experience is necessary to qualify for the job.
  • Many chain restaurants post job openings on their websites. There is always the classifieds section of newspapers, but many restaurants are opting out of this because the turnaround time is not fast enough.
  • Lastly, if you live in a small city you can always just walk around the town you want to work in and ask restaurants if they are hiring. If you do this, make sure to dress professionally and bring a resume because they may decide to interview you on the spot. For best results, go during off-peak hours (e.g., morning or late afternoon).

Preparing for an Interview

Just like in any job, your interview is where you can either seal the deal at a restaurant or watch the job slip through your fingers. Most managers know a good serving candidate when they see one, and it's not surprising that the restaurant industry is based largely on first impressions—customers judge a restaurant by the outside, servers often judge guests by their appearances, groups looking to socialize judge by the bar and managers, on a day of the interview, judge applicants by their first impression. They do this for a reason: they know if they get a good impression of you, guests probably will, too.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions for making the best impression possible at an interview.

  • Be dressed to the T. Yes, if hired you will soon be wearing starch button up white shirts and a draping apron, but until then, look clean and professional but also attractive (and try to look that way in an apron, too.) Ladies, wear something appropriate but don’t be afraid to show off fashion sense—restaurant employers appreciate this kind of creativity. Guys—you can't go wrong with a classic suit, but you can also show off some fashion knack—a nice sweater or collared shirt can be just as acceptable.
  • Like in any interview, always show up 10-15 minutes early, with your resume in hand, looking professional. If you ran around a subway or walked a long time, touch up in the bathroom before you sit down. Managers will look for signs of how you would approach a table while serving, so be as well-put-together as possible.
  • During the interview, show your conversational ability and outgoingness. Managers will want to feel secure that you are comfortable with people and have a knack for flowing conversation. However, make sure to not be too casual and always sit up straight, use proper language, and answer questions with confidence (but also diplomatically).
  • Learn the basics before your interview. Some restaurants, particularly the high-end ones, might quiz you on your wine or food knowledge. Many managers are known to ask you what certain wines taste like, name different dishes, or identify herbs. Its okay if you don’t know every answer—just be confident, because in many cases the manager wants to see your reaction under pressure.
  • Also study up on the restaurant. You will be asked if you have any questions, and it is best to have them. It will show that you are interested and have done your own research.
  • Lastly, be open and honest about your availability. If you only have a few time slots a week, then serving tables is not the best job for you. However, avoid the temptation to offer too many hours because it will become a slippery slope with your manager and could throw off your work-play balance.

Once You Have the Job

  • Know that restaurant hours can be very sporadic and unpredictable. A restaurant being busy relies on many factors: the weather, time of day, day of the week, or even on traffic. Some of these factors are impossible to predict. As a result, managers might schedule way too many or way too few servers for each shift and you might have to work much longer or much shorter than expected. Example: you could be scheduled to come in at11 AM and find yourself leaving at 1:15PM, or you could be scheduled at 10AM and not get out of the door until 4PM. Be patient and don’t obsess over it because it is not going to make the time go any faster.
  • Do not take a manager—or anyone in the restaurant industry’s—behavior too personally. It is a very high-pressured, busy environment to work in and often these employees are just stressed and overworked. A manager is expected to oversee employees, the schedule, the kitchen, and most importantly, the guests. So if they snap at you and seem like they don’t care about your feelings, it’s probably just because they don’t have time.
  • Be prepared to make tons of money on some shifts, and barely anything on others. Once again, how busy you are depends on many factors. Instead of getting too frustrated, realize that the big nights make up for the crappy ones. So if you make $300 in four hours on a Saturday night, don’t be too upset when you make $40 the next morning.
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