Snapshot: The Real Poop: It’s very doubtful that anyone dreams about becoming a professional waiter (unless you’re Christina Ricci in Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star) or that anyone’s mom goes around bragging about her son or daughter being a long-term server. Truth is, this job is typically seen as a copout profession – one that flunkies who couldn’t hack going to school or succeeding at a “real” job get stuck with. Too bad. In reality though this career path is typically a temporary one for people IN school, IN the process of working at the beginning stages of another career, IN the process of earning more money to support their family (and many other situations that people are not aware of), it deserves to be painted in a different light.
The job requires people to be masters of multi-tasking (think managing several orders across several tables at once), knowledgeable of different types of food and beverages (not just burgers and Coke), able to accurately handle numbers and money (the cash registers do not do all the math all of the time), patient and diplomatic (screaming children or adults who act like children comes to mind), and reliable (miss your shift more than once and you may be off the schedule the next time you look).
Many of the people who work as waiters are highly talented, educated, charismatic, and otherwise successful individuals. Circumstances may have brought them to this profession and, if not for the degrading reputation that is put there by society, they might just keep at it because it’s hard but typically satisfying work. Additionally, the money can be really good, jobs are plentiful, free food is usually available, what to wear every day is a no brainer, scheduling can be flexible, and socializing while working is actually advantageous to the job.
The hardest part of the job is dealing with snide guests who expect everything and are stingy with tips. Also difficult is getting to know the menu, learning the way that the kitchen runs and getting your timing down, juggling orders during rushes, working on holidays, and being on your feet for hours at a time.
The unknown/unexpected part of the job is the side work. Filling salt and pepper shakers, rolling silverware, prepping the tables before opening – these and quite a number of other tasks are frequently part of the job and not known to the uninitiated (one more set of things that you often feel like you’re not getting paid to do).
The easiest part of the job? Taking the cash! When you’ve had a good table and they leave a really generous tip – nothing feels better than that.
The Typical Day: “It’s a five twelve o’clock world when the whistle blows” for Tommy Tablehop, a career waiter, with a day that starts off feeling like he never even went to sleep. He worked last night closing the restaurant and didn’t get home until 2AM. He was so wound up that he ended up watching a couple of movies before he finally fell asleep around six o’clock in the morning.
The Money: It’s unlikely that you’ll ever get rich working as a waiter, even at a chichi restaurant located in the likes of Beverly Hills. But, if you work harder than you can even imagine, kiss tons of butt between both the people you work with and the guests that you serve, you can make a good living - though your paycheck won’t show it. Remember, “officially” you’ll be getting paid much less than minimum wage.
Many times, if you’re lucky enough to work for a restaurant that is part of a company that offers benefits, your entire paycheck ends up being gobbled up in paying your portion for those benefits. So, that leaves you with what you earn in tips.
Tips can be good some days and entirely suck ass on others. It’s up to you to learn to manage your spending and bank the money instead of letting the wad of cash you bring home each night burn a hole in your pocket.
Good days can be mean a sizeable bankroll – upwards of $200 (translated annually, this would be equivalent to somebody working in an office for 40 hours a week earning 52K+). Not bad, when you can get creative at tax time and maybe claim only half. Not advocating - just sayin’.
Don’t forget, that there are parties or banquets that you may be able to work as well. Often, there are additional bonuses provided for working these. These can bring you more money since you can usually work these on days that you aren’t normally scheduled to work in the restaurant.
Bad news - there are lean days as well. Lots of things contribute to this – weather, holidays, a poor economy, bad kharma, whatever. These are the days that you wished you’d just stayed in bed and nursed the hangover you’ve got from last night’s bender. At work, you’re busting your butt and nobody wants to part with more than a couple of bucks over the entire table’s total tab. Plus, you’ve got to tip out the bar staff. Ugh. This is when you think to yourself that you wish you had saved up at least half of what you made last week, especially since the rent’s due and your car needs new brakes.
The Power: As a waiter, you do have power to some extent. You can burn the other wait staff by holding up the placement of your orders thus bogging down the kitchen. This causes the cooks to rush orders and frequently make mistakes. If the restaurant is really busy, your manager just ticked you off, and you don’t feel like working really hard, you can slow down the pace at which your guests wrap up their meals. This means less turnover for you, less money coming in for the restaurant, but you at least don’t feel fried at the end of your shift. You can give the kitchen staff problems by constantly recommending the most difficult dishes on the menu. Just a couple of these ordered can result in a kitchen slowing down enough to affect the pace of other orders going out. And then, there’s always the power over the guest. If he’s nice to you, you respond in kind. If he’s a jackass, watch out! As anybody is likely aware, there are tons of ways to exert your power over an obnoxious guest.
The Fame: You won’t find that you will become famous for doing your job as a waiter, but you may find that you become popular. Quite often, with good establishments that have guests that come very frequently, you may find that you are being requested. Guests that you have served, and served well, will specifically ask to be seated in your section. Good for you, since with this comes better tips and sometimes even recommendations to friends to try to get seated in your section.
The Glory: Most of the glory that comes from this type of job really comes in the form of money. Waiter, waitress, server or whatever term you are using – it usually is equated to incompetence in the mind of the masses, especially those that frequent the type of A-list establishment you’ve chosen to work for. But, you know you’re not dumb. Look at all the money you make – plenty of cash that you can “hide” from the tax man. So, when a guest wearing some really expensive top designer outfit is giving you a hard time, you don’t care. Yeah, he’s making a lot, but forking over most of it every year when tax season rolls around. You – not. Your’s is stashed away safely where only you know how to get it. Who’s the dumb ass now?!
The Stress: There’s lots of stress to this job. Between fussy guests, tempermental chefs, lackluster benefits, and a rushed work environment, you can expect to feel that you’re on the go and giving it your all almost every day. Long hours working at times when everyone else you know is home enjoying themselves (like all those family gatherings for the important holidays) lends to more stress as you’re constantly trying to explain that you have to work.
The Physical Danger: The most evident physical danger comes from walking around all day. It puts a lot of wear and tear on your body. You’ll also be walking around wet and greasy areas, so slip and falls are quite common. Arm and shoulder strains are also common from carrying heavy loads of food and dishes. Occasionally you may get burned, either from hot plates or by bumping up against a hot appliance in the kitchen of the restaurant. And finger cracking is quite common. From all of the hand washing that is required, the ends of your fingers can become quite cracked.
The Qualifications: To work as a server you need to have people skills more than any other. The ability to bite your tongue when a guest is obnoxious to you is high on the list, as is the ability to maintain your own self esteem when customers and your boss treat you like you’re an imbecile. Staying fit helps, since you spend your entire day on your feet. Your employer will expect you to be able to handle money properly, treat guests with respect and attention to detail, and be reliable. They have difficulty getting people to come in on short notice, so if your life is complicated, don’t expect that you can just call in sick.
The Odds of Getting In: The odds of getting a job as a waiter are a no-brainer. Millions of restaurants worldwide = millions of job openings. However, the chance of landing a job at a primo establishment are much less likely. Restaurants that cater to top-notch clientele often look for seasoned staff, so you may have to put in many years at a lesser quality restaurant before you’ll even be considered. It’s all about paying your dues.
The Odds of Hanging On: If you can put up with the physical demands, the uncertainty of how much you’re going to make on a weekly basis, the constant change-up in management, and the constant degradation from your customers, you can work in this field for a long time.
The Career as Depicted in Popular (or Unpopular) Culture:
Read: A Perfect Waiter, Keep the Change, Mad Man Knitting or The Waiter and the Fly
See: Waiting, The Jerk (Steve Martin dealing with a snooty waiter) and The Muppet Movie (Martin AS the snooty waiter), The Cowboy Way
The Tools of the Trade:
<<Good listening skills and memory>>
<<The ability to smile at and be patient with excessively rude people>>
<<Uniform, non-slip shoes>>
<<Pens – lots and lots of them >>
The Bell Curve of Success:
Published on Shmoop.com
I'm April Bailey, a freelance writer and editor for hire who has been writing about various topics for many years. Most of my early print work was destroyed in a major house fire. Luckily, I was able to pull some copies from an old PC and have posted them here. Other items on this blog reflect my current articles and blog posts written for online publications and copied here so I never lose my work again!