Years ago, when Sara Price moved to Chicago, she waited tables while trying to build an acting career. Eventually, she decided she’d rather be a therapist, leaving her big-screen dreams—not to mention the crumb scraper and corkscrew—behind. Only later did she start connecting some unlikely dots: The same skills she'd acquired in her food service days were informing how she helped her clients.
"I learned a lot about customer service and self-control, having to respond positively no matter how the customer is responding,” Price said. “I learned how to problem solve. I learned that it's better to have really excellent customer service and gain a consistent customer even if you lose something in the process.” Reflecting on how that applies to her therapy clients, Price cites disputes about money or last-minute cancellations. “As long as they're not taking advantage of the situation, it's more important to protect the relationship than to defend yourself or try to get every cent out of the individual experience."
But I worked at Red Lobster
Some of our most profound learning experiences, the things that really define who we are as employees, unfold well before our so-called “first real job.” Mostly, they never make it to the resume. No matter what crucial lessons you learned while babysitting, or the team-building abilities you honed when coaching little league, you’re probably not going to bring them up in a job interview.
No matter what crucial lessons you learned while babysitting, or the team-building abilities you honed when coaching little league, you’re probably not going to bring them up in a job interview.
And when someone is hiring for a project manager or a marketing assistant they may not want to hear about your three years working at Red Lobster. But they should.
Steve Leichman, of property management company SMS Assist, wrote on LinkedIn—7 Transferable Skills from the Restaurant Industry that Recruiters Shouldn’t Ignore— that acquiring and retaining regulars at a restaurant is not that different from account management. “You sell them on your food and your service, you work to maintain a positive relationship with the guest, and you keep them around for repeat business. You just, you know, do it from behind a bar or at a dinner table instead of in a cube farm.”
Jason Zickerman, President and CEO of Alternative Board, said he spent much of his youth in the restaurant business and credits his interpersonal communication skills—including reading body language and navigating personality types—to that experience. “I wouldn’t give that [restaurant] experience back because of what it taught me about how to succeed in business,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do in business where these things aren’t of paramount importance.”
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But since recruiting software looks only for keywords and a bartender can’t really claim to be an account manager, that conversation doesn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean the skills won’t, ah, serve you well when you leave restaurant work behind.
The lessons on the table
Learn the rhythm of brunch rush. In your company it may be the end of the quarter, the end of the semester, the end of the month or the end of the fiscal year, but the time will come when everything is on the line, everything has to be done yesterday, everything goes wrong, and you still have to maintain a good attitude. In food service? I just described an average brunch rush. When you add up four shifts a week for 50 weeks for a couple of years—that’s hundreds of emergency drills that teach you how to rev up your internal energy to match the external demands. You learn how to prioritize 18 simultaneous urgent tasks and slay them all, and how to handle pressure gracefully in front of customers. In addition, crunch time teaches you how to make the best use of lulls—whether that’s folding napkins or filing expense reports.
Hot food always gets priority. Your team has several “customers” to take care of all the time. If you do an internal function, like HR or accounting, your customers are the people who work at your company. But there are probably a number of them and you’re handling multiple tasks for them all day long. Food service work is a perfect training ground for this. At any moment you might have 50 people needing water, cutlery, hors d’oeuvres or drinks. They’ll order food that isn’t ready at the same time, they’ll change their order ten minutes in, or they’ll find something wrong with the order and you have to fix it…now. As a food service worker, you have to keep it all in your mind and prioritize according to who has been waiting longest, whose food might be ready, what part of the meal cycle they’re in, and who needs a nudge out the door. It’s no different than knowing that your CFO’s spreadsheet takes precedence over the project you have due tomorrow.
Be the hostess with the mostest. A good restaurant experience happens when the host greets customers correctly, the busser has cleaned the table well, the waiter is friendly and efficient, and the food is good. If any one of these things is off—if the customer gets to the table and see’s that there’s sticky gunk on it—that screws up the whole experience. Everybody else is now under big scrutiny. If you’re good at what you do in the restaurant business, you’re focused on meeting the customer’s needs. “Not my job” isn’t really something you get to say. If you see a customer who is unhappy and the person who was waiting on them is scrambling to get something done, you know you have to step in and make that customer happy. If you see a coworker struggling with a huge table or a customer who is a pain, you might look for other ways you can help that coworker out. And you don’t point fingers about whose fault it was that the crabby customer’s linguini came late because you all know you’re doing the best you can. That’s the kind of person you want on your team.
It’s service, not servitude. People who have worked in food service tend to be nice to other food service employees. People who have not worked in food service sometimes think this is the moment to indulge their fantasy of having servants. (I don’t know why, ask their parents.) Restaurants can be wonderful boot camps for customer service. Patrons want to order stuff the restaurant doesn’t have. They want to be served faster because they are about to miss the movie, even though they only got to you with 20 minutes to spare. And if you make a mistake they sometimes act like you surgically removed the wrong organ because you were drunk at the operating table, again. Almost everyone who has ever worked hospitality has faced the equivalent of the Wicked Stepmother (or Father) screaming in a blind rage.
And if you make a mistake they [customers] sometimes act like you surgically removed the wrong organ because you were drunk at the operating table, again.
The real skill to pick up here is how to manage your own triggers. Was someone unfair, rude or abusive? You don’t get to pour a martini on their balayage and hand them the empty glass. (OK, maybe in an extremely extreme case you do.) To manage it professionally, you have to know what’s going to set off your personal Incredible Hulk. People who haven’t dealt with difficult customers may not even know where their hot buttons are. People in food service, however, not only know what they are but how to rein them in.
Naturally, a history of working in restaurants doesn’t—on its own—qualify you for some jobs. But it does prepare you to deal with difficult situations that arise in most jobs including deadlines, hectic times, a diverse set of coworkers, and customers or clients who need to be kept happy. So, maybe next time you write a cover letter, say with confidence: “I’ve never been an account manager, but thanks to my years waiting tables, I have most of the skills.”
Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.