So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Burning bridges

One of the realities of working in a restaurant is the often transitory nature of working in a restaurant.

There is a myriad of reasons that this is true.

One is the fact that workers themselves see the job as transitory. They don’t consider it a “career”.  They consider it something to do while pursuing their education. They consider it a job worth jettisoning if another hot new restaurant comes around. They don’t consider it “full-time” because they don’t work 40 hours a week and they don’t work consistent hours. They might not feel like they are an essential part of the “team” or that they are unappreciated. Part of it is burnout, pure and simple.

Another part of the equation is the fact that restaurants often consider their workers “disposable”. Part of this is based on the attitudes of the service staff itself. Part of this is based on the high turnover and the fact that not everyone is suited for the job. Part of this is the wage structure. Part of this is the low cost of job entry and training.  Part of this is turnover in management itself. And part of this based on the burnout factor that I’ve previously noted. Management is often burned by waiters who simply no-show because they’ve found another “better paying job” or they’ve simply “had enough”. The proliferation of waiter bitch sites highlights the challenges that waiters face when trying to feed a picky and demanding public.

One of the goals of this blog is to get both management and staff to consider waiting tables in a different light – i.e. a worthy career instead of a “placeholding” type job.

And yet, despite the best efforts of staff and management, a waiter might find him or herself in the position of deciding to leave. For purposes of this discussion, I’m going assume that the waiter is voluntarily leaving.

If you decide to leave, think long and hard about just quitting and pulling a no-show. Burning bridges is never a good idea, for several reasons. First of all, the “greener pastures” that you think you are departing to might actually be a barren field. Second of all, you want to get a good job recommendation from your current employer in the future. And third, you should consider yourself a professional. The restaurant community is often tightly knit. Managers know each other; waiters hang out together. Your rep is an important thing to preserve. It might mean the difference in getting that prestigious job that you are trying to move up to.

There are a couple of obstacles to leaving on good terms. Management might feel “betrayed” by your leaving. They might also not want to keep you on during a two week notice because of a lack of confidence that you will complete your shifts or because of security reasons based on previous experience with other waiters who haven’t been professional in their dealings with the company. They might not let you give a two weeks notice. If this is the case, there’s not much you can do except to offer a written two weeks notice and ask them to reciprocate. If you have been a responsible and reliable waiter during your term of employment, they might actually let you stay. By providing a written two week notice, you preserve your reputation as a professional even if they refuse to let you stay on. If they waive this two weeks notice and let you move on, then they have made that choice themselves and aren’t forced into it by you. This will look better in the future if they are called upon to give you a recommendation.

Your new job might want you to start immediately. If this is the case, you might want to point out to them that you are a professional and you need to give your current employer two weeks notice. This puts them on notice that you are a professional at the very beginning of your employment. You might point out to them that you expect to give them the same consideration should you leave. This will help you jump-start your rep with the new management. If they don’t understand this, it should give you pause as to their own professionalism.

An employer is constrained legally by what they can tell a prospective employer. If you use your current employer as a future reference, about the only thing they can say is whether or not you are eligible for rehire or not (at least on the record). You want to preserve your eligibility for rehire and you do this by offering a written two week notice. This doesn’t mean that they would rehire you, just that you left on good terms. By doing this, you avoid gaps in your resume. Many waiters don’t look at the long-term implications of changing jobs and burning bridges. Three years from now when you are up for that great job, you don’t want a year long gap in your employment history because you know you screwed a restaurant by not showing up for that Friday night shift. Plus, you don’t want a manager going “off-the-record” and telling a prospective employer that you didn’t even bother giving notice and you simply no-showed. This sort of thing is done all of the time and is hard to prove, especially when managers know each other. They know how to preserve confidences and realize the ramifications of disclosing what they have found out about you. They’ll simply tell you that they don’t have a place for you at the moment. 

Giving a two weeks notice doesn’t mean that you can’t try to schedule some training shifts at your new place of employment. One of the great things about working in a restaurant is the fact that you have a flexible schedule and you should be able to work around your existing schedule. Sure, it will make your training at the new job more protracted, but at least you will continue to earn a regular income during the low-paying training phase.

If you do give a two weeks notice, make sure you either show up for all of your shifts or you get your shifts covered. Make sure you talk to your GM and get his or her assurance that you will be given a good recommendation. Doing these simple steps will help assure that you will get a good recommendation, plus, if you find that you shouldn’t have left for any reason, it will help you get rehired. You might want to come back because management has changed. You might want to return because the new restaurant wasn’t the money-printing machine that you thought it would be or the working conditions aren’t to your liking.

The important thing is to not burn bridges. By avoiding this syndrome, you rise another rung on the professionalism ladder. Even if you aren’t going to stay in the restaurant business, this can only help you in whichever career you decide to make. Take the long view – it will benefit you far more than you might realize.


A few tips if you’re looking for a job as a waiter, but have never waited tables pt.2

This is all about the interview. And yes, I managed a restaurant for 4 years.

It’s 4:15 on a Friday night and I’m putting my floor chart together. I’m going to have a pre-shift meeting in about 20 minutes and I’m coordinating with the kitchen to find out what we might be short of and what the nightly specials might be. The phone rings and, instead of the usual request for a reservation, I get someone who asks if we are hiring waiters. Even though I am looking for a new waiter to fill the shoes of a soon-departing waiter, I tell them, “I’m sorry, but we’re all full. Thanks for calling though”.

I desperately need a waiter, so why did I curtly tell them no? Because, if you’re calling me 20 minutes before the start of my busiest night of the week, you probably don’t have much of a brain in your head.

A potential waiter comes in with a resume after making an appointment. I look over the resume, I ask a few questions like, “why do you think you’re a good waiter” or, in the case of someone without any experience as a waiter, “why do you think you’d be a good waiter”. After suffering through the normal, “Well, I’m really good with people”-type answer, I decide to give them an application. They then ask, “Do you have a pen”? At that point, I go through the motions but the applicant immediately drops down in my mind because I’ve always felt that someone should come prepared to fill out an application if they’re going to interview for a job (plus, the pen is one of the essential tools of the trade and it seems odd to me that a potential waiter wouldn’t have one with them for a job interview). I might consider them and I might not. Probably not, though. That resume goes to the bottom of the stack.

A waiter-to-be comes in in shorts, a t-shirt, a bandana and some Chuck Taylors with no socks. As much as I admire a sense of casual style and even though I don’t require even a tie or a nice dress for an interview, unless I’m running a beachside clam shack, my mind is going to go blank for the next 20 minutes. It’s going to take a lot of panache, persuasion and just plain charm to get me to even offer them an application, although if they ask me for one, I’ll certainly let them fill one out. It just won’t rise to the top of the stack.

There are certain ways to increase your chances of a follow-up interview or the offer of a job on the spot. You might get lucky and find a desperate manager who will hire you if you can fog a mirror despite coming into the interview with an attitude or sloppily dressed or overly arrogant and/or unprepared. But why chance it? Why not stack the deck in your favor, especially these days, where managers have scores of applicants to choose from?

Your dress will be determined by the type of restaurant that you are applying for. If you are applying for a casual, mass-market restaurant, you should dress in a casual, yet neat fashion. If you’d like to wear a tie and it makes you feel comfortable, by all means, feel free to. If you want to wear a nice dress, feel free to. Basically, you want to look “put together” in an appropriate fashion. I’m not here to give fashion advice. You should wear something that is professional looking without being overly dressy, fussy, slutty, or high fashion. You can accentuate your assets without flaunting them. If you are applying for a more upscale restaurant, then by all means dress up for the occasion. A suit and tie or designer dress wouldn’t be out of place. You might take your cue by what the clientele and management tends to wear. If you don’t have a nice, dressy outfit, then go with a simple black slacks, new white shirt or top, a nice pair of well-polished shoes. The exception to the above advice is if you are applying to an edgier restaurant. There are “hip” restaurants out there that are looking for servers with an alternative style where tattoos, piercings and the like are part of the image of the restaurant. In that case, you want to adapt your dressing style to suit the restaurant. You don’t want to dress like a Blockbuster toady. You want to try to fit in, although this doesn’t mean that you have to go get a bunch of piercings or tats. Simply try to adopt a hipper sort of vibe. Once again, take your styling cues from the clientele and the management.

When you make your initial approach, be prepared to be interviewed but don’t be surprised if you aren’t immediately given one. If you are asked to drop off a resume, ask if you can go ahead and fill out an application (using your own pen, of course!) Find out the name of the person who does the hiring and write it down.If you haven’t heard from them in a couple of days, call back between the hours of 2pm and 4pm preferably from Tuesday through Thursday (Monday is often a busy day with deliveries and dealing with the consequenses of the weekend, and Friday is just bad in general) and ask for that person. If they have to take a message, tell them that you’re just following up on your application and that you’re available to answer any further questions or clarify anything on your resume. At this point, you might write a followup letter thanking them for considering your application and reinforcing your desire to work for them.

During the interview, just be yourself. Try to stay relaxed. Avoid stock answers to questions like, “Why do you think you’d be a good server”? Don’t say, “I’m good with people”. Please don’t say that. Please. Oh god, please. Come up with something both original and relevant to your abilities (“I’m organized/focused/knowledgeable about food/have good solid work ethics/have significant sales experience/am a sales closer etc. – just make sure that you are what you say you are ). Don’t volunteer information (“I’m really tight with my parole officer”, “I’ve overcome ADD with the help of medication”, “Kicking cocaine has really improved my work ethic” – you know, things like that).

Managers are looking for personable, seemingly well-adjusted people. If you give off this vibe, you will go a long way with getting called back.