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Working in a restaurant

What I Learned Working in a Restaurant

Lizzy FitzgeraldAuthor

According to the National Restaurant Association, half of all adults in the U.S. have worked in a restaurant at one point, with one in three Americans landing their first job in the industry.

My first week working in a restaurant, one of the servers said something that stuck with me: He felt everyone should work in a restaurant for at least a year.

At the time, I didn’t get it, but I guess I took the advice to heart, because I worked in restaurants on and off for the next eight years.

Even Jon Hamm thinks everyone should work in a restaurant at least once in their lives.

But why?

While working in a restaurant, I mastered the following skills:

  • I learned the difference between a pinot noir and a cabernet.
  • I now know how to accurately calculate 20% of any number without thinking.
  • I learned that shaken, not stirred, makes for a weak martini.
  • I learned the difference between a comp and a void.
  • I know how to make myself look busy without actually doing anything.
  • I learned what "86," "All Day," and "On the Fly" mean.

I learned other obvious things, too. 

  • Multi-tasking — Hello nine table section on a Friday night.
  • Prioritizing — Placing orders, running drinks, running food, answering questions, bussing dirty tables... oh, and table 51 needs a side of ranch.
  • Teamwork — Servers would be LOST without their bussers and back servers.

But aside from those skills, here are some of the less obvious and, in my opinion, more important things humans can learn in one year working in a restaurant. 

Communication Skills

What I Learned

When I was little, I was so shy that I used to hide behind my mom whenever someone spoke to me. And when I first started in restaurants, I had two personalities: Restaurant Lizzy and Home Lizzy. It was easier to pretend to be a different person while at work, since it was so different from who I actually was. 

But gradually, the skills I learned working in restaurants helped Home Lizzy come out of her shell in the real world. 

And I don’t need to hide behind my mom anymore, thank you very much. 

How I Learned It

When you work in a restaurant, you don’t have the luxury of hiding behind your parents to avoid talking to people. I’m still 110% an introvert, but restaurant work helped me communicate because, well, I had to. Guests don’t take too kindly to be ignored when they walk in the door.

Working in a restaurant helped me speak clearly, deliberately, and directly. On the flip side, it also taught me how to talk about...literally anything.

Some guests don’t want their servers to interact too much with them, and that’s fine. But as a bartender, some guests sit at the bar solely to chat with you. You learn how to gauge your guests’ level of interest in communicating with you, the appropriate ways to tell stories (be personal but not too personal), and how to exit a conversation at the appropriate time. 

I also learned it’s okay to not know the answer to everything; I just needed to properly articulate that I wasn’t sure of the right answer, but was going to find out what the guest was asking. 99% of the time, guests were appreciative that I was honest.

People Skills

What I Learned

Have you ever started a new job and went out to lunch with new coworkers, or met a new friend out for the first time? 

It can be incredibly awkward. 

Once your normal interaction space is gone, it’s like you’re with whole new people.

In the book Eating Together: Food, Friendship and Inequality by Alice P. Julier, she says

 “...when people invite friends, neighbors, or family members to share meals within their households, social inequalities involving race, economics, and gender reveal themselves in interesting ways: relationships are defined, boundaries of intimacy or distance are set, and people find themselves either excluded or included.” 

Granted, her book doesn’t speak specifically to restaurants, but I do believe the sentiment is still the same.

How I Learned It

There’s something intimate about sharing a meal with someone, whether it’s leftover pizza in the dish pit after the dinner rush with fellow servers, or guiding a couple visiting your city through your restaurant’s menu and their dinner.

I also developed some of the closest friendships of my life while sharing quick meals during our pre-shift meeting or going out with coworkers for a post-shift burrito. Sharing a meal with someone takes you out of the workplace and helps develop fast and meaningful relationships.


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What I Learned

There were definitely times early in my restaurant career that I didn’t want to take the time to explain a menu item or a drink. Like hello, it’s the 21st century; can’t you just Google it? I’m busy.

But taking that one minute to breathe during a busy shift — taking one minute to help a guest decide on their meal — could make or break their experience (and your night).

This past weekend I was out to eat with my mom. Our waiter was so impatient and couldn’t have cared less. It was towards the end of the dinner shift and he clearly just wanted us to order, eat, and get out as soon as possible.

Once we ordered our food, he never checked in or asked how we were doing. It made for such an uncomfortable experience and left us feeling like we had done something wrong.

This is where patience with guests is important.

How I Learned It

“In the Weeds.” 

It’s the phrase used to describe a server that is so busy he or she can’t even see straight.

The biggest thing I learned when I was feeling rushed and overwhelmed was to take my time. If I rushed, I would 100% make a mistake. I learned to remind myself that the rush would soon be over. The problems would be fixed, and the world would not end. 

Just walk slowly (but deliberately) and everything will be fine.


What I Learned

There are a few people in the world who are out to make your day crappy. 

While I often felt this was the case, never in my restaurant career did I actually think that a guest walked in, singled me out, and thought “I’m going to ruin this girl’s day.” I would often forget that people are just trying to get through their day-to-day.

That being said, the majority of the people I waited on in my restaurant career were normal and, in some cases, great. However, there are still some terrible, terrible humans out there. Though not many, there are people who are disrespectful, mean, and hurtful. 

I learned to just never be one of those people. 

How I Learned It

If I forgot to bring someone’s extra bread or beer or side of dressing or whatever, and that person threw a huge stink, I’d be inclined to not care and move on to the next table.

But who knows? What if someone was fired from their job that day? What if they left the office to find their car was towed? They could have walked home in the rain, entered their house to find their electricity had been shut off, and just wanted to treat themselves to a nice meal at the end of a bad day.

Little did I realize that unimportant and irrelevant thing I forgot could be the sour cherry on top of their melted and miserable sundae.

And the server from my dinner with my mom last weekend? Maybe he had the worst shift of his life and just wanted to go home. 

Buddy, I have been there.

Understanding Society At Large

What I Learned

When I had an internship at a large and successful company, the VP told me that my extensive restaurant work was the most impressive thing on my resume (what this said about my education, other internships, and volunteer work, I don’t know and didn’t ask). 

Interestingly enough, she also said that she felt everyone should work in a restaurant for at least a year. 

I was so focused on getting my degree and finding the right job when I graduated, I hadn’t yet taken the time to realize what restaurants had actually done for me.

How I Learned It

Prior to working in a restaurant, I lived my life in a bubble. 

I was born and raised just north of Boston, went to college in Boston, and had only ever lived and worked in — surprise surprise — Boston. Until I started working in restaurants at age 20, I had only ever really interacted with people of my own age and background.

Then, once I was thrust unceremoniously into the hospitality industry, I was suddenly surrounded by people of all ages and backgrounds, both by my coworkers and the people I waited on.

These people I interacted with taught me so much about life that I couldn’t learn in school. They taught me about the importance of working hard and humbly. They taught me about respect and how you should and should not treat other people. They taught me about the significant importance of food and culture and community and how important it is to learn about those things from others.

My restaurant work is something that I’m most proud of, and I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today with those eight years of experience.

But if you're still on the fence about working in a restaurant for that long, start with one year. I doubt you'll look back.

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