One of the founding principles behind ROCS is to give students the opportunity to get off of the lifeguard chair and step away from the espresso machine. Our overly caffeinated and sun-damaged youth endure their fair share of crap jobs throughout high school and early in college, and we hope to offer them something a little more in line with their career goals as they approach graduation.
That doesn’t mean we (and other employers, hopefully) can’t appreciate the lessons learned from a tour of duty in the hospitality industry. A busy restaurant is rarely the ideal work environment (Where’s the break room anyway?) and if you’re able to stick it out and do your job well, that’s something to be proud of.
Lessons from my time as a waiter:
- Longest day ever
- A hostile work environment
- Double-check for success
- Ask the boss
- Don’t let it get to you
So let’s face it:
Your previous employment history might not accurately reflect your long-term goals and the last four years of your expensive education. Even if your GPA, relevant course work, and extracurricular activities were enough to get you in the door for an interview, you still want to be prepared to discuss a position you were paid to do in the past. Yes, even a position as glamorous and glorious as waiting tables.
1. I’m not scared of long hours.
Thirty-five hour work week? No chance, especially not in this economy. And what does a student know about putting in long hours on the job anyway? Actually, they might know a little something. I used to dread working a double-shift. The lunch shift began at 11 in the morning, and after prepping the dining room for the next day, the dinner shift typically ended around midnight. That’s about THIRTEEN HOURS I would spend hustling on my feet, catering to rude people, and performing repetitive tasks sometimes in a noisy, cramped, muggy, swear-filled, obstacle-laden and slippery kitchen. Ten hours a day in an office seated at a desk with adequate time to use the bathroom would have been heaven.
2. I can handle job stress.
Conflict is inevitable at any job. In most job environments, you have the opportunity to calmly discuss the issue at some later time in a frank and professional manner if, after some thoughtful consideration, you still decide the matter is worth addressing. Not the case in a restaurant. Drunk twenty-something’s getting snippy about how long the food took to come out is not worth crying about and using as an excuse to do your job poorly. Of course, there are appropriate situations when it’s acceptable to refuse to serve a table – if you feel insulted or threatened, for instance. The point is that you’re not going to be that guy in the office who complains about not having an ergonomic mouse or overreacts in a rage when Larry’s music in the cubicle across the hall gets a little loud.
3. I don’t forget the details.
Does this sound familiar: “Hi uh, yeah can I get the tortellini please. But can I have tomato sauce instead of alfredo sauce? And I’m not really into mushrooms. Can I have zucchini instead of the mushrooms? Ok great, thanks. OH AND WAIT, sorry, does it have garlic in it? Oh really? I’m allergic. Can you ask the chef to make it without garlic?” And you just know that if you forget even one of those requests, you can kiss your tip goodbye. He will almost certainly refuse to eat it and you will be forced to send the order through again. His dinner companions, starving as they are and unwilling to let their food get cold, will decide to begin eating without him as he grows more pissed off with each passing minute. As annoying as these customers may be, it does teach you the importance of double and triple checking even the most minor of details before you submit a finished product.
4. If I don’t know, I will ask someone who does.
Not sure if the ravioli is stuffed with imitation crab meat or the real thing? Well the dude at table five claims he might keel over and die if it’s full of the fake stuff. While I’m almost certain he’s lying about his “allergy” and really just won’t admit he’s not willing to pay that much for imitation, I should ask the chef anyway. The customer almost never minds the extra time it takes if they know they will receive a correct answer or a better experience. It’s good to defer to a more knowledgeable person in situation where you’re unsure or don’t feel comfortable tackling a problem. If you try to guess your way through something you’re not properly trained for, it will come back and bite you in the ass.
5. I can learn a lesson and move on.
Get a crappy tip from the last four-top? Did junior ask you for ketchup twice before dad had to angrily chime in? Mental note: Pay more attention to the brats. They might not be footing the bill, but their comments won’t go unnoticed when the credit card gets whipped out. Remember your mistake, don’t repeat it and move on. If you don’t drop it, you’ll dwell on it. Your attitude and service – and subsequently, your tip – will suck for every other table for the rest of the night. Sometimes people screw up. But you know how to learn from it and get on with doing your job as best as you can.
Students and grads:
Keep these thoughts in mind when trying to explain why you’re a good fit for the accounting internship after three years at the Olive Garden. Some of these points may sound like a reach, or sometimes even obvious, but you can’t expect employers to draw parallels on their own. You need to spell it out for them clearly and confidently.
Recruiters and HR personnel:
Here are some areas to explore with a candidate when Timmy’s resume from the Olive Garden only tells you that he “financed 75% of education” with his tip money and that he had to “memorize an extensive menu and interact favorably with diners.”
That’s sort of like preparing an income statement, right?
About the Author: Mike McGurk is a Student Finder at ROCS and a current student at George Mason University. The worst job he ever had was a brief stint as a door-to-door salesman. He lasted six hours.