I have spent four continuous years as both a student and a server, and equal amounts of time studying and waiting tables. So I feel I have a pretty good benchmark to compare the two not-so-different experiences. However, these are the top five things working in restaurants taught me that school did not.
1) People skills. School will teach you “networking.” Go to a networking event with the right people who can get you a job. Working in restaurants, I naturally became on first-name basis with regular patrons. Having casual conversations with interesting people is inevitable. And there are very interesting people in the restaurant business. Relax and let connections happen. “Networking” feels mechanical and forced. I learned to always keep a spare business card in my apron just in case. Also, people can tell if you are genuinely excited about a product, or if you are just going through the motions until happy hour ends. You have about 30 seconds to sell them something, and your recommendation counts.
2) Real deadlines. Even in a journalism program, no deadlines compare with restaurant deadlines. This has made me unnaturally conditioned/immune to stress. A coworker went home sick and I have inherited five tables, plus my own six tables? can do. Someone just quit, so we need a shift covered… in fifteen minutes. on my way. We’re on a 2 hour wait list and these very important guests need to sit here now. Make it happen. ok. Real deadlines are now deadlines. They seem impossible, but they get done.
3) The customer is always right. Yes they are. With my advertising experiences, this is also the case. If a client is happy with a logo design or ad, then mission accomplished. However, if you have a more appropriate direction in mind, you can try to coach the client into a different typeface or writing style. Not so with foodies. They are the experts and if they want 40 oz of mayonnaise with their salmon, then yes of course they may have it.
4) Team Play. I’ve done a few group papers in college where the workload is disproportionately divided. I’ve also had some fantastically productive groups. Teams are essential to business success. It’s a fallacy that all servers are self-serving. That they only look out for themselves- but honestly, a restaurant can only be successful with teamwork. I care equally about the quality of service for my neighbor’s guests as my own. I expect the same from him or her. We rely on one another to help with refilling drinks and doing the little things without being asked. One person will become impossibly busy and need your help; it comes back around. There’s no time for solo missions or rockstars. Team play saves the day every time.
5) True criticism. There are those days. When you take the fall for everything that goes wrong. It may or may not be anyone’s fault, but problems happen and fingers point your way. Angry customers do not write nice little comments on an evaluation form like in school. Expect something a bit more blunt. If you’re lucky, your mentors will coach you to prevent problems, but directly and without niceties. After all, this is a business. I am so grateful to have had good coaches throughout my work and academic career. I urge other students to seek out professors who make good coaches, who push you to eradicate imperfections and give you direct criticism. There are no “easy A’s” outside of college, so take the tough lessons when it’s still ok to make mistakes in the classroom.