I was a waitress for 10 years until I got the job I have now, and not a single minute of it was easy. But service jobs are simple to pick up, and taking home a wallet full of cash tips is a lot more appealing than an unpaid internship, which is why I probably stayed in that line of work for far longer than was advisable for my own mental wellbeing. That said, I learned a huge amount of transferable skills in my decade of food service.
There’s nothing like serving and cleaning up after other people to teach you about human nature. If you really want to test yourself, stand between humanity and its next hot meal. As a waiter or waitress, you’re exposed to people from all walks of life, and you’re expected to make every single one of them happy. I find the lessons I learned helping me every day in my work now.
My first lesson: Communicate
I learned this lesson hard, and I learned it fast. Whether it’s the whole kitchen shouting at you, or a customer vowing never to return because they didn’t want ketchup and you should have known that via your psychic powers, communication is key in any fast paced, stressful situation. I can’t tell you how many times a little communication would have gone a long way. I’m not a mind reader, and neither is anyone else. Don’t expect people to know what you need from them – ask them for it. And ask questions. If you don’t know, don’t pretend you do. It’s going to take a lot less time to have it explained to you than for someone else to clear up your mess after the fact.
Lesson two: Pull your weight
Being on time and ready to work is paramount in the restaurant trade. Working with people who aren’t there because they’re too hungover, their alarm didn’t go off, or they left a uni deadline too late – waitressing is the kind of job that people often don’t care about, so they don’t care about calling in sick. But this impacts hugely on the team they’ve left behind. Likewise, when someone turns up but isn’t taking responsibility for their workload, there is no room for sulking and refusing to take on the extra work. Hungry people aren’t patient people. If a job needs done, take it on. Working in a restaurant throws you into a very intense community of people, and you need to know how to be part of that community.
Lesson three: Be organised
To work as a server, you’re the point of contact between so many people – the manager, the customer, the bar staff, the maître d’, the kitchen. There’s nothing like keeping an ever changing rotation of demands in your head for 12 hours straight to strengthen your skills in mental organisation. You learn how to adapt any natural multi-tasking skills you have to a higher level of efficiency, because in a restaurant, everything needs to be done right now. Food gone cold, drinks after starters, missing menus – nothing can afford to wait. Instead, you learn to never walk anywhere with empty hands, always anticipating the next 10 minutes. Throwing yourself into the fray without an action plan is only going to leave you flustered and panicky. Working under pressure hones your multitasking skills – something that never goes amiss in an office. These days I have the luxury of a written 'to do' list that I can delegate to 'tomorrow’, 'next week’, 'sometime in November’ – not a chance when your deadline is the three hour lunch rush.
Lesson four: Attitude matters
My grandpa told me that life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it. Waitressing was never my dream job, but I made a point of going in with as much enthusiasm as those who had chosen this as their career. Arriving at work every day expecting it to be bad will only help ensure that happens. When the wattage of your smile determines the total of your pay check, you literally can’t afford to be in a bad mood. I couldn’t change that the pay was bad, that the hours were long, or that my schedule was the opposite of my friends – none of that would be made any different by sulking. But how I approached my job determined whether my day was long or it flew by.
Lesson five: Diplomacy
This is the last one, and probably the most important. I learned diplomacy by dealing with the public all day, every day. I learned it by managing hungry parents who were even more badly behaved than their toddlers, relaying horrendous off-menu orders to the kitchen and getting three separate sittings done on a Saturday night and still making people feel like they had four hours at the table when they only had 90 minutes. I also learned when I should stand up to my manager for rounding down my tips to make up his own paycheck, when it wasn’t okay to be shouted at in front of a packed restaurant, and when I should stick to my guns because the customer actually isn’t always right. Not everybody is going to treat you with respect, but you should always treat yourself with respect.
Waitressing taught me a lot of skills I used going into my first 'proper’ job. Hard work often goes unnoticed, and that generally means you’re doing it well. You never know how someone else’s day is going, and it costs you nothing to be nice; so often these things come back to you. I learned to read people and adjust my behaviour accordingly, to anticipate needs, and to toughen up.
Mostly I learned that if I can handle a room full of tired, grumpy, tipsy people on a bank holiday Monday in a heatwave, two chefs down and a new start behind the bar, I can handle anything.