How to Land a Summer Restaurant Job – and Keep It

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I’ve worked as a waiter for seven years, so it didn’t surprise me when the National Restaurant Association announced last week that the industry is expected to add 450,000 jobs to the economy this summer.

The NRA study predicts some states will add a lot of restaurant jobs. Maine is projected to hire almost 32 percent more restaurant workers than last summer’s 37,000. Other states (like Arizona) will actually fire employees, resulting in a decrease of 2.8 percent in its restaurant workforce.

It works out to a national increase of 4.6 percent – ahead of the average employment rate across all industries. But don’t get too excited. I’ve seen it before: The restaurant hires a lot of people over the summer and weeds them out aggressively, so by the time the busy season comes around right after Thanksgiving, they’re left with the cream of the crop.

Here’s what you need to know to make money this summer – and keep making it through winter…

Landing the job

You’re not the only one being interviewed. Where I used to work, a floor manager would dedicate a solid three-hour block for interviews Monday through Friday. Here’s what you need to do to stand out:

  • Show up well-dressed. Slacks and a button-down will do for men. Women should dress in something a hostess would wear. Half the interviewees will dress like slobs, which is the quickest way to get chopped.
  • Speak slowly and clearly. If you’re too excited, the manager might think you’re on drugs. Speaking of which, don’t be.
  • Smile. A lot. This is your pitch to the manager, showing him what you’ll look like talking to guests.
  • Know the lingo. Call the customers guests. A table with two people on it is a two-top. Three people: three-top. Four people…you get it. A silverware set is a rollup. The dining room is the front of the house. The kitchen is the back of the house.
  • Save time and be prepared by bringing your own pen and a list of references/past jobs/phone numbers. You’re going to have to fill out an application, complete with detailed information you may not remember. This keeps you from taking too long, checking your phone, or having to Google the address of your last gig – like many people do.

Keeping the job

I started my most recent restaurant job during a summer – and kept it for four years. Here’s how:

  • It might seem blindingly obvious, but show up to work like you care. Every day. Your shirt should be washed and ironed. Men should shave and women should have their hair tied up. While the restaurant may not require these things, they’ll set you apart.
  • Don’t be late. Even being three minutes late can cost you. Some managers will give up your section and stick you with a terrible one (this goes both for kitchen staff and servers). Others might even send you home. But they’ll all remember it – especially when they’re writing next week’s schedule.
  • Work hard. No shortcuts. Finish your cleaning properly. Likewise for all of your sidework, a set of chores you have to do before going home, like folding 50 rollups or cleaning and restocking the coffee station.
  • Every month or so, ask a manager to evaluate you. Some will do it automatically. We had a policy at one of my restaurants where evaluations were supposed to happen monthly – except they never did. How do you ask for one? “[Name], it’s been quite a month. Remember that time I spilled coffee everywhere? Ha-ha. Well, I was wondering if we could sit down next week. I want to know how I can improve.”

Get something out of the job

You’re the new person, and your section is at the back of the restaurant next to the bathrooms – and many guests will ask the hostess or host for a different table. Every restaurant has its good and bad sections, and you’re starting off with the bad. But there are ways to make money:

  • Stay late. When things slow down, managers shut down sections that aren’t making money – probably the one you’re working. This is when you ask a server whose section hasn’t been shut down and offer to close it: “Hey, why don’t you go home and enjoy this fine evening?” A server is more likely to give up the section on a weeknight, so try it then. Not only will you walk out with more cash, but the manager will remember that you now know how to close a section, especially when he’s writing the schedule.
  • Pick up shifts. Weekday morning shifts are lousy, and you’ll barely make any money. But if a server is looking to give one up, take it. After a few weeks of working these slow shifts, you’ll be way more experienced than your lazy co-workers – and your schedule will reflect it.
  • Don’t stop learning. Ask the bartender what good wine or drink goes with what dish. Memorize two or three suggestions a week. Within a month, you’ll know more than the others, meaning you’ll upsell more, getting guests to buy more than just what they wanted at first. Your wallet and your schedule will reflect this newfound knowledge.
  • Hustle. Hustling at a restaurant means doing all of the above, but it also means doing sidework for other servers who’ll pay you. This isn’t always allowed – and at my restaurant, it was banned when a guy used to come in late at night just to do sidework – but at $5 a sidework (like cleaning the coffee station), you can make a killing.

For more, check out 4 Tips for Making More Tips and 4 Weird Ways to Get a Job.

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