4 Tips for Making More Tips

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Despite a still-shaky economy, restaurants are selling more meals – and hiring more servers. If you're looking for work, here's how to make money in the hospitality biz.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [PDF], last month our economy added 243,000 jobs.  And one of the fast growing sectors? Hospitality. From that same report:

Over the month, employment in leisure and hospitality increased by 44,000, primarily in food services and drinking places (+33,000). Since a recent low in February 2010, food services has added 487,000 jobs.

And that’s a trend likely to continue. The National Restaurant Association recently forecast overall restaurant sales in 2012 will be $632 billion – a 3.5 percent increase from 2011, with total employment expected to be 12.9 million.

So now is a good time to work for a restaurant – whether you’re young and just getting started in the workforce or older and trying to return after a layoff. In my 10 years working in the business – five of them as a server – I’ve learned a few things about what makes a restaurant tick and, more importantly, what makes its employees more money…

1. Go corporate

You generally have two options: a mom-and-pop or a corporate chain. In my experience, you should always go corporate. Here’s why:

  • It will be busier. Empty restaurants don’t bode well for tip earners. If it’s slow, you might be sent home. Or worse: made to stay and make no money. While there are obviously plenty of exceptions, in my experience chain restaurants are typically busier than nearby mom-and-pops.
  • It will be busier more often. The brand-name corporate restaurant has a steady stream of tables getting filled because it has to – or else it shuts down. A mom-and-pop restaurant can often get by with less, because there’s no corporate parent setting a minimum profit margin. And that minimum is typically more than what mom-and-pops need to pay their bills.
  • It will be more likely to give you benefits. I’ve gotten full health insurance with dental and vision for less than $100 a month, and I was averaging only 25 hours a week. Not many smaller restaurants can afford plans like that.

2. Be nice to the guests

The people who will be tipping you might get mean sometimes. Suck it up. It’s what you’re paid to do.

Your only priority is the guest. If a guest is unhappy, get a manager involved immediately. They’re dressed more nicely than you are and are trained in ways to make your guest happy again. Plus, you’ve got other tables to worry about.

If you get a bad tip, don’t take it personally. Another table’s good tip will balance it out. I once broke this rule at a restaurant where I’d been working for four years: I gave the tip back to the guest and said “thank you” sarcastically. The guest complained, headquarters got involved, and I got fired – with no one to blame but myself.

Here are a few tricks to keep your tables happy and your tips high:

  • Keep drinks filled. A late entree is more forgivable when the guests have something to drink in front of them. There’s no excuse for an empty glass.
  • Repeat the order. There’s nothing worse than getting the dish wrong, and guests don’t always know what they’re doing. Take an extra minute and make sure you know what they want – and that they know what they want.
  • Listen. If a guest wants to tell you a joke or a story, stick around and take it in. People come to restaurants sometimes for the interaction, and it’s your job to make them feel welcome.

3. Your coworkers are your only friends

No one understands your job more than the people working next to you. This industry attracts all kinds of people, including those from wealthy and impoverished backgrounds. This might make you think you’re smarter than some of them or more important. You’re not.

Here are a few ways to stay social:

  • Stay out of drama. If servers are complaining about each other or about managers, don’t join in, other than to listen. Word gets around.
  • Don’t mix business and personal life. He or she may be really cute, but when you two break up, the manager will have a hell of a time figuring out how to schedule you.
  • Offer help. When someone is “in the weeds” – lingo for really busy and trying to catch up – they want nothing else than for someone to help. Offering to carry a drink to a table will go a long way, and the favor is likely to be returned.

4. Be a model employee

Some of these tips apply to other industries, but they especially help you in the restaurant business:

  • Be on time. Five minutes late could lose you your section or, worse, your next schedule.
  • Be clean. Women should wear their hair tied or cut short. A small amount of makeup makes a world of difference. Men should shave and have a clean cut.
  • Never blame the guest. Even if the guest is wrong, sell it as a “misunderstanding” to your manager. No one really cares whose fault it is, but rather the quickest way to solve the problem. Communicate effectively and propose a way to make the guest happy again.

If you’re going to look for a restaurant job, do it soon. The National Restaurant Association said that four out of 10 people agree: They’d use an electronic device – like an iPad – to order their food instead of a server. The tech isn’t cheap enough yet for that to happen, according to Mashable, but it won’t be long before it is. So ironically, if you’re getting into the serving business because you got laid off elsewhere, it could happen again in just a few years.

For more on finding work, check out 4 Places for Free Job Training and Using Social Networking to Land a Job? 4 Things Not to Do.

Stacy Johnson

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