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Continuum Consulting Services LLC

There we were … sitting in a crowded restaurant in downtown Banner Elk, NC, waiting for someone to come take our order. As we waited, we did what any two organizational development consultants tend to do, we observed people going about their work. We are always observing what leaders, teams and organizations are doing well and what could be improved, even when we go out to dinner.

How were people doing their jobs? Were they happy, proactive, supportive of each other? Well-trained? What was the customer experience like?

As we talked, we reminisced about the jobs we had working in the restaurant business growing up and what we learned during those experiences that informed how we do our work today. What can seem like very straightforward jobs delivering food and drink may offer some of the best possible training in navigating professional spaces. We chuckled as we realized…we learned a lot!

What Does It Take?

So, what’s the truth about the real skill sets wait staff, bartenders and baristas can learn on the job?  Here’s our list—feel free to add to it with your own experience:

  • Physical strength and stamina. Trays are heavy, hours are long, and you’re on your feet constantly. You learn to not waste steps or energy as well as how to balance four full plates on your hands and arms and then place them on the table without mishap.
  • Reading the room. Scanning, anticipating needs, making sure all the tables are taken care of and that the workload is distributed across the staff is super important. You learn to quickly take the measure of the people and situations around you.
  • Juggling. To juggle well, you have to stay organized and able to predict what’s coming next. There’s lots going on to be coordinated: food orders, unusual requests, staff shortages, table turnover, plates for more than one table coming out of the kitchen at the same time. You learn to multi-task.
  • Attention to Detail. Orders must be delivered to the right people at the right time, cooked the way they have requested.  It’s more difficult than it sounds. And, depending on the type of bar/restaurant, you have to make sure you’ve set the table correctly, that there are no spots on the glasses, and that when someone requests a spoon for their iced tea, that you bring them an iced tea spoon, not a soup spoon.  Believe it or not, that will impact your tip, as will how you pour their wine. Etiquette isn’t totally dead.
  • People Management. In this job, you’re always ‘on’ and constantly negotiating in one way or another–with the kitchen, the bar, the customers, your boss and the other staff.  You learn to get along with just about anyone and not burn your bridges. In fact, by the time you’re an experienced server, you could teach career diplomats a thing or two.
  • Teamwork. For a restaurant or bar to be great, teamwork is essential. We need good teamwork to ensure smooth functioning all the time, but teams matter most when things happen no one could have predicted: dropped plates and glasses, screaming children, food sent back to the kitchen, tipsy customers, walkouts, heart attacks, kitchen fires…the list goes on and on. Learning to roll with the punches and pitch in as part of a team will serve you for a lifetime.

Some of you are nodding your heads now at the description of how it is to work in the food service industry because you’ve experienced it, too. For us, nothing prepared us for a happy life in the workplace better than the time we spent on the ‘front lines’ of food service. It’s great training for how to navigate a new job and for taking on team and leadership roles. See Sallie’s story below.

I arrived in Sydney, Australia, for a self-arranged university gap year. Work permits were easy to get at that long-ago time, and I was able to snag a job down in the historic Rocks area of the city, at a trendy jazz club called the ‘Rocks Push.’ Although I’d had some basic experience waiting tables at school, I was unprepared for what awaited me.
The kitchen was in the basement of an old brick warehouse building with three floors of music and food to navigate on narrow stairs. Looking back, I realize I haven’t been in such good physical shape since then—think 15-lb trays balanced on one hand while climbing three floors, over and over.

What did I learn? To turn on a dime; to stay on the right side of kitchen staff and bartenders; to treat people with respect even when they didn’t behave well; and, to convince people who had drunk way too much to let me walk them down the stairs to a cab. After completing an undergraduate psychology degree back in the US, I was up for a human resources job at a big ad agency in New York.  When asked if I could survive the fast-paced, high-pressure environment, I told them about my year at the jazz club.  They hired me, and over time, promoted me to director of HR.

How about you? 
Have you worked as a waiter, waitress, kitchen crew or bartender? What skills can you add to our list?
Or, thinking back, what early jobs and training best prepared you for your work life now?  Let us know.
And…by the way, the service that night in Banner Elk was top-notch.  We’re always in awe of those people who make food service their profession and do it impeccably.

Sallie Lee is a senior consultant with Continuum.
Wendy White is co-founder and partner in Continuum Consulting Services