When I was 16 years old, I began working at a local, family-owned restaurant
called the Star Diner. Located in a kind of “Leave it to Beaver” neighborhood
in a suburb of Washington, DC, it was centrally located in the town square and
was a famous spot for meals out for families, post-movie milkshakes, and early
While working at the diner, I worked just about every job there was:
dishwasher, busboy, salad/sandwich cook, food runner, expediter, server, and
even assistant manager. I learned a lot along the way and have shared the most
important lessons I learned working in food service, and how I think it is
important for young people to work in food service because of the lessons
Most of the time, you’ll need to start from the bottom.
“I really need a job,” I told the owner of the diner on a Sunday afternoon.
“I need someone to bus tables,” he responded. If you come back in an hour with black pants and a black belt, I’ll let you clean tables tonight.”
So I went to work. And for the next two weeks I begged other people to let me take their shifts. Then, Marty told me he wanted me to be a food runner. So I learned how to load a tray, carry it, and deliver food to tables. Two weeks later, he made me a server. And from there I worked other shifts in other positions, too. But I had to start from the bottom, and I’m glad I did because it made me work even harder to get the more prestigious serving job…the one where I would make more money.
You learn how to sell yourself.
When customers came to the diner, I always thought they were looking for two things: a good meal and good service. They weren’t expecting filet mignon, but they weren’t expecting slop on a plate. They didn’t need white glove service, but they wanted a community and local atmosphere with personal service. And for customers who wanted that, they could get it. They’d order a hamburger and a soda and call it a night. You’d make a decent tip and move on to the next table.
But you made more money by upselling, and that was a mixture of art and science.
You learned to read a table and figure out what you could sell and what you couldn’t. A table full of kids? Try to sell a milkshake (or two). Guys night out? Upsell some bacon on a burger or onion rings instead of fries. Ask a table what their plans were for the night. A movie after dinner? How about a cocktail or two and a quick meal? A date night? Offer some appetizers and desserts. There were numerous ways you could sell more and that meant more money for you.
Over time you learned what worked and what didn’t and you got prepared for a
lot of people to say no. But if you did it right, more people would say yes.
The customer is always right.
On a Sunday brunch shift, I had a customer who ordered a Rueben sandwich. When I delivered the food, he said there was a hair in it, so I said that I would take care of it and walked the food back to the kitchen, telling the chef about the issue.
They decided that they would keep the plate as is, but it back on the grill for a moment, flip the sandwich around, and add some newly crisp French fries. Losing an entire sandwich was not something they wanted to waste.
When I took it back to the customer, he flipped over the sandwich and immediately started raising his voice. “This is the same sandwich! I tore off a corner of the bread to see if you would try to fool me!”
At this point, I called over my manager who addressed the situation by actually getting him a new sandwich and comping his entire bill. The restaurant lost $40 in revenue versus the few dollars it would have cost for making a new sandwich.
Listen, hair in my food doesn’t bother me. I just pull it out and keep eating, but the customer is always right. The customer can stand up and yell to the entire restaurant about the incident and make a whole bunch more customers really unhappy. Luckily, he didn’t.
But I always learned from that point on that the customer is always right, and that it’s better to keep a customer happy than take the risk.
The service industry is truly grueling work.
You’re on your feet for anywhere between four and seven hours straight. You barely
have time for a bathroom break. Even the times when your tables are happy, and you think you have a break, you’ve got “sidework” to complete, like filling the soda machines with ice, ensuring there are enough salad dressings stocked, making more coffee, etc. After your sidework is done, one of your tables probably needs something, and it’s back to the grind.
Working in food service made me work hard in school.
Waiting tables sucks. It’s terrible. Your shift happens while everyone else is not working. Your personal schedule and eating habits are screwed up because of it. You don’t make as much money as you should for the work you put into it. It’s physically and mentally demanding. While working there, I thought to myself, I better work hard in school so I don’t have to make this a career.
Unfortunately, the Star Diner permanently closed several years ago. I had great experiences there, learned a lot, and am grateful for the time I had.