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How to Become a Good Waiter

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Woman: "What do you do for a living?" Man: "I'm an actor." Woman: "So how long have you been a waiter?" Yes, seemingly every struggling actor has had a career as a waiter at one point, but there's a good reason: Waiting tables can be a great job. Check out these potential benefits: * You can make tons of money on tips. * Your schedules can be flexible, allowing you to attack other projects. * You get the chance to talk to people all day. But landing all of these benefits is not easy. To get the job, the flexible schedules and the high tips, you need to be good at it, and being a good waiter can be incredibly tough. So before you tie those apron strings, let us serve you up some helpful "tips" for your journey into the hospitality industry. By the way, while the word "waiter" usually refers to men, but we're treating it as a gender-neutral term-much like the words "actor" and "author."

Know What to Expect

The best way to begin your life as a waiter is to listen to some of the advice of current/former waiters. Here's how to do it:

  1. Talk to a few of your friends who have worked or are still working as a waiter. (We promise, you have many.) Invite them over for dinner and ask them to tell you their most hideous, toe-curling waiter stories. (We promise, they'll have many). As they tell you their sob stories, picture yourself in that situation and how you would've handled it. Also ask them to give you an idea about some of their chores. They'll tell you about filling up ketchup bottles and salt-and-pepper shakers, lugging ice up from the basement, sweeping, mopping, polishing and scrubbing. And that's only the beginning of the fun ...

  2. The next time you go to a diner, tell the waiter who's serving you that you're thinking about joining the waiter work force, and ask what advice he has for you. We're sure the waiter will have many hideous, toe-curling stories of his own.

Notice the common element? Hideous, toe-curling stories. Being a waiter can be incredibly annoying because many people are jerks and like to boss other people around. Customers change their minds, lie, don't pay their bills, yell, get drunk, spill things, harass people and generally act like animals. Most customers will never think that your service is fast enough or that their food is hot or tasty enough. That's just how things work. And much of the time, it won't be your fault. You can't help it if the cook didn't read your order correctly, or if the food tastes bad, or if you have to handle 20 tables because the rest of the staff quit. And the worst part is that with the exception of outright harassment, the customer is always right. "But I'm right!" you shout. "She DIDN'T ask for anchovies!" To which your boss will reply, "Would you rather be right or would you rather NOT get fired?"

We don't mean to scare you away. As we mentioned before, being a waiter also has tons of perks: You get major tips if you do a good job, you get the chance to talk to people and--if the restaurant isn't packed--it can be rather laid back. You might also get some free food and have the chance to meet new people. But don't be fooled: It IS work. You'll be on your feet for hours, carrying heavy items and managing many requests at once. And you'll have to look happy while doing it. This is not a good job for people with high-strung personalities.

Something else to consider: You have to be able to multitask. As you walk down an aisle of tables, people will be calling out for more coffee, a clean spoon, pepper, ketchup, a toothpick and the tail feather of a Brazilian Mooneybird. You have to be able to remember and accomplish these tiny things without getting panicked or stressed out. You'll may have to memorize the menu and prices, too, as well as daily specials.

Bottom line: Think it through. Save yourself the hassle if you know upfront that you don't have the patience, endurance or ability to flash a fake smile.

Determine What Type of Position You're Looking For

Before you hit the pavement, you'll have to sit down and answer three important questions that will help you find the perfect waiter job for you:

  1. How much money do I need to make?
  2. What kind of restaurant would I like to work for?
  3. What kind of hours am I able to work?

How much money do I need to make? First, figure out what you're aiming to rake in a week. Remember to be realistic. You're new at this, so you won't start off at the top echelon.

Your income will come from two sources: your tips and your hourly wages, both of which vary greatly from restaurant to restaurant. When you visit potential employers (you'll learn how to find some in Step 3), ask these questions:

  1. How much will I make an hour in wages? Some restaurants pay peanuts in hourly wages, but this is usually offset with tips. Your hourly wages could range from $1.50 to $10, but remember to weigh everything.

  2. How much do the waiters generally make in tips during the hours that I will be working? There's a big difference between the tips made during Sunday night dinner and those made on Tuesday at 3 p.m. And don't take the interviewer's word for it; talk to other employees about the tips they make. Unless they're already fighting over shifts and giving newcomers an evil eye, they'll most likely be happy to tell you. You've hit gold if they brag.

  3. Are the tips split among other employees or do I keep all of my own tips? Some restaurants divvy up the goods at the end of the day, and a huge pot of money is split among you and all the other waiters (and possibly the busboys). This matters because if you think you're a better waiter than the others, you might not want to give up your bigger share of tips.

And, of course, a friendly reminder about taxes: Your hourly wages will most likely be taxed, but it's up to you when it comes to how honest you're going to be about your tip income. We leave that to your discretion (guilt trip, guilt trip).

What kind of restaurant would I like to work for? Working at a higher-end restaurant doesn't necessarily mean that you'll make more money. Most higher-end restaurants give you only a few tables, but you'll make $10 to $20 in tips per table. Lower-end restaurants, on the other hand, might yield lower tips per table, but you'll get more tables and the turnover is usually quicker. So a lot of it boils down to your preference.

Another item to consider: a ritzy restaurant or a chain restaurant, such as Chili's, will likely have more stringent rules--that is, you'll have to wear a very specific uniform--and be more uptight about perfection, but the ambiance will be more organized and less crazed than a popular pizza place would be. A lower-end restaurant is more likely to be laid-back about rules (you won't be killed if a perfectly cut lemon isn't placed on the water glass), but the atmosphere can become unruly. Keep in mind, however, that a little craziness here and there can make the time fly.

One last thing to keep in mind: your boss. At a smaller family restaurant, the owner may well be your boss and you'll be in direct contact with her during your hours. If you have any problems, she can take care of them. At a fancy or chain restaurant, you may never meet the owner, meaning that a large hierarchy will slow the process of making your complaints heard. But some people enjoy that level of deep organization.

What kind of hours am I able to work? Obviously, this ties into how much money you need to make and what's going on in your life. When you go job-hunting, stick to your guns. You don't want to establish yourself as a pushover right off the bat. You'll certainly have to compromise a little because newcomers always have to take a stinky shift or two, meaning a shift with few tips, such as Tuesday morning, 3 a.m. to 9 a.m., or a shift that falls during the other waiters' fun-time hours, maybe Saturday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. But don't agree to work shifts that you can't work because you have other responsibilities during those times. And don't agree to work a lot more hours or a lot less hours than you planned. Find a happy medium between being a slacker and being a workhorse. As you acclimate to your new job--usually after about three weeks--you might be able to play around with your hours and fit them to your liking.

Land a Job

The best way to land a great restaurant job is to go from restaurant to restaurant and ask to speak to the owner or a manager. Don't sit at home and make phone calls because you're more likely to be dismissed. Look under the "Help Wanted" section of your newspaper, or visit your favorite restaurants and ask the waiters there if they know if the manager is hiring. One more way to find an available job is online. Some placement services include and

VERY IMPORTANT: When you're out restaurant-hopping, make sure you hit the restaurants during slower hours. You're practically guaranteed NOT to get hired if you bug the manager during prime time hours when the restaurant is at its busiest. So the best time to job hunt is between lunch and dinner.

Obviously, the interview process for a job waiting tables is less formal than other job interviews. You don't have to wear a suit, but don't wear ripped jeans and an old T-shirt either. Dress neatly, trim those nails, comb that hair and look sanitary. You want to possess that "I-am-not-a-health-code-violation" aura. Most important, wear your best smile. As we said earlier, waiters must be friendly, so be sure to channel the Brady spirit.

The interview process at each restaurant varies. You might be asked to fill out an application. You might be asked to come back to chat with the owner, or you might chat with the manager right then, so be prepared to sell yourself. If you have prior experience, you should be ready to give examples of how good of a waiter you are. If you have no experience waiting tables, make sure you are ready to discuss the qualities you have that would make you a good waiter. Tell funny anecdotes if your interviewer is friendly. Do NOT focus on how you need a job to pay your bills. Focus on the fact that you would be wonderful working at a restaurant because you're such a people person or you're such a hard worker, etc. Most important, be friendly yet in control. The manager is going to trust you to be the liaison to the customers, so you want to look as though you could handle any situation that comes around.

Make sure to follow up the interviews with a phone call, about a week afterward. Restaurant managers are always busy, so they might need a little nudge, especially if hiring is an ongoing process in the restaurant. Our advice: Again, call during off-peak hours, and give a little friendly nudge that you're really interested.

No matter what, be persistent with your job search. Go to as many restaurants as possible. You could get a job the first day you go out, or it could take several weeks. Keep in mind that job turnover in the service industry is incredibly high, so it's all a matter of being in the right place at the right time. And lest you forget, keep that smile big and wide.

Become a Good Waiter

Congratulations! You now have complete control over what people put into their bloodstreams. The power!

Settle, settle. Keep in mind that the hardest part of the battle is yet to come: becoming a quality waiter. Even if you've had experience waiting tables, learning the idiosyncrasies of a new restaurant may be harder than you think. And if you have absolutely no experience as a waiter, then you need our advice before you implode.

Master your daily chores Learn how to deal with your customers Learn how to carry many objects

You should master your list of daily chores as soon as possible for two reasons:

  1. Your chores will be relatively easy to do--albeit gross at times.

  2. If you screw up the chores, you'll at least want to prove that you're trying and that you're a hard worker.

So go over your chores with your manager or another waiter. Create a list and pin it to your workstation or keep it in your apron. Until you have the list memorized, keep checking back with the list. It will be your godsend.

During your first month, unless you're on a break, never stand in a corner doing nothing--or chatting with a friend, co-worker, etc. If the restaurant is slow, then start working on your list: refilling salt shakers, wiping down tables, taking out the garbage and whatever else needs to get done. If you're not sure exactly what to do, ask your boss. It'll show that you're a hard worker. After your first few weeks, your boss will be watching you less closely, and you won't have to be a busy little bee ALL the time. And by then, you'll have developed a routine for your daily chores and know how to fit them into your shift.

Learn how to deal with customers. Essentially, we're telling you to exhibit patience, poise and the ability to control your facial expressions when your head feels like it's going to burst into flames. Smile. Breathe. Eventually, you'll develop skin as thick as the old mayonnaise in the restaurant fridge.

The most difficult task you'll have to master is carrying plates to and from the tables. Pretend you're one of those refined girls in a Jane Austen book learning how to be a refined member of the aristocracy and walk around trying to balance a heavy book on your head. Go food shopping like this. Or miniature golfing. You'll learn balance in no time.

In the meantime, don't try to carry more than you can handle. It doesn't matter if you have to make six trips from the kitchen to the table. Your customers may get annoyed, but they'll be a lot more annoyed if you spill scalding New England clam chowder into their laps. You'll eventually learn the best way to carry your restaurant's trays and plates, and you'll be whisking around the restaurant--a tray balanced on each pinkie like the rest of the pros.

You'll learn a million more dos and don'ts as you gain more experience. You'll discover, for example, that leftover dinner rolls turn into hard, lethal weapons when you forget to put them in the freezer at night, and you'll figure out how easily hot coffeepots can break.

But most important, remember that working in a restaurant, despite its sometimes grueling nature, is a social job. So chat up the customers who aren't spawns of Satan, enjoy the free food and smile as you work your tail off.