So You’ve Decided You’d Like to Try out the Hospitality Industry

Good for you. You’ve selected an industry that tends to thrive in a recession and can be an absolute gold mine in boom times. You’ve looked around at the servers and bartenders who have served you in various establishments and said to yourself, “I could do this job.”  Well brace yourself, it can be a lot harder than you think.  Those servers and bartenders you observed smiling and casually making the job look easy are consummate professionals who have endured a trial by fire to get to where they are. While they are smiling away they are likely doing ten things at once that you are not meant to see. They are earning every penny with blood, sweat, and tears, along with accumulating enough emotional damage to make your awkward years in high school seem like a breeze.

For those of you who decide to push on and make a go of it in this industry, you are going to need some help and advice in order to get into the hiring manager’s office. For many of us it can be a lot more difficult than expected. Most hiring managers in this industry insist on having previous experience serving/bartending, but how do you gain experience if no one will give you a shot?

It can be very difficult to get into your first position. To know what kind of place to apply to, what qualifications will be necessary, and what your life will be like if you’re successful are things experienced professionals take for granted. It’s not all Tom Cruise in cocktail. Many of us spend years in the wrong type of place because we aren’t aware of what else is out there. This very short guide can give you some insight as to how to get started. Please be advised, I do not describe what the industry should be, I am merely telling you about how it is. Keep in mind that I am generalizing and there are exceptions to all of my rules. 

There are two major factors that will impact your success in getting a job in the place you want.

  1. Your Assets and Attributes
    • Experience (customer service, cash handling, life experience)
    • Who you know? (Internal contacts, friends of friends, etc.)
    • Demographic. (Gender, uniform policy, style of service, age, etc.)
    • Education (bartending certificates, management programs, etc.)
  2. What Do You Want To Accomplish?
    • Is it a good place to start? (Can you succeed with little experience?)
    • Does it offer good money?
    • What quality of life does it offer? (hours, flexibility, quality of management and customer base.
    • What will it teach me? (Good training, measured learning process, patience.)

The first is your current assets and attributes. The next is what exactly you would like to get out of this industry. Many people get turned off of one job and give up on this industry altogether thinking it is all the same. Believe me it is not. There are as many types of establishments as there are personality types, and your success can be a factor of how compatible you are to the culture of a place.

YOUR ASSETS AND ATTRIBUTES

There are four major components that hiring managers care about when evaluating you as a potential employee. Different types of places will value some of these more than others.

Experience/Skill
Working on your feet a whole shift, serving the general public, and developing the emotional callous it takes to be nice to people you deeply dislike (which at some point will be everybody), are important transferable skills. These factors may help convince the hiring manager that you are aware of some of the difficulties of the job, and therefore won’t be taken aback at the first drunk/ultra-rude guest you serve. 

Who you know?
Do you know anybody that is already in an establishment you’d like to work?   This can be your easiest way in. Many hiring managers simply do not want to go through the effort of weeding through resume’s and endless interviews. They might jump on an easy hire because a current employee will vouch for you. Bonus.

Education
Important!! A bartending/mixologist certificate WILL NOT get you a job. Hiring managers don’t respect that type of training, believing that you can only really learn in the real environment. (Like they did.)  However, it WILL help you learn a few things that will make on the job training much smoother for you than it would otherwise. It will teach you cocktails, basic bar setup, and some rudimentary product knowledge. It will not help you get a job, but it may help you get better at it faster.  

Free tip. When you do land your first job and the bartender who is training you tells you to make a drink a certain way. If you tell them that it is not the way you were taught in bartending school, don’t even wait for a response. Walk out and don’t give them the chance to fire you.

Another Free Tip. Do your Smart Serve (or other bartending licence) Don’t bother applying without it. End of story.

GOALS AND ASPIRATIONS

So we have determined what you have to offer but that’s only part of the story. You need to fit into a place that will give you what you want out of it. There are a million different types of places out there, and in recent years the lines between them have begun to blur. Here are some things you may not know about each type of place you want to work.

Casual Dining (Corporate)

Overview
This is the Jack Astor’s, Moxie’s, Milestones, East Side Mario’s etc. They are typically fast paced, have extensive training programs, are more used to training newbies to the industry than most other types, and will eventually suck the last ounce of soul out of you. Everything will be about guest check averages, upsells, branding, chit times, and guest reviews. They often have very large staffs and a high turnover rate.

Is It A Good Place To Start Out? Rating 10
YES.  Intensive training and the patience to do it. There are things you as a newbie simply don’t know and worse, you don’t even know that you don’t know them. Here you will learn the absolute basics, and as a bonus if you stick it out to become one of the senior people, you will become a jedi master of high volume time management.

Money? Rating 4
Small sections and fast cuts are their M.O. As a new server you will be put into a small section of four to six tables and run that section for two hours throughout the rush and be cut, often making $60 if you’re lucky. The top 10% of the staff are the core of this type of place. These are the people who have been there for 3+ years, make great money and are usually very unhappy with their lives.

What Will It Teach Me? Rating 8
This place will teach you the ins and outs of a corporate big scale restaurant. If you can make it into the coveted “senior staff” bracket, you can make it anywhere. Time management, burn and turning, and navigating restaurant politics are the key learning points here. (By learning how to navigate restaurant politics, I mean learning to not sleep with ALL  of your coworkers). You will not learn the finer points of hospitality, nor feel the desire to do so.

What Quality of Life Does it Offer? Rating 6
Shorter shifts, flexible non-set schedules are bonuses and particularly good for students. Irritating customer base and a politics heavy environment are downsides.

Summary
Ideal to start out with. However if you aspire to higher level dining, learn what you can and try to move on within two years. Don’t get trapped here.

Fine Dining

Overview
This is where the average entrée’ is $30 or more and the waiter is allowed to grease his thinning hair straight back. This is for real pro’s, you won’t find many amateur or casual servers around this kind of place. For clarification, The KEG does not count in this category.

Is It a Good Place to Start Out? Rating 1
No. The level of service required is quite staggering actually. Many of these places not only require extensive wine and food knowledge, but also masterful time management skills. We tend to see only the tip of the iceberg with these servers. We don’t see what is going on behind the scenes, because their job is to make sure you don’t. No one has time to teach you the basics here.

Money? Rating 9
Excellent money. It takes some bending over backwards but the rewards can be extreme.

What Will It Teach Me? Rating 3
In order to survive here you will have to already have 80% of the necessary skills going in, so I’m going to round this off as not a great learning experience. That is unless you’ve done a few years of high volume serving, in that case you know enough to be a newbie in the finer dining circuit.

What Quality of Life is There? Rating 7
Good career, bad part time gig. Not a lot of super late nights, however you will mostly work evenings until midnight likely. These places usually want full time and a large personal commitment to the business. You will conversely be rewarded as such and eventually be treated as much more valuable than just another warm body. You will serve some of the most opinionated, arrogant, and self-involved people you can imagine, which sounds horrible until they sign a tip to their credit card bill that will cover half your rent for the month.

Summary
Better as a second or third job in hospitality. Learn about wine either on your own or through a program first. Be excellent at time management and guest service before trying to apply. Do not under-estimate what it takes to succeed here.

Nightclubs

Overview
We all know what nightclubs are, but to work in one may present different challenges than you would imagine. Sexual harassment, crazy hours, exposure to the drug scene, and witness to occasional violence are some of the potential downsides. The upsides include sometimes making fantastic money in very few hours. They usually care deeply about what you look like and how you present yourself so be prepared to attach a picture to your resume.

Is It A Good Place to Start? Rating 4-7
It Depends. As a new bartender you won’t be able to keep up, and there won’t be anyone to show you basics. You’ll need to know your cocktails and shooters very well without asking anyone. As bottle service or bar-backs you could probably start here, although your learning opportunities if you want to move up are few and far between.

Money? Rating 10
Bartenders/Bottle Service make great money. Bar-backs it depends on the place. Coat check not so much.

What Will It Teach me? Rating 6
As a bartender and bar-back it will teach you time management, multi-tasking, and how to forget what you were forced to clean up the night before. As a bottle service girl you would need to know how to look good in a dress and flirt beforehand, so otherwise very little.

What Quality of Life is There? Rating 4
You’ll be locked into super late weekend nights, so that depends on you. The lifestyle is also worth considering. Drugs and violence are common in this aspect of the industry and while that may not sound like an issue for you it is something to be aware of. This of course highly depends on the venue and the ownership.

Summary?
Clubs are in my experience best used by people who have been in the industry for a while in other categories, and are looking for a way out. So they bartend at a nightclub while they do school or an apprenticeship during the day. It’s great cash and few hours so this can work for them. My advice, don’t start here.

Pubs

Overview
Pubs can be lots of different things. Some are corporate, some are privately owned. Some are holes in the wall, some are very upscale. Some are well managed, some are not. So this will be a generalization. Pubs are typically a little bit more casual than the average restaurant. This does not necessarily mean easier to work in. On the contrary the challenges with pubs can be quite different than any other concept. Pubs can be a place where you can bring your own style to your service. Nobody will tell you that you have to offer gravy with fries or else you’re fired. However the standards are high and the sections are big.

Is It a Good Place To Start? Rating 5
NO. If you’ve never served, you can’t. You will be expected to have a mediocre wine knowledge, and better than average beer knowledge. Service details that are taught in corporatecasual dining are not taught here, but you are expected to know how to do it. The only thing the owner wants to train you on is where the bathrooms are and how to log into the POS system. After that you are often largely on your own. Experienced people are able to ask the right questions and guide their own learning. Newbies can’t. Not a bad start as a busser or hostess, but don’t expect a well-developed training program. Here, in order to learn anything you will have to take the initiative.

Money? Rating 7
Widely varies. Because in many pubs the sections are bigger and you are more likely to have a strong relationship with your regulars, you can do very well More and more pubs are shifting to a corporate style of smaller sections = better service mentality however, so the opportunities are slowly evaporating. Really it just depends on the place.

What Will It Teach Me? Rating 7
Interpersonal skills with guests. Beer knowledge. High volume service. The art of the dreaded “Cut Off.” Etc. Pubs are usually where servers end up, not where they transition from. So if you aspire to fine dining don’t bother. If you’re content with your neighbourhood local, this is the style of service for you.

What is The Quality of Life? Rating 9
Often set schedules but little flexibility in changes. Long and late hours, balanced by those hours serving a nicer clientele and working with nicer people Personally I’ve always been happiest in pubs because of the relationships that are formed. The average staff member is often a little more mature and the average skill of your coworkers is higher as well.

Summary?
Because pubs can be so wildly different I suggest finding somewhere that you feel most comfortable as a guest. They can be wonderful opportunities when they are managed well. Good questions to ask are how long has the GM been there?   What is the staff turnover like?   If they flip their staff every four months that’s probably not a good sign, if every person has worked there for fifteen years that’s equally not a good sign. Pubs can be great both as careers and as temporary jobs for a few years to get you through school. Just don’t start here.

At The End of The Day

People hire people for lots of different reasons. Hopefully, these tips have helped a little in clarifying both your own position and your goals as to where you will end up. Ultimately the best advice I can offer is to know when to pay your dues, know when you deserve something better, and always always always try to remember why you are doing this in the first place. Inevitably this industry will show you a side of it that you never knew existed, and sometimes it’s not a very nice side to look at. But occasionally, just sometimes, if you work really hard at it, eventually you will be able to feel like Tom Cruise in Cocktail. And trust me. It feels awesome.


Doug Nameth has been working in hospitality in Toronto for thirteen years in a variety of settings including casual dining, fine dining, and pubs. With eight of those years devoted to management in various locations, he specializes in building systems, service training, and staff management. Find him on LinkedIn