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, and 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 who decide to push on and make a go of it in this industry, you will need some help and advice to get into the hiring manager’s office. It can be a lot more complex for many of us 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 tough 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 concise guide can give you some insight into how to get started. Please be advised that I do not describe what the industry should be; I am merely telling you how it is. Keep in mind that I am generalizing, and there are exceptions to all of my rules.
For one bartender’s journey in the hospitality industry, read her story about starting in the industry here.
Two major factors will impact your success in getting a job in the place you want.
- Your Assets and Attributes
- Experience (customer service, cash handling, life experience)
- Who do you know? (Internal contacts, friends of friends, etc.)
- Demographic. (Gender, uniform policy, style of service, age, etc.)
- Education (bartending certificates, management programs, etc.)
- 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 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 with the culture of a place.
Your Assets and Attributes
Four major components hiring managers care about when evaluating you as a potential employee. Different types of places will value some of these more than others.
Working on your feet a whole shift, serving the general public, and developing the emotional callous it takes to be nice to people you intensely dislike (which at some point will be everybody), are essential 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 do you know?
Do you know anybody already in an establishment you’d like to work with? This can be your easiest way in. Many hiring managers do not want to go through weeding through resumes and endless interviews. They might jump on an easy hire because a current employee will vouch for you. Bonus.
Important!! A bartending/mixologist certificate WILL NOT get you a job. Hiring managers don’t respect that type of training, believing you can only 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 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 land your first job, the bartender training you tells you to make a drink a certain way. Don’t even wait for a response if you tell them that it is not the way you were taught in bartending school. Walk out, and don’t give them a chance to fire you.
Another Free Tip. Do your Smart Serve (or another bartending licence); Don’t bother applying without it. End of story.
Four Different Food Service Places You Might Work At
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 kind of place you want to work.
Casual Dining (Corporate)
This is the Jack Astor’s MMoxie’s Milestones, East Side MMario’setc. 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 a soul out of you. Everything will be about guest check averages, upsells, branding, chit times, and guest reviews. They often have huge 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. As a newbie, you don’t know things, 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, 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, and 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. The key learning points here are time management, burn and turning, and navigating restaurant politics. (Learning how to navigate restaurant politics means learning not to 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 and flexible non-set schedules are bonuses and particularly good for students. Irritating customer base and a politics-heavy environment are downsides.
Ideal to start 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.
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 pros, and you won’t find many amateurs 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. Many of these places require extensive wine and food knowledge and masterful time management skills. We tend to see only the tip of the iceberg with these servers. We don’t see what is happening 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
To survive here, you will have to have already 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, and in that case, you know enough to be a newbie in the more refined dining circuit.
What Quality of Life is There? Rating 7
Promising career, bad part-time gig. There are not many super late nights; however, you will probably work evenings until midnight. These places usually want full-time and a significant personal commitment to the business. Conversely, you will 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 monthly rent.
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 underestimate what it takes to succeed here.
We all know what nightclubs are, but working 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 your appearance 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 the 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 are few and far between if you want to move up.
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 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.
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 a few hours, so this can work for them. My advice is don’t start here.
Pubs can be lots of different things. Some are corporate, and some are privately owned. Some are holes in the wall, and some are very upscale. Some are well-managed, and some are not. So this will be a generalization. Pubs are typically a little more casual than the average restaurant, which does not necessarily mean they are easier to work in.
Is It a Good Place To Start? Rating 5
NO. If you’ve never served, you can’t. You will be expected to have mediocre wine knowledge and better-than-average beer knowledge. Service details taught in corporate casual dining are not taught here, but you are expected to know how to do it. The owner wants to train you on where the bathrooms are and how to log into the POS system. After that, you are often largely on your own. Experienced people can 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, 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. 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 friendlier clientele and working with nicer people, 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.
Because pubs can be wildly different, I suggest finding somewhere 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 G.M. 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 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 clarify your 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 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 various settings, including casual dining, fine dining, and pubs. He specializes in building systems, service training, and staff management, with eight years devoted to management in multiple locations. Find him on LinkedIn.