How To Turn Waiter Skills Into A Career

It seems there aren’t many waiters who think of it as a career path. And I know I’ve been at that point myself. “How I will get out of the industry and be happy with 2.5 children and a white picket fence?”

But I actually have tried other things. Managing a liquor store may have been the most boring job I’ve ever done. Personal training was pretty fulfilling, but you see the same handful of people over and over.

Waiting tables is very random. I like that.

It has ups and downs. Some days you feel like a rock star, other days a train wreck. But it actually accommodates your emotional and life cycles well. Especially if you have a good team of people that look out for each other.

But why do so many people feel like waiting tables is a dead end job? The grass is always greener.

Move Into Management

Are you really good at smoothing things out when they go awry? Do co-workers happily complete their side-work when you are the closer? You may make a great manager then.

Hourly Key Manager

Being an hourly key manager won’t pay as well as waiting tables at first. You’ll usually make about half as much per hour. There are more hours available but for me this is no consolation. The real goal is to hone your management skills and pad your resume so that you can go on to the next step. Become a full time assistant manager.

Full Time Assistant Manager

At this point you could make a similar amount of money. And you will have the added benefit of a regular check to budget around. The slow season won’t kill your finances (although it may still drive you crazy).

General Manager

When you get your own store you will be making between 50% to 100% more money than you were as a waiter. There will be a few more subtle perks as well. Manager get invited to wine tastings, food tastings and other industry events. They network on almost the same level as business owners. Especially in the restaurant industry, managers know EVERYONE in town. Discounts, hook-ups and lots of friendly hellos. When you can get out that is.

It may be a busy schedule as a restaurant manager but you will definitely be part of a unique group of people. People that you will most likely have a lot in common with. Most of the restaurant managers also were servers to begin with. They probably love food. They probably love drink. And these top people have what you most likely have that brought you this far: a sense of service.

I’ve seen it described as a Service Jedi​​. The Bar Rescue guy, John Taffer​, describes it as a Reaction Manager. Basically it’s the people who don’t just show up for a buck. These are the people on your team that truly empathize with each guest. They want every step to improve the customer’s experience. That’s the circle of people you will be a part of.

If management isn’t your cup of tea either, then maybe a stiff drink would be a better choice. The next chapter will be about Becoming The Bartender.

Become The Bartender

The third path that people can take in the service industry is to move into the bar. Within a restaurant, this position usually comes in the earliest and stays the latest. But compared to bars and nightclubs, a restaurant bartender gets home very early. Being in the bar can mean great money as well as a few other perks.

Why Bartend?

There are many reasons why people would like to bartend. They usually fall into three categories though:

  1. ​Money
  2. Fame
  3. Connections

There is the possibility of making a LOT of money. Keep in mind that not all restaurants are set up for the bartenders’ success. Ask lots of questions before trying to move into the bar. If the bartenders seem eager for you to take a couple of the shifts be cautious. It’s possible that certain nights make guaranteed money and they want you to cover the other ones.

Bartenders are famous in their realm. Being the bartender is the most glamorous of the hourly restaurant employees. Everyone likes to say they know the bartender. But don’t go out to a bar or a restaurant and blast it out that you are a bartender too.

That’s a dead giveaway that you either aren’t a bartender or you only recently became one. Try a more subtle approach, like asking questions that show you know the industry. Or be polite and act like you would like a guest to act in your bar.

You will meet all kinds of people up at the bar. And since you are always in front of them while you make drinks, you will hear a lot of their conversations. Don’t be creepy but if it isn’t personal stuff, chime in a little. And keep your ears perked up for ways to introduce people that could help each other.

If you know Bill is a mortgage broker and Jimmy is a realtor, ask Jimmy if you can give Bill his card the next time he is in. Or if two people are both there and you think they would have something in common, introduce them. Give an explanation of what the other person does or has interests in.


​A person has to have standards. Your company will have specific standards but it is good to keep a few of your own. Always restock everything you can. If you run out of something, there should be a log book for the next bartender where you can leave a note. When you close, wipe down EVERYTHING. Leaving anything sticky is a sure way to end up with gnats. And it’s gross.

“Cleanliness is next to godliness, especially in the bar.”
-Justin D

Customers see what you are doing and how clean you are keeping things. So keep it clean and clean as you go.Your garnishes and mixers should never be old. Or ugly. Set a standard for your fruit and stick to it. Put a date label on your mixers. Check to see if bubbly stuff is still bubbly.

Unless you practice free pours daily, use a jigger and follow an exact recipe for drinks. The ratio of the drink is so important. Amateur bartenders, and some “experienced” ones make drinks that get sent back.

If your drinks get sent back then you need to get your basics down. Keep a recipe card for your most common drinks next to the well. Follow it! Use your measuring devices.

And don’t forget to make eye contact and smile at your guests. Friendliness will help smooth out all the other things that can happen in the bar.

Go Pro

If you ever watch a pro behind the bar then you may notice how fast they get things done. This is repetition but it is also mind work. I call it mind work because no matter how fast you move, if you do one step at a time you will never be a bar ninja.

Get more efficient. Use both hands. Never reach for the same bottle twice when you have several tickets in the well. Do the coffee drinks and beer last, otherwise the coffee will get cold and the beer will lose it’s head (the top layer of foam).

Never touch a glass by the rim. Ever.

The stem of a wine glass is where you grab the glass and a rocks or a collins glass deserves the same treatment. Grab those by their middle.

Speaking of rims, have you ever gotten a margarita that tasted so salty that you couldn’t drink it? If the bartender rimmed it the right way, any excessive salt would fall down around the outside of the glass.

  1. Roll the outer edge in the soaker or use a lime to wet the rim.
  2. Roll the OUTSIDE edge of the glass through the salt (or sugar, etc.).

And when you pour, leave a 1/4 inch or so at the top of the glass empty. That’s so it doesn’t slosh out of the glass when the server hands it to the guest or while traveling on a tray to the table.

If you work with a second bartender then make sure you are communicating well. Say “behind” as you pass them. Also make sure you don’t double make any drinks. Try tearing the edge of a ticket when you start making the drinks for it. This way the other bartender knows that you are on it. This also prevents a server from putting that ticket back in the well to get the drinks made a second time.

If there isn’t a new ticket, there isn’t a new drink. Keep telling the person calling out for a drink, “no ticket, no taco.” If it’s a giveaway, they ring it and get the manager to comp it.

Get Crafty & Knowledgeable

If you would like to learn mixology and make your own craft cocktails, then start by understanding other people’s top sellers. What is their ratio of strong stuff to sweet to sour to mixer (weak stuff)? Take that ratio and substitute different flavors for each of those parts. Of course do this with permission or with your own supply at home.

If you want to know all about beers then take up beer brewing. Or at least read about it and find a local home-brew club. They have them everywhere.

There are wine tastings that you can go to. If you are in the industry, then you can get on a wine reps email list and taste some stuff for free.

Upgrading Restaurants

There is another option that a waiter can follow. The upgrade.

I had a friend who worked at Chili’s for several years. They offer great training. They also have decent benefits and lots of customers to practice your craft with. When he was ready, he moved on to a local sushi restaurant. They had busy weekend nights, high ticket averages, and amazing tip percentages. He went from $120 Friday nights to $300. He’d make almost a grand in a Thursday-Friday-Saturday “weekend”. I never asked how the week days were. It didn’t matter much.

Anyone can follow this path. Keep trying to be faster and think ahead. Think of what the guest may need for each course. Bringing out a salad? Grab the pepper grinder too. Bringing a steak? Put the steak knife on the table before it’s delivered. Are they having coffee? Bring a spoon and sweeteners; ask if they want cream. The more things you remember for them and the less they have to ask for, the better you are doing. When you can give flawless service at your current restaurant, you are ready to look for the next place.

What kind of step up do you want to make? Do you want to keep it in the same food category but a more refined atmosphere and higher average price? Or do you want to go from corporate to local?
The best way to find out where to go next is to go on a little reconnaissance. Go out to dinner at the places with ads on Craigslist. If you enjoy it and the employees seem to be having fun, then feel free to ask them about working there. If you ask real nice, they might even be able to give you an idea how much money people make there.

Be careful of places that are on Craigslist over and over. That is a sign of high turnover. In other words there is some reason people keep quitting or getting fired. It’s most likely an unhappy little place or a restaurant with no guests and no tips. Some of the best places to work are not hiring… How do you get a job there?

Knowing someone is a surefire way to get into another restaurant. Check your Facebook for other servers that you already know. Become a regular at a place over the course of a couple weeks and then put in an application. Be careful not to drink too much during this process.

Or go to a bar that servers go to. They call these service industry bars. It doesn’t have a sign out front calling it that. But if you ask your coworkers or go out with them then you will stumble into one of these places. You are sure to meet servers and sometimes managers from other restaurants.

Once you find another restaurant and get a job there, try your best to give it a fair shake. Unless it is totally horrible, work there for at least 6 months before starting a new search. Otherwise you run the risk of being a restaurant jumper. There are lots of people who do a few months at one place and go to another. And another. And another. Even if you cover this up on your applications or your resume, the restaurant managers talk to each other.

At this point you have a found a place that is better than your first and you are making more money than ever. Now rinse and repeat. Become great at all the service points at this place. Anticipate every need of your guest. Get faster. Get to the point where you get 30% tips every time! And start to look for a place that is even better than this.