Most of us like to go out to eat every now and then, but how much do you really know about the restaurant industry?
According to the National Restaurant Association, there are more than a million restaurants nationwide. All of those eateries provide jobs to 14.4 million people, 10% of the U.S. workforce.
Restaurant secrets: 6 things you need to know
While I mainly waited tables during college for extra cash, I know several people who make a good living as managers, chefs and servers. The time I spent as a waiter helped me learn how a business should (and shouldn’t) be run. I also met a lot of great people, both co-workers and customers.
When I grab a bite with family and friends who’ve never worked in restaurants, sometimes they don’t seem to understand why things don’t always go as planned. But the restaurant business is imperfect, just like any other industry. So I wanted to share some of the secrets that I’ve learned over the years to help you become a more informed consumer.
1. Why your order is taking so long
I always tried to give it 100% as a waiter, but I know that there were times when I let my customers down. Usually it had to do with the wait time. The goal of a good server is to make their client feel like they’re the only one in the room, but we all know that’s rarely the case.
Servers are juggling multiple tables at once. If the host wasn’t paying attention, your waiter or waitress could have been seated several times in a row. Those drinks that took 15 minutes? Maybe the lead bartender had to go home sick. And if your steak wasn’t medium-rare like you ordered it, a kitchen mix-up may have been to blame.
If service is super slow during one visit, consider it a fluke. After all, mistakes do happen. However, if you have a bad experience more than once, it should be a warning that the restaurant probably has a management issue.
2. Asking for recommendations
Has a server ever given you a blank stare when you asked, “What’s good here?” Sure, fine dining restaurants will have the staff taste the daily specials, but that isn’t a standard practice at many casual and fast-casual restaurants. Plus, not all eateries provide a free meal to the staff. So unless your server can afford to pay out of pocket to eat at the place, they may not be familiar with everything on the menu.
3. About the food…
Speaking of the food, I was in for a surprise when I started in the service industry as a teenager. While working at a breakfast buffet restaurant, I couldn’t believe that the chef would save the leftover bacon and sausage for the next day. Other items, like potatoes and fruit, also didn’t go into the trash can.
And if the vegetables on your dinner plate don’t seem fresh, they probably came out of the freezer and were just heated up in the microwave. Even in professional kitchens, don’t assume that your meal is made from scratch. You can always ask your server how the meal is being prepared – or just listen for the beeps!
Have you ever noticed how the ketchup bottles are always full? That’s not because they’re brand new. A lot of places make the servers “marry” the ketchup bottles so that they always appear full. The same goes for things like steak sauce, pancake syrup and vinegar.
4. Taking orders is just the beginning
Your server is doing a lot more behind the scenes than you may realize. There are a number of other duties they have to complete in between taking care of your table. “Side work” depends on the restaurant, but tasks can include rolling silverware, sweeping the floors or preparing salads and desserts. Deep cleaning may also be involved. So if you see your server running around when it’s not busy, now you know why.
5. A word about outsourcing
My time as a banquet server was a lot of fun because I got to attend big events — mostly weddings — and enjoy lots of leftover cake! If you’re planning a special banquet of your own, you might want to ask the coordinator how it’ll be staffed. One of my former employers relied heavily on temp agencies that provided workers to come in for just a few hours. As a regular staff member, I often felt like I had to “babysit” the temps because they didn’t know the lay of the land. And that ultimately meant the guests weren’t getting the best service possible.
6. Wages & theft
For the most part, I earned a decent wage as a server. The rate was a measly $2.13 an hour, but tips made up for it. Working at a casual breakfast restaurant, it wasn’t uncommon to make $20 an hour or more. But the downside of working in an environment where there’s a lot of cash around is that theft is rampant. I witnessed it and I was a victim. If you’re going to leave cash for a server, give it to them directly. Otherwise, it might end up in the pocket of a staff member who goes to “help” clean the table.