How to get (& survive) an NYC restaurant job

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You’ve just finished college. Yay! Maybe you’ve just moved to NYC with big dreams and your diploma in your hand. Yay! What’s that, you say? You have a liberal arts degree? Boo! You’re not qualified to do anything. At some point, you will consider waiting tables as a fallback to your day-job dreams.

I have worked in seven NYC restaurants (four in Brooklyn), from burger joints to high-end bowling alleys, and I actually prefer waiting tables to low-status office jobs. Fluorescent lights, cubicles, pretending to be busy after finishing your work hours ago… blech. Restaurants give you a constant adrenaline rush, endless drama, and, of course, more money. At a top Manhattan eatery, you can pull in a semi-taxed $200-$400 per day, more if you’re a bartender. But, in a city full of creatives with artistic dreams, good serving jobs are as hard to find as an overpaid office position. If you want one, here are the 10 things you should know:

1. Looks matter. If you are a pretty girl, you can basically work anywhere and do anything. If you are a model in your spare time, you should apply to be a host/maitre d. (Especially at Coffee Shop because those are the only kind of people they hire). If you’re a moderately attractive-to-gorgeous girl, you will wait tables. If you are a bearded dude with tattoos, then you’re the bartender. If you have a European accent and are a guy, you might also be able to wait tables. If you are just a plain guy, your chances of finding a decent job waiting tables are pretty low. Sorry. Maybe try retail? Whoever you are, look your best when dropping off your resume. Put on makeup. Shower. Look like you care even if you don’t. ALSO, wear deodorant! Listen, maybe you’re young and hip. Cool. We get it. But if you are going to be around people’s food, make sure you don’t smell like the compost. And shave! For the love of Based God, no one wants your curlies in their Eggs Benedict.

2. NYC experience doesn’t matter. If you have experience from somewhere else, work it. Over half of the places I’ve worked have hired people with no NYC experience.

3. Apply in Manhattan. A good rule of thumb is to apply where you’d want to hang out. You’re probs thinking you’ll work at the place over by your apartment. Brooklyn’s cool and all, but sorry, there just isn’t a lot of money to be made here. Depending on where you work, you probably aren’t going to make more than $150 a shift on a good night. And that’s not awful. But there are a lot of places in Manhattan where $200 per shift is the minimum, and only a few places in Brooklyn known to be on that level: Diner, Buttermilk Channel and Flatbush Farm.

4. Take it seriously. We all know you’re going to be the next Tarantino and you’re just waiting tables in the interim. We get it, you’re brilliant. But in the meantime, you can take your restaurant job seriously and learn a good work ethic. No one wants to work with a person who thinks they’re better than them. Have a resume. Make sure it’s immaculate, just like if you were applying for an office job. When you drop it off, try to talk to manager. It’s a good idea to include a small picture of yourself in the upper right hand corner in case you can’t.

5. Interview with someone of the opposite sex. If possible, and be really charming. This business is all about charm.

6. Go at a decent hour. Don’t go to the restaurant when it’s busy expecting the manager to stop everything and interview you. It won’t happen. Between 3 and 5 are the slowest times for any restaurant. Some are even closed then.

7. Don’t let the customer’s mood affect yours. Grown-ass adults will act like babies when they’re hungry. We all do it. It’s okay. Don’t take it personally. Get them their food and drinks quickly. Whatever you do, don’t feed into it. You may have an old lady who’s pissed that there’s no cinnamon for her cappuccino because she’s not used to real coffee. She only goes to Starbucks or whatever. That’s not about you. You’re not (necessarily) bad at your job. She’s just a miserable person who will never be happy and wants everyone around her to be miserable, too. DO NOT buy into it. DO NOT let her win! Make it your goal to make her as happy as possible.

8. Chefs and management are…. particular. Every kitchen is different and most chefs are eccentric, intense people. The Breslin serves a whole suckling pig and all servers, carnivorous and vegetarian alike, must learn how to carve the pig at the table. I’ve heard of restaurants ranking stars by celebrity status and treating them accordingly. And I’ve heard a rumor of a pastry chef who liked to smear shit on the walls of the employee bathroom at an unnamed Manhattan restaurant.

9. You won’t keep all your tips. You’ll make an hourly wage plus tips. Your hourly wage is $5 and you won’t see any of it because it will be taken out in taxes. At many places, you will get your cash tips in cash and your credit card tips in a paycheck. Your credit card tips will be taxed. Your cash tips… well, they might not be. Most places pool tips. That means there is a big pool that all your money goes into (That’s what the Craigslist ads that say “pool house” mean — not some Russian place with guys in Speedos.) Even if you wait on your parents and they give you $100, it goes into the pool. Unless you’re sketchy. Then you’ll get found out and everyone will hate you.

At most restaurants, you will be tipping out about half of what you make. For example, if you put $600 into the pool, you would be lucky to get out $300. That thrill of making $600 can only last so long before you kiss it all goodbye.

You will tip everyone and their mother — the bussers, the runners, the baristas, the maitre ds. (But you should never, ever, be tipping out the managers. That’s illegal).The Hindu busser will call you Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, because you make his money, you decide whether he has enough money to buy his daughter a guitar for her birthday. No pressure. The bussers are going to make the least amount of money and do the most heavy lifting. You could feel bad for them or you could work hard and help them make more money.

10. Learn acceptance. Restaurant work is accompanied by small annoyances that other jobs don’t have. You can deal with them or you can get angry and be miserable. The kitchen guys will probably sexually harass you. There are no paid vacations and no breaks (What do you think this is, a spa?). You are going to be on your feet for eight hours or more every day, resulting in inevitable spider veins. Your family meal will consist of chicken bones and yesterday’s rice, and the restaurant will deduct $2 to $5 from your check for every shift you work to feed this to you. What’s more, you can be your most professional, courteous, … and people will still dump $8.45 in coins on the table as your tip.

BUT, all of that said, it still beats working in an office. Every time I go to the beach on a weekday, go to an audition, or do anything except exist alone in a windowless grey cubicle, I feel like I’ve won at adulthood.

Follow Sue: @itsreallysue.

26 Comment

  • i love this. so true!

  • This made me kinda miss waiting tables. Probably the most financially secure I ever was in my life. Also probably the only time I’ve considered taking up smoking. But one too many nightmares about being in the weeds was enough to make me walk away.

  • also, YOU GUYS, please don’t leave change as the tip. if you don’t want it, then i don’t want it. also, you’re a bad person if you do!

  • Sue is a talented and qualified industry professional. If it wasn’t for “bein in the weeds” i’d be tryin to be a waiter too. Guess i’ll stay in this florescent cubicle prison until my big break.

  • Ha, server nightmares… I remember my first one (seriously). I was deep in the weeds (I might as well have been in one of those corn mazes) and table 12′s food was just not coming out. It started to get really tense. Then I woke up and thought to myself “WTF? We don’t even HAVE a table 12! goddamnit!”

    Given that I’m of the unemployed set and could jump back into this industry if I wanted, this also makes me consider it (wistfully remembering some good nights). But I also have a slowly healing (hopefully not permanently damanged) knee injury and I was once a pretty alright distance runner and so I dream of going back to be…

    This is really difficult when working in this industry. Also, admittedly, I know I spend entirely too much of my income at the bar after shift :-\ It’s good to know one’s weaknesses. Lastly, most of my friends are M-F 9-5ers. When I worked full time in this industry in Manhattan, I never saw the ones I knew here, let alone my friends in other cities. It was a little depressing.

    Still, poorly paid cubicle life, especially at a place with internet lock-down, is not at all appealing. I realize now that I should have gotten a biology/zoology degree and worked at the zoo…

  • Good article. It made me miss the service industry. Cool people, good money for the hours.

  • I’ve always wondered what it was like to work in the food & beverage industry – thanks for writing this!

  • I totally agree with the advice on this article , but I still think office jobs are much better. Sure, it doesn’t pay well, but you’re not treated like slave.

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  • you forgot to say that everyone is an alcoholic and if you’re not carefully enough you might end up like one. And oh, yes, hanging out with the industry will get you broke as this people work hard and party even harder. When they go out the minimum tab is like $600 few drinks and maybe light late night dinner. seriously.

  • everyone is totally nuts. all your co-workers, everything. but that doesn’t mean you have to buy into it. in order to maintain your sanity & sobriety, you must be very careful about interacting with them outside of work.

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  • I work as a busser and hostess and cashier…..  I’ve been trying to get into serving, I haven’t had a lot of training. I think ultimately though it’s about having a good team and sometimes hard to find members who understand the fundamentals this provides in order to be able to provide outstanding service vs. just good service. Also being around people who want to watch you succeed and do well too…. Also people who do take responsibility for their actions as this is part of being an Adult, which you should be if your trying to hold a job.

  • man, this is so helpful. thanks you <3

  • I loved your advice. I am moving to NYC in a couple days and I am very good at serving. This site is hilarious thanks

  • If you would only know how shit used to be years ago, you’re all spoiled kids coming from other states…

  • Question : does NYC require any food and beverage licenses or any state required classes on how to no serve alcohol to an incredibly intoxicated person, or anything like that? I’m asking because before I could wait tables in Vegas I had to attend a health class and an alcohol class. Before I get to NYC I’m trying to do my research! Thanks.

    • Not every place requires a Food Protection License, but if you have one it is A+, it depends on restaurant rating that you’re applying for ( rated by ZAGAT or MICHELIN) more stars restaurant have more $$$, if you can handle just by yourself with a busser up to 40 people, you know what French1 test is (which wine goes with certain plate) it is also plus if you had an experience as a runner or kitchen server, basically “FPL” gives you more chance to become at least a captain, or a floor manager

  • Lol i work as a waitress now, i must say i love it, I dont split tips which is the best part, but the down fall is we really dont get many customers, so tips are not that much =[… however i do have a lot in this profession and its helping me get through school, at least if my degree doesnt put me through life i can always fall back on waiting tables, of course if i still have my youthful looks lol

  • You are so funny, and this is so true!

  • Deff love being a server . Couldn’t see myself going to a hourly job .