Eight Reasons Everyone Should Work in Food Service at Least Once

When my husband and I got married in 2005, we made a pact that certain things would (or wouldn’t ever) happen again.

None of it was out of the ordinary; it was just the regular stuff people promise one another when they tie the knot. In sickness and in health, for rich and for poor, ’til death do us part… and, as an added bonus, I would never have to work in food service again.

This was a joke between us. As young adults, we had both worked in food service on and off for years on end.  As a college student, my husband delivered sandwiches for a sub shop in Minnesota called Herbert & Gerbert’s. Then, while in mortuary school at age 24, he waited tables at a pizza shop, and I made fun of him for making his 16-year-old coworkers swoon.

Meanwhile, I’ve worked in nearly every food-service position imaginable – from hosting and front-of-house work to salad prep and, of course, waiting tables.

That last job – waiting tables – was the one I always turned to in my early 20s. As a result, I spent quite a few years slinging steaks at Outback Steakhouse. Not only were the hours flexible enough to go to school during the day or work a day job, but I felt like I had some control over the money I earned. Instead of making X dollars per hour no matter what, I could work harder than everyone else and make more – at least some of the time.

Sadly, waiting tables was also one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had. From being yelled at by a psychotic lady whose steak was overcooked to getting stiffed on the bill more than once, I experienced all manner of insults and indignities.

That’s why I made my new husband promise it would never come to that. Of course, I would work in food service again if I ever really needed to — but I didn’t want to. As a result, our “deal” was struck.

waitress and cook at restaurant kitchen window
Photo: Tim McClaren

Why Everyone Should Work in Food Service at Least Once

Funny thing is, I am already hoping my children find work in the food service industry, or at least some type of service industry down the line. At the risk of sounding like my mom for a minute, I personally found that working in food service builds character.

There, I said it.

Working as a waiter or waitress, cook, prep worker, or hostess is hard and stressful work – but it’s the kind of work that can help you become the person you were meant to be. Here are some reasons everyone could benefit from a few years behind the scenes in a restaurant:

Reason #1: You learn the value of hard work.

Being on your feet all day is a learning experience on its own, but running back and forth into the kitchen all day can be absolutely exhausting. Then, when your shift is over, you have to clean up all sorts of messes – including ones you didn’t make.

It is hard work, and it’s not for the faint of heart or for complainers who don’t want to do their share. When you work in food service, you learn how to keep working until the job is done, even when you’re completely spent and it’s the last thing in the world you want to do.

Reason #2: You find out what it feels like to do more than your share.

Speaking of hard work, food service was my personal introduction to doing more than my fair share. I’ve always been a busy-body, so it was natural for me to do extra work as my shift progressed. For example, I would always help run dirty dishes to the kitchen, deliver food for my coworkers, or clean up messes as the night progressed. Everyone else? Not so much.

If you’re a good employee in food service, you’ll learn a valuable lesson: When you do a good job, you usually end up doing other people’s work in addition to your own.

Sadly, the same scenario plays out in every type of workplace imaginable. In any type of job, there are the real workers and the people who fake it just enough to get through the day without anyone really noticing. The service industry just lays this fact bare.

The thing is, it’s a good habit to form. The hardest-working employees in almost any field have far less to worry about when it comes time for job cuts or performance reviews.

Reason #3: ‘Tipping out’ is your first introduction to wealth confiscation.

Most restaurant jobs require tipped employees like waitstaff to “tip out” to hostesses and some back-of-the-house employees. At Outback Steakhouse, this added up to 3% of each total bill I sold — whether I received a tip or not.

This wasn’t a big deal if someone tipped me the normal 15% to 20% on each check, but what if they didn’t? I have to say, it made me crazy when someone didn’t tip me at all, but I still had to fork over that 3%. Yes, you read that right: I occasionally had to pay money to wait on people. That’s not how it’s supposed to work!

Working in food service introduces you to a slew of economic concepts that play out in the real world, and one of those is the idea of being “taxed” regardless of individual fairness.

This is the real world – one where you sometimes have to pay in whether you like it or not. While it’s not always fair, that’s just the way it is. Your first stint in food service is like saying “hello” to large-scale unfairness for the first time.

Reason #4: You realize that you can’t please everyone.

Working in food service means serving all different personality types – from those who are happy to eat just about anything, to people who stare at their food in search of imperfections before they dig in.

The latter type can really ruin your day. Whether you cooked the food or are simply serving it, it’s incredibly disheartening to hear someone say that their food “looks funny,” “smells off,” or isn’t what they thought it was going to be. What does that even mean?

Eventually, you realize that some customers simply cannot be pleased. There are people who will send their food back five times and still refuse to pay the check.

Once again, that’s life. In food service, you deal with people like this every day. And while that sounds incredibly frustrating — and it is, I assure you! — handling such customers is a skill worth learning early on in life, because you’ll run into them elsewhere, too. It’s how you handle those situations that determines whether you remain in control – or let them control you.

Reason #5: You see what ‘cheap’ really is.

If you want to see cheap, head to Outback Steakhouse on a Sunday afternoon. What you’ll find is the essence of cheap – tables of 12 sharing a giant plate of cheese fries and hogging the table for two or three hours, then having the audacity to ask for a plate of lemons to make free lemonade.

Or, stop by on Friday nights. You’ll see tables of teenagers (and sometimes even adults) who never think to tip their waitstaff at all, no matter how good the service is — even though tips account for almost all of a waiter’s pay.

Whether you like it or not, your food service job forces you to wait on these people for free – and by the time you tip out, you’ll actually lose money for waiting on them. Not to mention that you’re losing out even more by not having a regular customer at those tables who would actually tip you.

Welcome to food service, where you learn what “cheap” really means — and that you never, ever want to be that guy. 

Reason #6: You learn how to treat others.

One night during my shift at Outback Steakhouse, I mixed up two orders. A lady who had ordered her prime rib rare received it well done, while her partner’s steak came in rare instead of medium.

My bad of course, but I had no idea what I was in for. This woman berated me for at least 10 minutes, even after I said I could have new food out right away and apologized incessantly. Not only did she call me “stupid,” but she screamed “you suck!” at least five different times.

My manager heard the racket and immediately told her to leave. “We don’t want your money,” he said. “Don’t come back.” Then he told me that nobody deserved to be treated that way, even if they made a mistake.

This is just one of the scenarios where food service taught me a valuable lesson.

First, people in the service industry are just regular people trying to do their jobs. They aren’t perfect, and they’ll make mistakes — that doesn’t mean they’re “stupid” or that they’re intentionally trying to ruin your day. While we deserve to get what we pay for, we should always treat others with respect, even if they mess up.

And second, I was in awe of my manager for standing up for me that way. I learned that the mighty dollar isn’t everything, and that there are times when you have to draw the line to protect your team.

To a certain extent, we decide how we let others treat us, and there are times when losing a customer is the only way to protect yourself and your integrity.

Reason #7: If you work harder, you’ll earn more money.

As painful as food service jobs can be, they can sometimes offer the ability to earn extra money. That’s especially true if you’re a hard worker or someone with excellent time management and multi-tasking skills.

If you can turn over your tables quickly and get more customers during your shift, you can usually earn more money. If you provide really top-notch service, you can usually earn more money. If you can make your customers feel valued and appreciated, you’ll usually see an uptick in the tips you earn. If you can do all of those things consistently, you will earn more money than your peers over time.

This is an important lesson, and one that will translate to any other career you find yourself in. When you work harder than other people, give it everything you have, and stay positive throughout it all, you will come out ahead. When you never give up, refuse to let negative people get you down, and really put pride into your work, your final results will show it.

This lesson is important, because it’s true whether you’re climbing the corporate ladder, creating your own small business, or waiting tables. When you put in as much as you can, the payoff can manifest in ways you would never expect. That’s why you should always do your best – no matter what type of job you’re in.

Reason #8: You build thick skin.

When you work in food service, you learn that some people simply cannot be won over. They’ll complain about your food, your service, or the way you wear your hair. Then they’ll stiff you on the bill, giving you a dirty look on the way out.

Then there are barbs from co-workers, many of whom might be hungover from the night before – or simply stressed by the prospect of pleasing their own customers that day. They’ll snap at you when you don’t deserve it, blame you for things that are out of your control, and put you down.

It will bother you at first, but you’ll eventually decide you can’t control everyone. You can do your best, remain positive, and try to make your customers and coworkers happy, but there will be times when someone is having a bad day and they’ll take it out on you.

Working in the service industry can help you become numb to all of that noise. It can help you build a thick skin that almost no one can break through. And trust me, no matter where you end up later in life, you’re gonna need it.

Final Thoughts

A food service job is hard work — and it’ll be especially miserable if you’re lazy or overly sensitive. You’re usually hustling on your feet all day or night, and you have to deal with all different types of personalities and keep the peace with people you may not even like.

But all of that builds character, and that character can help you become a better, stronger person.

That’s why I don’t want to spare my kids from the horrors of food service, and also why I’m thankful for all of the years I spent serving others. The experiences – both good and bad – taught me some valuable lessons that I carry to this day. And sometimes, the only way to learn something is to live through it yourself.

What lessons did you learn from your most demanding job? Do you think everyone could benefit from working in a restaurant at some point? 

Holly Johnson

Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.