How to Become a Restaurant Server

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Looking to pick up work in food service?  Here's everything you need to know: age restrictions, qualifications, the kind of training that might be required in your area, and potential future career paths.

How to Get a Job as a Restaurant Server

In this article, we're going to focus on the "restaurant server" position in food service, also known as waitstaff (waiters and waitresses).  Not everyone starts as a server—some begin food service through limited-service restaurants (i.e., fast food with no table service) or through a non-server position like dishwashing or bussing tables.

What's the Minimum Age to Start Waiting Tables?

It's hard to make a broad statement about the minimum age for becoming a restaurant server, because it depends on where you live.  Federal law restricts employment for 14- and 15-year-olds, so most employers prefer you're at least 16 when the limitations loosen up. But state and local laws might be stricter.  Some locations require work permits for minors, and some limit the number of hours you can work until you're 18.  Check the state, county, and municipal ("city") laws where you live to find out what rules apply to you. The other factor is whether the restaurant where you're applying serves alcohol.  Alcohol service laws also vary by location. In most states, you can serve alcohol at 18.  Only Maine allows minors to serve alcohol under supervision.  A handful of states make you wait until 19 or 21.

Can You Become a Waiter or Waitress with No Experience?

Absolutely!  The ability to land a job with no experience is why food service is many people's first job. Will every restaurant hire you to start from scratch? No. Highbrow establishments expect experience from most employees.  And like any job, a worker with experience is going to have better luck getting hired. But many restaurants are willing to hire people with no experience, especially if they're short-staffed. If the job market in your area is tough (or if you're below the age employers prefer), you'll have better luck getting your foot in the door as a dishwasher, busser, or hostess.  If you do well, you might end up with a "battlefield promotion." But even if that's not in the cards, you'll have the experience to show prospective employers in the future.

What Kind of Education Do You Need to Be a Restaurant Server?

Most server jobs don't have any educational requirements. Some businesses prefer you have a high school diploma (or the equivalent), but it's not usually required.

So, What Qualifications DO You Need?

Customer service skills and a friendly attitude are the most important qualifications.  If you have a knack for handling people regardless of their mood, you'll probably excel at the job.  People skills will also come in handy towards your coworkers. Waiting tables is a team sport. Physical stamina is a must.  You'll be standing and walking for long hours, carrying heavy trays, and sometimes moving heavy inventory. There will be times when the pace is demanding and conditions are hectic—being able to handle that with grace will be a plus. You should try to prove yourself reliable and responsible, particularly in your early days on the job.  Show up on time, don't skip out on shifts, and do the best job you can.  Food service jobs tend to be "easy come, easy go." Make a bad first impression, and they might just say, "next!"

What Kind of Training Do Restaurant Servers Get?

Most restaurants provide some degree of "on the job" training for new employees.  Even if you have experience, they'll at least want to make sure you know their menu and their policies. The type of training will depend on the size of the business (mom 'n pop vs a national chain), the type of restaurant (fast food vs casual sit-down vs formal dining), and the management's preferences. Training could be self-study (with handbooks, online courses, or video), "classroom" instruction, demonstration and supervised practice ("shadowing"), or some combination of the three. Topics usually include store policies, customer service skills, food safety, sanitation, and kitchen safety.  But training will vary from business to business because your expected duties will also vary.

What Kind of Certifications Do Restaurant Servers Need?

In addition to business-specific training, some states, counties, or municipalities require a more formalized certification process to make sure you know the relevant laws and safety practices for your job.  In other states, these certifications are optional but increase your odds of getting hired.

Food Handler Certification / "Food Handler Card" Training

Food handler training covers information to help you serve food safely to the public. That typically includes:
  • Symptoms and causes of common foodborne illnesses
  • What causes food spoilage and how to recognize it
  • Time and Temperature Control to prevent the growth of dangerous microbes
  • Types of contamination and how to avoid them
  • Personal hygiene when handling food, including what to do when you're sick
  • Safe food receiving and storage
  • Cleaning and sanitation procedures
  • Recognizing and eradicating pests
  • State, county, or municipal laws you're expected to follow
Luckily, you can take food handler training online in most jurisdictions.  It's usually a 2-hour course with a short quiz.

Alcohol Server Certification / "Bar Card" Training

If your establishment serves alcohol, you may also be required to complete alcohol safety training. Sometimes referred to as getting a "bar card," the training focuses on local laws that apply to alcohol service and how to follow them.  This could include:
  • The effects of alcohol and of mixing alcohol with other drugs
  • Blood Alcohol Concentration and how it's calculated
  • Recognizing intoxicated individuals
  • How to check ID and recognize fake IDs
  • Avoiding second-party sales
  • How to refuse a sale and handle alcohol-related disturbances
  • Your responsibilities and obligations under local law
Alcohol server certification can also be completed online and with little fuss in most places.

A Future in the Restaurant Industry

There are opportunities for advancement in the restaurant industry if you want them.  The National Restaurant Association reports that 9 in 10 restaurant managers started in entry-level positions, as did 8 in 10 restaurant owners. Not many industries can boast those kinds of numbers, anymore.  Advancement usually includes higher education, eventually. Check out our career guide on food service management to learn more!

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