Waiting tables isn't the easiest way to make a living. It's physically demanding, pays poorly compared to many jobs, and you have to treat even the surliest of customers with professional courtesy. However, if you're good at your job and work hard at upgrading your skills, eventually you can find your way to better pay by working at higher-quality restaurants, or becoming the head waiter. Head waiters and waitresses are dining room supervisors with management responsibilities as well as customer service roles.
In restaurants, the dining room is referred to as the "front of the house." If you're the head waiter, you're responsible for what happens there. You're the one monitoring the servers and directing traffic, making sure that customers are served and tables cleared as quickly as possible. In a large hotel or restaurant you might be one of several head waiters or waitresses, reporting to a maitre d' or dining manager. In a smaller establishment, the head waiter might also be called the maitre d'. Either way, you're ultimately responsible for the quality of each diner's experience.
Your job starts before customers arrive. You'll assign servers and bus persons to their sections and inspect the dining area to ensure it's clean and the tables are set properly. Each service station has to be stocked for the meal, with well-polished glasses and silverware. As customers come and go you'll ensure that they're served promptly, their special requests are accommodated, and that any complaints are handled promptly and fairly. You'll also monitor the servers to make sure they're meeting the restaurant's standards for service and professionalism. Depending on the restaurant, you might also have your own section to work. In fine-dining establishments you might have specific duties such as sectioning a lobster or flambeing dishes at the tableside.
Actual dining room service is only part of your job. You might also be responsible for hiring and training servers, teaching them your own restaurant's standards. Head waitresses are often in charge of dining room scheduling, so you'll have to check the reservations book each night and call people in if necessary to cover the tables. Usually you'll count and balance the cash registers before the shift to make sure they're accurate. At the end of the night you'll do the same, noting any discrepancies for the manager's attention. You'll close out and balance the credit card machine, and gather and record funds for the tip pool.
Most waiters and waitresses learn on the job, though some community colleges or culinary schools offer training programs for servers. If you want to work in higher-end restaurants, where the pay is usually better, formal training can help. If you want to be a head waiter it's a good idea to take food safety and alcohol service courses. You can also earn server certification at the apprentice, associate, professional and master levels from the Federation of Dining Room Professionals.
The dining room is an upside/downside place for women. The industry hires a lot of waitresses, but it's mostly in low-paid, entry-level positions. A 2012 survey by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United reported that higher-paid positions in better restaurants went disproportionally given to men. Sexual harassment remains a problem, with restaurant workers representing 7 percent of the workforce but 37 percent of harassment complaints received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
2016 Salary Information for Waiters and Waitresses
Waiters and waitresses earned a median annual salary of $19,990 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, waiters and waitresses earned a 25th percentile salary of $18,360, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $26,590, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 2,600,500 people were employed in the U.S. as waiters and waitresses.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Waiters and Waitresses
- Federation of Dining Room Professionals: Career Credentials
- Restaurant Opportunities Centers United: Tipped Over the Edge -- Gender Inequity In the Restaurant Industry (Press Release)
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Waiters and Waitresses
- Career Trend: Waiters and Waitresses
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.