Cooking, serving and cleaning are the primary duties of cafeteria workers, though you may need to have a little background in diet and nutrition if you want to work for a school system or health-care facility. For the most part, however, you’ll just make the food that’s assigned to you with the ingredients chosen by the nutritionist or cafeteria management. One thing that most cafeteria workers have in common is the need to hustle when lines run out the door and diners are clamoring for the food bins to be restocked.
Behind the scenes, there’s always someone stirring the pots, building sandwiches and keeping the fresh rolls and salads coming to refill supplies on the serving line. You won’t need a culinary degree to work in a cafeteria because most of your recipes you’ll learn on the job. Cooking typically is done in large batches and for a wide range of tastes. Depending on how big it is and how busy your place of employment gets during meal times, you might have to stay in the kitchen and keep cranking out the food. Or, your crew might take turns serving.
Someone usually stands behind the rows of food to serve the lines of customers as they pass through. While many cafeterias offer an array of self-serve items, most have at least a few stations that require the assistance of a server – usually stations that serve hot food. As part of the front-line serving team, you may be asked to help customers carry their trays to their tables if they can’t manage themselves.
Another job that’s integral to the well-run cafeteria is the customer service crew that takes the money from customers and is available to answer questions. When customers need another fork or can’t find their way to the drink machines, it’s usually the cashiers sitting outside the serving lines who must step up and guide customers to their needs. When you’re not busy making change or calculating customer bills, you may need to refill condiment stations or walk the dining room and pick up trays. Cafeteria workers often help each other out with their duties.
The cleanup crew may be a separate group of workers, or the duties may fall on the servers, cashiers and cooks. The bus crew in a busy cafeteria hustles though and is constantly picking up trays and cleaning off tables for a new batch of diners. As part of the cleanup crew, you may have to run the dishwashers and restock the silverware and dish supplies as clean dishes are ready. As with most other cafeteria work, you most likely will fill in for your coworkers at some point, so cross-training is usually a part of the job.
It doesn’t take a lot of experience, restaurant background or schooling to get into cafeteria work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that you don’t even need a high school diploma to get entry-level cafeteria work. You can count on getting on-the-job training for all aspects of the cafeteria. In 2010, the BLS reports that entry-level restaurant workers earned a median annual income of $18,130. And though you might get an occasional tip from some really appreciate customers, in cafeterias, you can’t really count on tips to pad your paychecks.
2016 Salary Information for Food and Beverage Serving and Related Workers
Food and beverage serving and related workers earned a median annual salary of $19,710 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, food and beverage serving and related workers earned a 25th percentile salary of $18,170, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $22,690, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 5,122,500 people were employed in the U.S. as food and beverage serving and related workers.
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."