How to get (and keep) a restaurant job

“Wil, I’m desperate to find people willing to work hard.”

“Labor is at Defcon 4 right now. I can’t find anybody who is willing to work hard.”

“These days nobody wants to earn their stripes.”

These are the things restaurant owners have been telling me lately. I’ve offered just a few quotes, but I’ve heard the same bit dozens of times from restaurant owners I admire and would love my kids to work for one day. I recently wrote about why I want them all to work for independent restaurants when they are old enough. Here’s what I plan to tell them when they have the opportunity, to give them the best chance to both get a job and to thrive once they do…

“Let me start with my own entitled and lazy story. When I graduated college in 1996 I felt entitled. Entitled to a job. Entitled to a significant paycheck. Entitled to early promotions. I felt like I had paid my dues by working hard in high school to get into a good college and then by working hard in college to get a good job. I got a job at a bank and I was self-centered and focused on what I wanted and what I needed. It was all about me. I honestly didn’t really want to put in the hard work and have the selfless attitude it takes to earn my success. I expected it to come much easier. As an only child I had been told for 20 years that I was special, that I deserved to be a success, etc. That stuff got into my head, and I expected to see it come to fruition.

But the real world offered a harsh rebuke.

I quickly learned on the job that all that mattered was whether I was willing to put in the effort to help my team achieve it’s goals. It wasn’t about me. It was about something more important. It was about whether I realized that my personal success was not the focus, but would instead by the byproduct of helping my team succeed.

That minor change in perspective made all of the difference. Just take the focus off of me and put it on the bigger picture, and all of the things I wanted would come true. Better pay. Promotions. You name it. It all happened when I stopped focusing on it happening. The change didn’t happen overnight. It took time. But I finally came to realize the key to success in almost any endeavor: To get what I wanted I needed to stop focusing on what I wanted, on start focusing on something bigger than my individual needs.

Now that your dad has exposed himself as a self-centered, entitled dude when I rolled up on the set in the workforce, hopefully this won’t sound like a lecture, but more of a bit of wisdom that can help you avoid my mistakes and get and keep a job and grow in that job at an independent restaurant.

Let’s start with getting a job. Before you apply, learn as much as you can about the restaurant. Read the About Us page on their web site. Google the owner’s name and read any articles that have featured her or him. Talk to anybody you know who works there or has worked there. Try to get a sense of what the owner is all about. Why is the restaurant there? What is the culture like? How many other restaurants does the owner own? Have they been expanding in recent years? Contracting?

Also, check social media. If they have Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. see what they post about, what people are saying about them, and how they interact with their followers. Also check Yelp and other review sites. When people leave positive/negative reviews, does the owner respond? How does he or she handle negative reviews?

Make as many notes as you can about these things, and you’ll get a sense of whether it’s a place where you want to be, and whether you will have opportunities to thrive in a positive, team-oriented environment. If you don’t do some upfront research, you are rolling the dice. You might get a job, but soon learn it’s toxic culture with a controlling owner who leads by intimidation and not my example. Why take that risk? Your time is too valuable. Do the research.

Now, if you like what you’ve learned about the place and think you’d like to work there, you’ll start to get a sense of how you can add value. Ask yourself, “What can I do to help this business prosper?” “Do I have any ideas to bring to the table from the get-go?” “What clues has the owner left in interviews and other places that let me know what things are important to her of him, and how can I highlight that during my interview?” Then make it clear during your interview that you’ve done your research, let the interviewer know what you’ve learned, what you like about the business, how you can help their immediate needs, and how you can help them make the business even better. Be prepared. Now go win the person over.

Ok, so let’s say you do all of this and you get the job. Now it’s time to focus 100% outward, not inward. From your first day on the job, listen carefully, stay focused on what you’ve been asked to do, leave your phone in your car or back in the office, bust your ass, and get busy with proving that you are what you said you’d be. Reliable. Hard-working. Committed. Looking for ways to exceed expectations. Focused on making the customer experience awesome with every chance you get and on helping the business thrive, not on when you can use your phone or when you will get a raise or on working only the shifts that suit you best. Follow these tips, and it will get noticed, it will be appreciated, and you will put yourself on a glide path to success within that restaurant.

Here’s the deal, kids. Restaurant owners are looking for this stuff. Many of them are literally desperate for it. So if you want a restaurant job and you want to make good money and be a part of a happy, successful team, and enjoy what you do, and have success, the opportunity is WIDE OPEN. If you take the approach I’ve laid out and you will get the job you want, you will find yourself up for quick promotions, you’ll make good money, you’ll enjoy what you do, and many, many more doors will keep opening for you. Guaranteed.”


Owner Van Nolintha (bottom right) and the hard working, selfless team at Bida Manda in Raleigh, NC.