How Waitressing Made Me a Better Business Person

An interesting topic popped up at a recent dinner party I attended: What was your worst job ever?

While my summer as a waitress didn’t beat dodging bricks at the city works department, “refereeing” parents at children’s soccer games, or suffering repeated burns from an industrial-sized dishwasher, nothing has been more valuable. No, not for those cheesy reasons, like learning the value of hard work. I’m talking about serious, relevant skills that I use every day to run my own business.

For example, waitressing taught me …

Time management skills that rival an air traffic controller’s

Table one needs ketchup. Table two’s dinner is ready for pickup. Table three needs (another!) coffee refill. Table four … well, you get the idea. Being a waitress forced me to learn to juggle multiple deadline-driven “projects” with grace. So now when a client says, “I needed it yesterday,” I feel a wave of nostalgia and try to remember not to ask if they want a side of fries with that. 

How to deal with crazy people, I mean, different personality types

From the customers to the cooks, nothing teaches you to deal with difficult people quite like working the lunch shift at a busy seafood restaurant …

  • The rowdy executives whose behavior would have gotten them thrown out of a strip club taught me how to stand up for myself.
  • The seven-month-pregnant chain-smoking hostess taught me that sometimes the best way to express your opinion is by saying nothing.
  • The middle-aged “lifers” taught me that sometimes when people don’t like you, it says more about them than you. The rest of the time, you were probably being a jerk.   
  • The actively alcoholic cook who once threw an entire box of creamers at me taught me there are, in fact, stupid questions.

Knowing whose opinion really matters

Gary the bartender had fake blue contact lenses and a perpetually red face from screaming so much. He yelled at the waitresses (never the waiters, or at least not the cute ones), at the hostess, even at the customers.

Now I come from a typical New England family. We don’t express, we repress. So having someone yell at me is both foreign and terrifying. I avoided Gary as best I could, but one day I got caught in his fire. I probably said something like, “Too bad it’s raining.” His response: “IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, WHY DON’T YOU JUST LEAVE!!!” So on the verge of tears, that’s exactly what I did. I quietly took off my broth-stained apron, climbed on my bicycle and started peddling home.

When I got about halfway there, it hit me: “Gary’s not my boss! He can’t fire me!” In fact, the boss was an old guy named Patchy who liked me a lot. So I peddled back, found my apron and got back to work. Gary never said anything. In fact, like most hotheaded people, he probably forgot the incident as soon as the words were out of his mouth.

These days, no one shouts at me. But when I get pushback, I do try to remember exactly who is signing my check. So remember: If you’re struggling in your current job — or searching for the perfect candidate for a new position — your answer to both may be waiting at your local Friendly’s.

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