The largest private employer in California is an industry comprising more than 1.4 million jobs and $51 billion in annual sales.
"All areas of the restaurant and hospitality industry are growing and the market offers great job opportunities for everything from quick service to fine dining," reports Kearsten Shepherd, spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association. "In fact, eating and drinking sales are projected to rise 6.2 percent this year."
So how do career-minded people get started in the restaurant field? She suggests "that they start by gathering information on the industry to find out what segment might best fit their needs and goals." Research the types of positions you are interested in and what qualifications and/or training is needed.
"CRA highly recommends those looking to have a career in the restaurant industry go to culinary and/or business school," she says, since many restaurant workers often try opening their own café.
Shepherd offers a carrot for those seeking schooling. "Our educational foundation was formed to help students looking to enter the industry, with scholarship and intern opportunities," she explains. "For the restaurant industry to fulfill its enormous potential growth, we must attract and retain a motivated, trained and qualified workforce."
In addition to schooling, certain extra skills such as knowing wines will get you noticed. Because California is home to the Napa, Sonoma, and Central Valley wine producing regions, servers in the state often need a greater knowledge of viticulture than those in other states. It also pays to keep current on food fads.
"Although fusion and organic cuisine are hot trends right now, the number-one thing anyone entering the industry will need is adaptability," Shepherd advises. "The restaurant business is one of consumer choice and therefore the industry must be able to keep up with the changing styles and diverse palates of consumers.
Passion Doesn’t Cut It
Jolyn Lockey, owner of Chef’s Professional Agency in San Francisco, knows the industry well.
"My first advice is to think very carefully about a restaurant career. It is a glamour field and something everyone wants and feels connected to because of food. Most people see it from one side (the customer) and think it’s simple. It is not."
Contrary to most career counselor advice, she says jobseekers should not follow their passion. Instead, choose a career you can control, and with job satisfaction comes competence.
"This is a physical career and requires walking, lifting, standing, turning, and is quite hard on bodies," she relates. "If you have ever peeled carrots for hours at a time, you understand."
Restaurant careers also require an enormous amount of knowledge that cannot be learned in a book setting. That means you have to spend considerable time in the trenches. If you are in college, stay there and perhaps get a job as a busboy and work your way up to the wait staff. To be successful requires a minimum of six years doing "grunt" work, according to Lockey. Then, if the chef inside of you is screaming to get out, enroll in culinary school.
You also might want to cultivate some valuable attributes: hard work, organization, ability to take criticism, a good palate, and coolness under fire.
"There are excellent management programs such as San Francisco State, University of San Francisco and San Francisco City College," she reports. "New hires are going to find more openness going into the front of the house (being a waiter or maitre d’) rather than in the cliquish kitchen staff. "
New areas are expanding as high-end restaurants reach the saturation point in larger cities. Food service businesses are springing up, such as Bon Appetit that provides food for Google and the San Francisco Federal Building, and they need qualified people in both culinary and management.
"Another interesting, growing area is in retirement management facilities," Lockey observes. "Also, I predict to see a lot more expansion in the quick service areas such as Starbucks Coffee.
"I think this Japanese proverb sums up a career in the restaurant industry: The strongest steel comes from the hottest forge. And it can be very hot back in the kitchen."
The Chef’s Recommendation
Josh Bush knows about kitchens. He is the chef at Abigail’s, a trendy café and bakery in San Francisco’s Marina District. He grew up in a Southern California beach town and found his career at an early age.
"When I was 14 years old I was hired as a pantry cook making salads all day," he recalls. "That put me into the restaurant link and I liked it. I also liked the people because they seem more relaxed and seemed to be having more fun."
His further training was on the job at local restaurants and he eventually went to culinary school, although he doesn’t think that expensive training is for everyone.
"Look into junior college cooking classes that are good and inexpensive," he advises. "Or get a job as a server in any restaurant. The best-kept secret in the industry is the bunch of money good waiters bring home."
From diners to ritzy French restaurants, Bush sees the industry evolving and tantalizing customers’ palates with different trends in cuisines. Private chefing is expanding, and organic, vegan and raw cuisine is sweeping the nation because people want better food.
"You can spend $12 on fast food or go to your local restaurant and get a healthy and delicious meal for the same price," he points out. "But in spite of the changes in the industry, the actual act of cooking good food is what makes me happy."
For more information on restaurant careers, visit these websites:
BayChef.com – Website of the California Culinary Academy, which offers culinary arts courses, restaurant management training and personal chef training. 625 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94102; 800-739-9700. Website of the California Culinary Academy, which offers culinary arts courses, restaurant management training and personal chef training. 625 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94102; 800-739-9700.
Escoffier.com – Website for chefs with news, articles, links, resources, education and scholarship information, and a career center that offers searches, resume posting and links to other culinary career sites.
FoodService.com – Industry website includes news, resources, links, equipment and a complete career center. Click on "Search Jobs" under the "Employment Center" heading.
FoodWork.com – Find jobs within your specified geographical area and specialty. Browse restaurant bios and position descriptions, and apply online. FoodWork sends applications directly to the restaurants.
Hcareers.com – The largest and most trafficked hospitality career site has more than 9000 jobs and all the trimmings.
HospitalityOnline.com – Job listings for hotels, restaurants, casinos, etc.
RestaurantRecruit.com – Job listings for restaurants.