The San Francisco Chinese New Year's parade always comes to mind whenever I think back to my brief stint as a restaurateur, so to speak.
In reality, I was working my way through college as an on-call busboy for a chain of cafeterias in the city. When I was asked to work in the cafe a few doors from the route of San Francisco's colorful Chinese New Year's parade, I gave little thought to what that might mean.
Not long into my shift that night, I came to realize why the regular busboy had called in sick. One moment, we were waiting for customers. The next moment, we were being slammed by crowds jammed along the parade route. Individuals, couples and families began to stream and then flood into the small cafeteria. The mayhem lasted for hours. We sold out of many items on our menu, and we used every knife, fork and dish in the place.
Then, just as suddenly as it had started, it ended. The cafe emptied as quickly as it had filled up. All that remained were piles upon piles of dishes. Customers, too impatient to wait for me to clear tables, began stacking dishes up everywhere. In some instances, plates and cups and saucers teetered two feet into the air. We would be lucky to have the place cleaned up in time for the morning shift. I merely shook my head, and began to methodically go from table to table, filling and refilling my bus pan.
Just as I began to pick away at my overwhelming task, the regional district manager for the restaurant chain made a surprise inspection. Now, I had no idea who this prissy fellow was in the dark blue suit. But his horror and disgust were evident the moment he opened the glass door and entered the war zone.
I suspected something was up when he marched over to the store manager and began pointing in an agitated manner in my general direction. I ignored them, and continued to clean up the mess. What were they going to do? Fire me? At that point, I would have considered it a reprieve.
The manager must have set the DM straight, because neither said a word to me, although his eminence did glare at me from a corner table as he sipped coffee from what I assume was the last clean cup in the joint. Eventually he gave up on what to do with me, and stomped out. A shame, really, because I was ready to offer him my well-soiled apron if he said one peep.
When I think back to the experience, I realize what a good lesson in management I learned that night, lessons I have applied throughout my newspaper career. I have always thought we learn probably as much or more from poor managers as we do from good.
That night in Chinatown, for example, I learned that as a manager, it's unwise to jump to conclusions - that things do not always appear as they seem. Second, I learned that sometimes even the big boss needs to roll up his or her sleeves and pitch in when needed. Third, I learned that district managers rarely understand what's going on out in the field.
When I share my experiences with other restaurant refugees, they too confess they learned lessons they apply to careers they pursued later in life.
Robin Wortley Hammond, CJJ's career services director, paid her dues serving patrons of a variety of restaurants. In addition, as CJJ's resident resume expert, she has interviewed countless former restaurant workers, helping them identify some of the skills that can be transferred into fields as dissimilar as journalism, banking, and marketing.
Here's her rundown on the heavy wait skills you can learn in restaurant work:
Organization: One of the most important skills in the restaurant business. From prepping garnishes to presenting dinner bills, the many tasks of a server require the ability to maintain order, because there isn't time in a rush to sort out the details.
Time Management: Successful servers have more in common than high energy and people skills - they have a strong sense of timing. To pull off the balancing act of greeting new patrons, taking orders, and delivering sumptuous dishes hot off the grill, servers have to be downright choreographed.
Teamwork: One of the first skills learned in a restaurant job, teamwork is critical. Fortunately, it doesn't take too long for new workers to figure this out. If they fail to help the bartender get ice when needed, their table's drink orders won't come up for 20 minutes.
Problem Solving: The variety of problems that arise in the course of a lunch or dinner rush is mind-boggling. Managers may not be available to take control or offer solutions, so servers, bartenders, cooks and support staff put their heads together to mastermind some sort of fix that will hold the place together.
Multi-tasking: A server may start with four tables and end up with 14. Since it's not physically possible to handle the volume one task at a time, successful servers learn to do many things at once. Unsuccessful servers walk off the floor in tears.
People Skills: It's true, a server will make more money (and even generate repeat business and word-of-mouth clientele) by developing rapport with customers. And, it helps to know when a patron at one of your tables is a psycho with a gun.
Conflict Resolution: This skill is quickly developed when the patron starts brandishing his gun. Even the most sophisticated bars and restaurants can be unpredictable places, and the ability to calmly handle situations - from employee disputes to customer grievances - is a must.
Sales and Promotions: The equation is simple. The more you sell, the more you make. Enterprising managers put a fair amount of energy into training staff in product promotion, cross-sales and up-selling, but the smart servers catch on pretty quick.
Cash-Handling: Not only do servers learn how to count and handle cash with the utmost accuracy, they can, at any time during a shift, estimate within $5 the sales they've generated so far and the profits they've made in tips.
Basic Accounting: Servers learn about money handling (and their own budgeting) by balancing cash and charge receipts against bills, and calculating taxes and tips. Few things are more motivating to young adults than counting out several hundred dollars in cash, knowing a portion of it is theirs to keep.
Staff Scheduling: Servers learn how to give and take with their managers in their attempts to win the best, most-lucrative shifts - or in their attempts to win some last-minute time off. It's not always a win-win, but workers do learn about the larger responsibilities the manager shoulders.
Perseverance: Determination, and physical and mental endurance - all qualities a real restaurant trooper learns. A pro never walks off the floor when they get buried - they just hang tough.
So, while you may not get rich quick working in a restaurant, you may come to treasure many of these unsung skills.
One thing is certain. Restaurant experience makes you appreciate the frenzy that can go into feeding the public day in and day out.
Except on rare occasions, that awareness prompts me to leave a generous tip, even if the service isn't up to snuff on a crowded night. The truth is, the staff may be working harder than ever that night. It's a habit I call my Chinese New Year's resolution.