Can you make a career as a waiter?

Can you make a career as a waiter?

07-May-2014
The dummy spit over a botched order, the feuding family, the corporate high-flyer trying to impress clients. For Australia's hospitality workers juggling a roomful of emotions is just part of the job.

Peter Sullivan: a good wait person can read a table in a matter of minutes.


“I guess that's why actors always make pretty good waiters,” says James Sexton, restaurant manager at Sydney restaurant Oscillate Wildly, and Electrolux Australian Young Waiter 2011.

The 28-year-old, who has worked the room at Est, Lotus and Sepia, says a big part of serving up excellent service is being able to read emotions and personalities.

“A professional waiter is someone who knows how to act and behave around different people throughout the night so they don't offend anyone and, more importantly, they are able to make them feel comfortable and at home,” he says.

Peter Sullivan, co-owner of Morsul, the group behind Aria restaurants in Sydney and Brisbane, Aria Catering and Chiswick restaurant, has clocked up more than 25 years in the hospitality industry.

He says: “A really great hospitality person within two or three minutes will be able to read the table. They will work out who is not talking to whom, who is in charge. And when they find out who is in charge they will read them and find out what they are looking for in their interpretation of what is 'good service'.”

And when the proverbial hits the fan, a great hospitality worker will turn the situation around.

“A poor hospitality person in a complaint situation will start arguing with the client,” says Sullivan.

More than a particular qualification or even top-end dining experience, attitude is what counts.

“We've employed people that have come from cafe backgrounds that have never worked at top-end dining before,” he says. “We've really had to work on how they walk, how they talk, how they enunciate, but we employed them because they had this great gregariousness and desire to learn and just this really good attitude.”

For those who perfect the art there can be big rewards. “If you're really good you can make $900 to $1000 in tips a week,” says Sullivan.

Despite the attractions, the job all too often becomes a pit-stop on the way to an alternative career. In Australia only about a quarter of workers in the industry are employed full time, so restaurant and cafe patrons are most likely to encounter one of the fluctuating pool of casuals: the student trying to make ends meet or the working holidaymaker. The result can be huge variations in service, from the outstanding to the downright dismal.

Randall Walker, director of consulting at Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School, says it's “an ongoing challenge” for the sector to attract enough “career professionals to deliver world-class service”.

This is in contrast to the US and Europe, where there is “an abundance of experienced career professional waiters and bartenders”.

Walker suggests Australian businesses need to get better at showing employees a career path.

“Instead of simply offering a position for a waiter, it would be engaging with that waiter and having a conversation about how they can progress through the business,” he says.

Italian Niccolo Cirilli agrees. The 28-year-old has a master's in business consultancy and control and a bachelor degree in economics and business law. Since completing his studies he has worked as a bartender, a barista during the London Olympics, and as a waiter in a London restaurant.

He arrived in Australia recently and has secured part-time work with an international hotel chain, a role that he hopes will offer a pathway into supervisory and managerial positions.

But employers can be unwilling to train those who might not stick around. Or the training might be more miss than hit.

“As far as training goes, we do everything by the book,” says Sullivan. “A lot of people don't. Some employers see training even for regular staff as: just come in and do it.”

He points to Australia's high staff cost base, compared with the northern hemisphere, as one reason for the high proportion of casuals.

Instead of lamenting the lack of hospitality professionals, Sullivan says Morsul has decided to be proactive about training its next generation of managers. It plans to launch an academy with a registered training organisation to give 15 people an opportunity to work 10 to 20 hours a week in the group's restaurants while they are completing certificate IV qualifications.

Walker also sees the paid-industry experience its students gain as they complete their study as crucial.

Ultimately, Sexton says, that commitment to a professional career will be rewarded: “If you are committed to a professional career in the hospitality industry, the right people will spot you and support you and, over time, opportunities will come far quicker to you than 'stop-gap' workers.”

For the original article from WA Today click here.