Summer is almost here, and with it the influx of teens and young adults behind counters, in lifeguard chairs, mowing lawns, and serving food. Restaurant work is at the top of the list for many as temporary work, for its convenience, flexible scheduling, plethora of jobs, and the potential to make more money than minimum wage. Many people, parents especially, presume these entry-level restaurant jobs are irrelevant in the long-term for personal or professional development. However, these assumptions are flat out wrong.
As a restaurateur with a team of 1,200 employees, I see how the high-paced, high-demand, service-oriented environment of many restaurants is fertile soil for the developing brain. While many jobs help teens and young adults learn critical life skills such as timeliness and accountability, numerous aspects of a restaurant environment go well beyond those entry-level lessons. Successful performance in restaurants requires a high-level of cognitive functioning and aligns with what it takes to win in the workplace, from the front desk to the board room. My understanding has come from working with our team, reading research, and talking with several friends who are mental health specialists, including Julie Baron, LCSW-C, who specializes in working with teens and young adults.
The Developing & Changing Brain
There are neurological reasons for the old saying that “practice makes perfect.” As we repeat a task, whether learning to type, swimming, organizing our schedules, or even knowing how to interact with people and behave in multiple environments, we are building neurological pathways in the brain. These connections are not built in a single event but over time. The more we do something, the better the neural connectivity, and the better we become.
Our brains are constantly changing throughout our lives. We are in a persistent state of building and adapting our brain’s inner roadways, fortifying the consistent pathways and branching out with new ones; adapting to our activities, changes in our environments, challenges, traumas, and illnesses. This process is happening at a much more industrious and potentially life-changing pace during young adulthood where the brain connectivity is also “pruned” based on infrequent use, such that resources can be dedicated to connecting and solidifying the synaptic pathways we are frequently utilizing. This means how teens and young adults spend their time directly influences their brain development, which also has direct implications on their future success.
Restaurants as Hands-On Learning Centers for the Developing Brain
Restaurants provide a live-fire learning environment for the developing brain. I consider working in a restaurant similar to going to the gym – in this case, the brain gym – for teens and young adults. The reps and the workouts are as relentless as they are effective. As illustration, I have broken down five skills developed in restaurants that correspond to what I see as impacting future success.
Restaurant Skill 1: Reading the Table & Guest
A great server doesn’t only deliver your food and drink in a timely, efficient way. They know and can even anticipate your needs. At Founding Farmers, we call this skill, “reading the table” and “reading the guest.”
Guests may be gathering for a graduation or a birthday, having a working meeting over lunch, dining together to commiserate a grave loss, or getting together for one of myriad reasons. In DC, you may have a Supreme Court justice lunching with her clerks, or lobbyists discussing their latest strategy to get a bill passed. Or a family dealing with a recent cancer diagnosis. At another table, there may be a group of tired, hangry tourists, or a group of foodies striving to be Influencers.
Each of these scenarios requires a different type of engagement and service that you can only determine by “reading,” which begins as the guest arrives at the front desk and continues at the table. The employee who falls into the superficial, judgmental trap of “profiling” and judging the guest on physical characteristics or attire is in for a rude awakening.
“Reading” is the true skill; snap judgment is failure territory. There’s no directional signage to tell the server how to care for a table. Sure, sometimes a guest’s needs will be crystal clear with what they want and how they want it, but way more often than not, the server must be the navigator and the director. A lot of great service comes from being cued into the non-verbals of everyone at the table. A skilled server will assess the group dynamics, the different individual personalities and apparent needs, and then determine how best to customize the interactions to satisfy the guests and accomplish the goals of the restaurant and the desires of the guest.
Reading the table means giving the guests what they need, on their terms. Sometimes mirroring works; the guest is exuberant and wants the server to emulate their vibe. But mirroring can also be the exact wrong thing to do; a mad or sad guest certainly does not want a server in one of those moods. The server must be able to absorb and analyze social cues, non-verbals, and vibe, and then distill it down quickly into a conclusion that allows them to determine their guest’s needs, meet them where they are, and then find a way to exceed their expectations. This could be through cleanliness, efficiency of service, kindness, or allowing space and privacy. So, if they are celebrating, the server makes it even more fun. If they are depressed, the server carefully sprinkles kindness in appropriate doses to help the sun shine, even just a bit. If they are mad, the server tries to take the edge off. A table could have one guest that is a tyrant and another who is mortified by their tyrant companion. Then the server needs to navigate, defuse, form alliances, and redirect the overall experience so both guests can settle down and settle in.
As the restaurant worker navigates the diner, verbally and non-verbally, not only are they learning better service but the brain is learning more about human interaction, cataloguing the millions of micro-interactions and macro-interactions. The restaurant worker is framing out new, evolved responses and methods of interaction to succeed in establishing a relationship to serve and care for the guest.
Restaurant Skill 2: Building Relationships, Social Skills, “Small Talk”
One of the ways a server or bartender can get a read on their guests is through conversation. Everyone has had that server who walks up to the table and in nearly-robot narrative, introduces themselves, starts rattling off specials while perhaps looking down at their notepad, and likely doesn’t notice whether anyone at the table is paying attention.
They don’t create connection with their guests, and the diners would be better off speaking their order into an Alexa device on the table. In many restaurants, servers are taught specific social skills in how to engage their guests in “small talk.”
There’s an art to starting a conversation, especially with a guest who may want a conversation but isn’t comfortable starting one. The right amount of eye contact is magical, too little is odd, and too much is creepy. Servers can start conversations around weather or sports, or even better when there’s a unique authentic entry point: I love your briefcase, my Dad has a similar one; or You look concerned about the battery life on your cell. Would it be helpful if I charged it for you? Entry lines must be genuine, and the server’s goal to connect must be authentic; the guest can sniff out a phony. In my restaurants, we talk about serving from the heart and connecting with guests because it feels good for all involved. With this as the motive, the likelihood of a connection is high.
Conversations are far more than words. A server may have good, authentic words and motive, but if they miss the signs of “not right now,” stand too close, talk annoyingly loud or too softly, they will fail in their goal to provide the guest with the desired experience.
Restaurant Skill 3: Station Orchestration & Becoming a Master Juggler
Being “in the weeds” is a common expression for those working in restaurants. For non-restaurant people, it generally refers to getting into the details, but for restaurant people it means totally drowning under a tidal wave of everything that must be done at the same time, with impossibly high standards and demands. Busy servers, bartenders, cooks, and expeditors are juggling many tasks at once. They are working to sequence and prioritize, manage their time, and create the most efficient path to do all the work so that every guest is provided excellent, hospitable service with timely food and drink...and a side of hot sauce, oh and can I get a refill on my Arnold Palmer, I dropped my fork, my mashed potatoes are cold, can you turn the air conditioning down (and figure out, does that mean make it warmer or colder).
A busy restaurant requires its employees to be exceptional at constantly shifting from one task to another in a high-pressure environment. For those in the front of the house, they also have to do it all while smiling and remembering they are on stage. For those in the kitchen, precise movements, teamwork, and high standards are a must.
If you stepped into the kitchen with me at my restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown DC, you could observe what is required to serve over 10,000 guests per week and watch humans perform the jobs of dishwashers, prep cooks, chefs, and expeditors, handling endless waves of culinary requirements. A sous chef, with eight burners and a griddle, is literally cooking more than a half dozen things at one time. Meanwhile, the tickets keep coming, and she is coordinating her timing with the cooks on the pantry, grill, and fry stations. It’s hot in the kitchen and sharp knives, flames, steam, and speed make for a potentially dangerous recipe. In the midst, a server will arrive with special verbal requests, eg, “Table 211 asked to hold the tomatoes. Sorry, I forgot to add that to the ticket.” Or “this guest is allergic to mushrooms. Are there mushrooms in that?” Or the returns will appear, “This guest changed his mind, he wants it medium rare not medium well, can you refire?” Or “My guest at 118 says the sesame sauce tastes too much like sesame, can we remake this with a different sauce?”
It is high pressure, with tight timelines, requiring high levels of coordination while constantly shifting tasks, gears, and focus. Every station needs to have its ingredients properly prepared, stored, and ready for the chefs.
Many restaurants have an expeditor to help this kitchen flow and to ensure the accurate movement of food to the front of the house. The Chef in the expeditor role is both the quarterback of the kitchen – responsible for all the food coordination and timing, food standards, recipe adherence, food safety, temperature – and communication liaison between the servers and the chefs. This Chef in command sets the tone for the shift: calm, steady voice, excellent organizer, ranker and solver of problems, and true leader. The role is the ultimate combination of air traffic controller and pilot, or how I sometimes see it, like an orchestra conductor who knows each instrument, each musician, the music, the right combinations, and has the capacity to bring it all beautifully together.
Restaurant Skill 4: Optimize Seating & Working Under Pressure
The gatekeepers to the dining experience are the hosts. They receive guests, manage the flow of traffic from door to table and back again, assess reservations, walk-ins, phone calls, and individual guest needs, working to optimize the restaurant’s seats and manage each server’s workload. This is a dynamic set of requirements. Sometimes hosts have sophisticated technology at their fingertips to assist in their seating plans, sometimes they just have their eyes, a table map, and a written waiting list.
However they manage it, they are prioritizing, sequencing and, much like a live game of Tetris, puzzling together a complicated seating plan that changes by the minute. When the guest arrives with six people for their reservation for four, or with the infant who needs a highchair as the fifth guest for their reservation for four, no software is going to replace the need for the host’s mental gymnastics, fluency with the floor plan’s unique elements, and calm-under-fire problem solving-solving skills.
The host doesn’t have the luxury of sitting in a quiet library to analyze the problem, edit the algorithm, and develop a theory to solve the challenge. All this spatial recognition, puzzle assembly, dis-assembly, re-assembly, is done in public view with the sights and sounds of the restaurant buzzing all around. The guests are right there in front of them, asking how long it will be until their table is ready, some may be frustrated by a wait, others may want to change their reservation from eight to nine, or they want to change their seat, and the phone may also be ringing with additional reservations. As they continue to manage the flow of people to tables and new guests rolling in, hosts have to keep their cool. They also must have some of the highest levels of emotional control, even in the face of other humans who don’t.
Restaurant Skill 5: Staying Tuned In & Focused
At Founding Farmers, a server manages a four-table station within which they are responsible for the sequence of service for four entirely different dining experiences, which average 75 minutes per table at dinner. Each of the four tables is at a different phase of that 75 minutes, yet the server needs to keep them all running, being attentive to each guest, at a sensible pace, while the clock of the guest, and the restaurant, is going tick tock, tick tock. It’s incredibly dynamic and varied. In addition to all the requirements we’ve discussed so far, the server must stay consistently focused.
Six to eight hours (and sometimes more, to which my staff can attest) of intense focus is a must. A juggler who lets his mind wander is no longer a juggler. And so it is for the bartender or service staff member, who cannot keep their mind’s eye fixated on the job at hand.
Throughout every step, servers and bartenders have to stay tuned in. This unwavering focus allows for all the ongoing input (verbal requests, non-verbal signals, team support, operational communication) to be processed, ranked, and organized to ensure right place, right time, right way.
The restaurant work requires physical stamina, and mental stamina for attention and focus; rather than Siri providing notifications to be dismissed mindlessly, this work environment requires each worker to stay tuned in to their surroundings so they can set their own direction, adjust on the fly, and keep pushing forward.
Future Leaders Work in Restaurants
From chefs to servers, expeditors to hosts, restaurant work is intense, dogged work that builds neurological pathways for future success. It goes beyond teaching how to work hard. Restaurant work emphasizes how to strive for mastery, be part of a team, lead from wherever you are, and share in the success of something bigger than your particular task. All of that is not only a path to future success, it is leadership in the making.
So, as you think about the value of those restaurant jobs, whether for entry-level, or those who make it a professional career, you can now imagine the neural pathways and soft-skill development that these workers are immersed in creating and learning.
In 2021, there were approximately 14.5 million people working within the restaurant industry. It is no surprise that eight in ten restaurant owners, and nine out of ten restaurant managers, started in entry-level positions. (https://restaurant.org/research-and-media/research/industry-statistics/national-statistics/) What we don’t know from the data is how many other successful executives, entrepreneurs, lawmakers, change makers, and other leaders worked in restaurants during their youth.
From my anecdata and all the conversations I have with those high-up the career ladder, it seems to me that early work experience in restaurants is highly valuable. Now, as I learn more about brain science, I understand why.
I’m always curious to hear from my readers, so if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant or have seen evidence of these benefits in your employees, please share your stories with me.