Food and beverage serving and related workers perform a variety of customer service, food preparation, and cleaning duties in restaurants, cafeterias, and other eating and drinking establishments.

Duties

Food and beverage serving and related workers typically do the following:

  • Greet customers and answer their questions about menu items and specials
  • Take food or drink orders from customers
  • Prepare food and drink orders, such as sandwiches, salads, and coffee
  • Relay customers’ orders to other kitchen staff
  • Serve food and drinks to customers at a counter, at a stand, or in a hotel room
  • Clean assigned work areas, dining tables, or serving counters
  • Replenish and stock service stations, cabinets, and tables
  • Set tables or prepare food trays for new customers

Food and beverage serving and related workers are the front line of customer service in restaurants, cafeterias, and other food service establishments. Depending on the establishment, they take customers’ food and drink orders and serve food and beverages.

Most work as part of a team, helping coworkers to improve workflow and customer service.

The job titles of food and beverage serving and related workers vary with where they work and what they do.

The following are examples of types of food and beverage serving and related workers: 

Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food, are employed primarily by fast-food restaurants. They take food and beverage orders, prepare or retrieve items when ready, fill cups with beverages, and accept customers’ payments. They also heat food items and make salads and sandwiches.

Counter attendants take orders and serve food over a counter in snack bars, cafeterias, movie theaters, and coffee shops. They fill cups with coffee, soda, and other beverages, and may prepare fountain specialties, such as milkshakes and ice cream sundaes. Counter attendants take carryout orders from diners and wrap or place items in containers. They clean counters, prepare itemized bills, and accept customers’ payments.

Food servers, nonrestaurant, serve food to customers outside of a restaurant environment. Many deliver room service meals in hotels or meals to hospital rooms. Some act as carhops, bringing orders to customers in parked cars.

Dining room and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers—sometimes collectively referred to as bus staff—help waiters, waitresses, and bartenders by cleaning and setting tables, removing dirty dishes, and keeping serving areas stocked with supplies. They also may help waiters and waitresses by bringing meals out of the kitchen, distributing dishes to diners, filling water glasses, and delivering condiments. Cafeteria attendants stock serving tables with food trays, dishes, and silverware. They sometimes carry trays to dining tables for customers. Bartender helpers keep bar equipment clean and glasses washed. 

Hosts and hostesses greet customers and manage reservation and waiting lists. They may direct customers to coatrooms, restrooms, or a waiting area until their table is ready. Hosts and hostesses assign guests to tables suitable for the size of their group, escort patrons to their seats, and provide menus. They also take reservations over the phone, arrange parties, and help with other customers’ requests.

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Work Environment

Food and beverage serving and related workers held about 4.4 million jobs in 2012. Nearly 3 in 4 worked in restaurants, including full-service and fast food restaurants.

Food and beverage serving and related workers are on their feet most of the time and often carry heavy trays of food, dishes, and glassware. During busy dining periods, they are required to serve customers quickly and efficiently. 

Injuries and Illnesses

Food preparation and serving areas in restaurants often have potential safety hazards, such as hot ovens and slippery floors. As a result, counter attendants, food servers, and dining room and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers have a higher rate of injuries and illnesses than the national average. Common hazards include slips, cuts, and burns, but the injuries are seldom serious. To reduce these risks, workers often wear protective clothing, such as gloves, aprons, or nonslip shoes.

Work Schedules

About half of all food and beverage serving and related workers were employed part time in 2012. Because food service and drinking establishments typically have long dining hours, early morning, late evening, weekend, and holidays work is common. Those who work in school cafeterias may have more regular hours and work only during the school year, which is usually 9 to 10 months.

In addition, long business hours allow for flexible schedules that appeal to many teenagers, who can gain work experience. Compared with all other occupations, a much larger proportion of food and beverage serving and related workers were 16 to 19 years old in 2012.

Education and Training

Most food and beverage service jobs are entry-level jobs and do not require a high school diploma. The majority of workers receive short-term on-the-job training.

Most states require workers, such as nonrestaurant servers, who serve alcoholic beverages to be 18 years of age or older.

Education

There are no formal education requirements for becoming a food and beverage serving worker.

Training

Most workers learn their skills through short-term on-the-job training, usually lasting several weeks. Training includes basic customer service, kitchen safety, safe food-handling procedures, and good sanitation habits.

Some employers, particularly those in fast-food restaurants, teach new workers with the use of self-study programs, online programs, audiovisual presentations, or instructional booklets that explain food preparation and service procedures. However, most food and beverage serving and related workers learn their skills by watching and working with more experienced workers.

Some full-service restaurants provide new dining room employees with classroom training sessions that alternate with periods of on-the-job work experience. The training communicates the operating philosophy of the restaurant, helps new employees establish a personal rapport with other staff, teaches employees formal serving techniques, and instills a desire in the staff to work as a team.

Some nonrestaurant servers and bartender helpers who work in establishments where alcohol is served may need training on state and local laws concerning the sale of alcoholic beverages. Some states, counties, and cities mandate such training, which typically lasts a few hours and can be taken online or in-house.

Advancement

Advancement opportunities are limited to those who remain on the job for a long time. However, some dining room and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers may advance to waiter, waitress, or bartender positions as they learn the basics of serving food or preparing drinks.

Personality and Interests

Food and beverage serving and related workers typically have an interest in the Building, Persuading and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Persuading interest area indicates a focus on influencing, motivating, and selling to other people. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Persuading or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a food and beverage serving and related worker, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Food and beverage serving and related workers should also possess the following specific qualities:

Communication skills. Food and beverage serving and related workers must listen carefully to their customers’ orders and relay them correctly to the kitchen staff so that the orders are prepared to the customers’ request.

Customer-service skills. Food service establishments rely on good food and customer service to keep customers and succeed in a competitive industry. As a result, workers should be courteous and be able to attend to customers’ requests.

Physical stamina. Food and beverage serving and related workers spend most of their worktime standing, carrying heavy trays, cleaning work areas, and attending to customers’ needs.

Pay

The median hourly wage for food and beverage serving and related workers was $8.84 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.76 per hour, and the top 10 percent earned more than $11.63 per hour. 

In May 2012, median hourly wages for food and beverage serving and related workers were as follows:

  • $9.44 for food servers, nonrestaurant
  • $8.93 for hosts and hostesses, restaurant, lounge, and coffee shop 
  • $8.92 for counter attendants, cafeteria, food concession, and coffee shop
  • $8.89 for dining room and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers
  • $8.78 for combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food
  • $9.76 for food preparation and serving related workers, all other

Although some workers in this occupation earn tips, most get their earnings from hourly wages alone. Many entry-level or inexperienced workers earn the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour as of July 24, 2009). However, many others earn more per hour because they work in states that set minimum wages higher than the federal minimum.

Some food and beverage serving workers receive customers’ tips. In some restaurants, workers contribute all or a portion of their tips to a tip pool, which is distributed among qualifying workers. Tip pools allow workers who do not usually receive tips directly from customers, such as dining room attendants, to be part of a team and to share in the rewards for good service.

Some states have exceptions to their minimum-wage laws for tipped employees in certain specific circumstances. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, tipped employees are employees who regularly receive more than $30 a month in tips. The employer may consider tips as part of wages, but must pay at least $2.13 an hour in direct wages. The Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor maintains a website listing minimum wages for tipped employees by state.

About half of all food and beverage serving and related workers were employed part time in 2012. Because food service and drinking establishments typically have long dining hours, early morning, late evening, weekend, and holidays work is common. Those who work in school cafeterias have more regular hours and may work only during the school year, which is usually 9 to 10 months.

Employers often provide free meals and furnish uniforms, but some may deduct the cost from the worker’s wages.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of food and beverage serving and related workers is projected to grow 12 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment growth, however, will vary by specialty.

Employment of nonrestaurant servers, such as those who deliver food trays in hotels, in hospitals, in residential care facilities, and at catered events, is projected to grow 20 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations.

Employment of combined food preparation and serving workers, which includes fast-food workers, is projected to grow 14 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Employment of dining room and cafeteria attendants, counter attendants, and hosts and hostesses is projected to grow 8 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

As a growing population continues to dine out, purchase carryout meals, or have food delivered, more restaurants, particularly fast-food and casual dining restaurants, will open, increasing demand for food and beverage serving workers, including fast-food workers.

In addition, nontraditional food service operations, such as those found inside grocery stores and cafeterias in hospitals and residential care facilities, will serve more prepared meals. Because these workers are essential to the operation of a food-serving establishment, they will continue to be in demand.

Job Prospects

Job opportunities for food and beverage serving and related workers will be excellent, because many workers leave the occupation each year, resulting in a large number of job openings.

Workers with related work experience and excellent customer-service skills should have the best job opportunities at upscale restaurants. Still, those seeking positions at these establishments will face strong competition because the number of job applicants often exceeds the number of job openings because of higher tips.

For More Information

For more information on food and beverage serving careers, visit

National Restaurant Association

FAQ

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The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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I am not sure if this career is right for me. How can I decide?

There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. We recommend the Career Personality Profiler assessment ($29), the Holland Code assessment ($19), or the Photo Career Quiz (free).