Time to revisit waiter training?

A recent conversation with my 15 year old daughter has caused me to contemplate where our industry is currently heading. She indicated to me that she wanted to find a job in a restaurant, where they would teach her how to be a waiter — in a proper, structured manner. Looking ahead she recognises that she will have to find a job while she attends University and while she travels, both of which are her future intentions.

She asked me for advice on where to go to look for this opportunity. I have a large number of regular clients at all levels of the hospitality industry and I did a quick mental inventory of the possibilities and drew a complete blank. I couldn’t think of one business that is prepared to take a newbie junior and train them properly.

On one hand, there are many businesses in our portfolio that will take you, if you already have experience in other, similar venues and then train you in the finer points of food and beverage service. On the other hand, the rest will take newbies, but they don’t have structured training and just pair you up with someone who will ‘show you the ropes’, which I suppose is better than nothing, but she wants to learn properly — so she can eventually work at the higher levels, where the tips make the job a handy earner.

When I started in the industry there was a formal waiting apprenticeship, which was discontinued about 25 years ago. Up until then it was a common sight to see young people in our top restaurants progressing up through the bussing role into fully fledged section waiters. The system guaranteed a steady supply of well-trained service staff. There is no such system now, and most of my clients are crying-out for wait staff who know what they are doing.  Given the explosion in the number of restaurants — all of which need skilled staff — there is no obvious light at the end of the tunnel.

The irony here is that while there is a severe shortage of skilled wait staff, there must also be many young people who are in the same position as my daughter; desperate to learn so they can have a decent income while they study and travel. There are thousands of these people and they are available to work just when they are most needed, on nights and weekends; so what is the problem?

I believe the issue is the perception that it is too time-consuming and expensive to train staff from scratch, but given the time and expense of constantly advertising for staff and interviewing dud applicants, I think this argument is losing ground. More importantly, we are rapidly reaching the point where operators are not going to have a choice — they will either have to bite the bullet and set-up internal training systems, or join the lemmings opening burger joints all over our major cities.

Coming originally from the fast food industry, I don’t see that training staff from scratch is all that difficult; it’s easier to paint on a blank canvas than to try to re-program somebody who has learned incorrectly. It’s also not as expensive as you imagine. One should never incorrectly assume that a trainee is not productive or that they can’t justify their pay while they are learning.

Taking on some well- chosen trainees may also cure an internal problem in higher level restaurants. Consider this: if you are already having difficulty finding capable service staff, why not restructure your front-of-house so that all the laboring and transport duties are allocated to the trainees, leaving your valuable skilled staff to do what they are really there for — to sell food and beverage and interact with your guests?

If you watch the front-of-house team in a restaurant you should note that they spend at least 50% of their time walking back and forward from the pass, dish dump and bar. You don’t have to have a huge amount of experience to walk and carry stuff, or to clear and reset tables. All these things can be done by a trainee, while they learn to interact with guests and handle a section. Removing transport and laboring duties from the skilled staff will mean you don’t need as many skilled staff and the saving will subsidise the training of the junior staff. The benefit is you will have steady succession as trainees move up into fully fledged section waiters.

Another thought is that there is possibly a good business to be had — training waiters and developing pipelines into our larger restaurant groups for the better performers. I would personally be willing to fork out good money to make sure my kids had well paid jobs while they completed their education and travelled.

What we are currently doing isn’t working . . .