Entrepreneurial Insights from Years of Experience as a Server
Have you ever worked in a restaurant waiting tables before? With regard to entrepreneurship, your server can tell you a lot about business. A lot of people have done it. Many people take the job while working their ways through college or pursuing alternate careers. I got my first job as a waiter in 1992 when I was a married, unemployed salesman and “failed” entrepreneur with a brand new baby. I also had less than $15 in my checking account during Christmas season. I got a job at the Courtyard by Marriott in Hoover, Alabama. I was desperate. I had to make money so we could eat. I was also an entrepreneur in “learning mode” (which means my first venture did not work out).
My experience waiting tables for a living in Birmingham (AL), south Florida, and Atlanta for $2.13 per hour plus tips (and $3.35 per hour plus tips in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida) is the inspiration for this blog post. I have also worked in a few “pool houses,” or restaurants where the waitstaff pools their tips and divides them among themselves equally, regardless of contribution. Some of this information does not apply as equally to servers’ experiences in California and Nevada (and possibly other places) where unions play a large role in the hospitality industry.
Note: For all you hardcore restaurant folks out there who refer to your customers as “guests,” I have chosen the word “customer” because most business owners call their patrons by the name “customers.”
1) You are NOT ENTITLED to an income and your successes are NOT GUARANTEED
If you don’t come to work, you don’t get paid. Your income as a server is directly proportional to the value you bring to your guests in the best (or harshest) of terms. Even in a “pool house” situation (you are equally dividing tips with the entire waitstaff), your co-workers can easily turn against you if you’re not pulling your own weight. If you sit on your duff and wait for the money to roll in as a server, you will be out of your source of income quickly. The same thing is true as an entrepreneur. If you don’t create value for your customers, you don’t make sales. If you don’t make sales, you are out of business…or will be soon.
2) You can go out of business through no fault of your own
You can come to work one day and find a note on the door saying “Sorry, but we are out of business.” The owner could get over-extended financially. The restaurant lease could get negotiated right out of under the restaurant, or drug and alcohol abuse could take its toll (the owners are not exempt). In some places, the managers may decide that you’re too old, too good, too bad, not pretty enough, or any reason they choose (in “right-to-work” states). It it is living life on the edge constantly, just as an entrepreneur does.
3) Customer (or Guest) service is 95% of your success as a server, if not more
If you give great customer service, you get paid. If you give awesome customer service, you get paid well. If your customer service sucks, you get paid nothing. This is the idea behind waiting tables in the acronym “To Insure Prompt Service” (TIPS). If you own your own business and your customer service sucks, the chances are very good that your business will not last for very long. Competition is too fierce these days to stay in business, and not deliver outstanding customer service.
4) Your income is directly proportional to how hard and how well you work
If you work hard and get great results, your income goes up. If you work poorly or get bad results, your income goes down. This is pure entrepreneurship at it’s best (or worst). One of the aspects of successfully applied entrepreneurship is to delegate as many of the daily tasks to responsible employees, or to contract out the grunt work. If you are not actually getting your hands dirty, how well you delegate the important tasks of your business is also directly proportional to your income and your success.
5) The restaurant does not employ you; you employ you
As a server in a restaurant, you do not get a paycheck. Your meager hourly wage goes to pay your taxes (hopefully). The restaurant does not lay claim to your exclusive employment. They don’t employ you. Your customers do. As an entrepreneur, your customers are the people who employ you in the marketplace. Hopefully, I’m not being redundant here. Taking care of your customers is your first job as a server, and as an entrepreneur. Without customers, you’re done as a server, and as an entrepreneur.
6) There is no safety net
If you fail as a server, you get fired. If you fail as an entrepreneur, you can’t pay the rent, and your landlord fires you. In both cases, there is no safety net. Going to the labor department to draw your unemployment check is an adventure in futility. If you have no verifiable income, then your unemployment check will be pretty weak. In my experience, unemployment checks are very weak. The last unemployment check I got from a restaurant closing was $290 per week. Have you ever tried to live on less than $300 per week?
There are probably more ways that being a server is similar to being an entrepreneur, especially a start-up entrepreneur that I have overlooked. The point is to understand where the risk involved in your operations are and to mitigate those risks ion order to achieve success. Servers bear all the risk of a restaurant, unlike the managers that think they employ their servers. Entrepreneurs also deal with risks daily. A restaurant server can easily adapt to the world of entrepreneurship and business ownership due to a servers familiarity with risk.
So go get ’em, Tiger! Don’t be afraid (as much) to get started on your dream of owning your own business, and walk away from the apron! You are more prepared than you think!