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How Working in the Food Service Industry Prepares you for the Real World

Recently, I came across this article on CNBC titled “Why this CEO says everyone should work at McDonald’s at least once.” The story features Sheryl Palmer, CEO of the home-building company Taylor Morrison, who believes everyone can benefit from working in food service – something she knows first-hand, as she began working at McDonald’s when she was 15 and worked her way up the ranks through high school and college. According to Palmer, “Every 16-year-old should have to work at McDonald’s, because you really do learn how to work. You have to pull back the equipment and sweep behind. There are no shortcuts. You had to do it right because it was such a part of their brand. There were a lot of life lessons in that job.” As the article details, Palmer’s not the only successful CEO who got started at McDonald’s. Author Cody Teets interviewed dozens of people who launched their careers at the fast-food chain, including the founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos.

I couldn’t agree with Palmer more. When I was a freshman in college, like most of my peers I had no regard for the value of a dollar. After a few months of eating out for every meal and shopping like my life depended on it (all on my parent’s dime) my dad gave me a call and let me know my big-spender days were over, and it was up to me to cover the costs of anything I wanted outside of school expenses. After huffing and puffing and begging and crying for a few days, I reluctantly got a job as a waitress at a local breakfast cafe. However, this kick-in-the-butt turned out to be exactly what I needed (Dad, if you’re reading this, congrats you were right). Working in the food service industry taught me several invaluable life lessons that have served me in my professional career far more than anything I learned in a classroom. It’s unfortunate that our society looks down on these jobs, as they truly can be an invaluable asset in growing up and learning how to thrive in a stressful environment.

Without further ado, here are five life lessons I learned during my time as a waitress that have helped me in my PR career.

  1. How to handle stress. Every year, a ranking of the most stressful careers is released, and every year without fail PR is included on the list. To make it in this industry, you have to have thick skin and the capability to thrive under pressure. Needless to say, anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows that there is nothing more stressful than the dreaded lunch/dinner rush. Without fail, 30 people will rush in at once, the hostess will seat your entire section, and panic will ensue. Two hours later you’ll find yourself sweaty, frazzled and exhausted, but alive with $100 in tips in your pocket. That feeling is not too different from an 8-hour workday in a public relations agency.
  2. How to multi-task. As a server, you’re regularly juggling at least five different tables, each of whom are typically at different stages of their meal. When one is ready to order, the others are ready for their check, asking for a side of ketchup, or waiting for you to come visit them so they can complain about God-knows-what. As a server, you learn how to do a million things at once, as well as how to prioritize the most important tasks.
  3. How to respect your co-workers. Restaurants are always a melting pot when it comes to their staff. Since I was working in a college town, most of my fellow servers were college students, but we worked alongside people of all ages in the kitchen. Regardless of the hierarchy of the restaurant, you are always relying on your co-workers to help you get the job done. Whether it’s the cook who is preparing your table’s food in a timely manner or the busboys who are running the meals out quickly enough to keep them hot, restaurant jobs are the definition of teamwork. You quickly learn the importance of respecting everyone you work with and showing your appreciation for their help.
  4. How to keep a positive attitude no matter the circumstances. I once had a customer literally berate me because they had to pay for a glass of orange juice. While there was a slew of insults running through my mind during that wonderful conversation, I kept a smile plastered on my face and refused to lose my cool. The ugly truth is that our society looks down on serving jobs, and while most of our customers treated me respectfully, there was always at least one customer a day who acted as though I was their personal slave. Through these experiences, I learned that a positive attitude gets you far, even in the face of obstacles. This is a lesson that I’ve leveraged countless times in PR and has helped me brush off my shoulders after being rejected by a reporter or having a story fall through.
  5. How to make small talk. Establishing a personal connection with your customers is essential in making a good tip become a great tip. Most of my customers loved to make small talk, and I learned how to strike up a conversation with just about anyone on just about anything. This is a talent that has served me well in my professional career and helped me navigate several networking events like a pro.