Dear PoPville – Advice on Becoming a Server or Bartender without any Experience?

Photo by PoPville flickr user clif_burns

“Dear PoPville,

I’m a corporate 9-5’er in sales suffering from a quarter-life crisis and hoping to take my career in a new direction. I hate my job and need to take a year to re-evaluate and figure out what my next steps are.

I’m looking to get a job as a server or bartender at a decent restaurant in DC to get off my butt and into a job where I’m on my feet and not twiddling my thumbs all day. I have about 3 years of experience working in hotels in college, but that’s about it. Do any readers know of any restaurants or bars that are looking to hire/train servers or bartenders without serving experience ASAP?”

45 Comment

  • When I worked at a Clyde’s in college I remember them saying they liked to hire people with no experience so they can train them to their own standards. They wouldn’t make someone a bartender right away but they hired me as a waiter with no experience.

  • Clydes is always willing to hire people who dont have server experience. But it kinda sucks working for them…

    Otherwise, if you know food/bar well you can always lie. Say you worked at a place not in town. Restaurants rarely check with previous employers.

  • Pick a bar you like. Hang out on weeknights (Mon/Tues/maybe Wed) or Sunday nights, preferably by yourself. Tip well, be friendly, and hold your liquor. If a bartender or sever starts to recognize you, ask if they are hiring. Offer to pick up random shifts carding ids at the door, or bar-backing. Work your way up to serving tables, and then bartending. NO bar/restaurant is going to hire you without experience otherwise.

  • Lie. That’s how I got my first server job in a fancy NYC restaurant.
    Though, bartending gigs are hard to come by as they are coveted. People really need to know that you’re part of the “industry.” Or be a super hot female (that’s how my sister got a bartending job at Acre 121 by walking in off the street).

    • Super hot sister, you say?

    • I hope you’re not a man because if you are it’s kind of weird to describe your sister as “super hot.” (For some reason it’s probably OK if you’re a woman.)

      • It’s an objective review of my sister and that is the exact phrasing used by my girlfriend when she talks about my sister. And my male friends are always asking me to put in a good word with her. The jury is in and they’ve deemed by sister to be “super hot.” I might as well accept it (and enjoy the occasional free drink).

        • Still weird for you to say it.

          • Disagree. Family is family dawg, might as well taut the looks if yah got them running in the blood.

          • ***tout

          • Unattractive person jealousy is my guess.
            We’re a good looking, athletic family with great genes. Can’t help it! Own that shizz.

        • I guess it was nice of you to dignify that stupidity with a response, but… you really didn’t have to. Your brain would have to be badly crosswired to find anything weird about a brother stating that his sister is good looking.

          • He didn’t say “good looking.” Also my brain is not badly crosswired, I can assure you.

          • Why don’t you SAY what’s weird about siblings complimenting each other’s looks. Go ahead and spell it out for us. Guarantee you can’t do it without invoking incest, and yes, a brain that goes there is crosswired. Sorry.

          • Social norms, my friend. I didn’t invent them, don’t necessarily agree with them, but I observe them. You also take yourself way too seriously. Not sure what you’re trying to prove here.

          • Also you don’t seem to understand shades of language. “super hot” is how you describe someone you are physically attracted to, not how you describe someone you consider to be “objectively” appealing. In order to make your unnecessarily serious point you have to keep downplaying what the guy said.

          • I agree, this person is mentally crosswired and probably obsessively watches incest porn. Reminds me of the recent case where they discovered that the UK official in charge of policing child pornography is actually a huge consumer of it. And same with the virulently homophobic evangelical priests who like rent boys. Denial is a helluva drug.
            It’s ok friend, we accept you for who you are. If you want to read into things/fantasize, that’s your business. I’m fine objectively saying my sister is “super hot” because she really is more attractive than 99% of women out there and I constantly get my balls busted for it by my (also attractive) girlfriend and male friends. Comes with the territory.

          • I can’t believe you people are still talking about this. Bored at work, I assume?

          • i laugh every time someone says “social norms”.

  • Barback

  • I either read or heard a story recently about the challenges restaurants in the DC area face with hiring staff – it sounded like it wouldn’t be hard to find a job with your experience. Look on Craigslist for job openings.

    • This was directed towards working as a server, not as a bartender. Getting a job as a bartender in DC usually requires previous experience.

  • I worked as a server all through college in a tourist town (not dc). Everywhere I applied required experience. I hate to tell someone to lie but it worked for me. I even gave them the phone number of my friend who pretended to be the manager at the restaurant I made up (this might not work as well in the google age). Would I do it again? No. I’m less risk adverse now. But it was how I worked my way through college . . . so ends justified the means I suppose.

  • Look for catering work – it would give you relevant experience that could lead to a restaurant job.

  • If you have no experience, you’re best off applying at one of the corporate chains, because they always have people leaving for greener pastures. Think something like Ruby Tuesday. You’ll never get a job as a bartender without experience, though. Usually it means working at a place long enough that you get promoted to it. Then you can make lateral moves.

    And keep in mind that it is nowhere near as easy as you think it is.

  • In sales? Quarter-life crisis? Hate job and looking for new career direction?

    Unfortunately, this sounds like far too many people I know in DC.

  • Chef Geoff’s/Lia’s will hire without experience- I loved working for them so much I was actualy sad when a full-time gig came through.

  • 1/4 life crisis? You already have a career at 20? Surely I jest. But seriously, 1/4 life would reasonably be assumed as 25? A bit early for the crisis, no? Just a few yeas out of college, can you really have a “career” at this point? Maybe think about volunteering in an area of work (if it lends itself to it) that is closer to a job you are interested in. Do you have insurance, 401-k, ect, ect at your current job? If so, I’d think about trying to find something fulfilling to do while re-examining what you want to do. Ultimately,. good luck!

  • I got my first bartending job in DC by walking into the establishment between lunch and dinner hours (okay, it was a restaurant bartending job) and asking the manager if they were hiring. I admitted I didn’t have any bartending experience, but had done some waitressing. After being told they needed an experienced bartender and that they had someone already in mind, I left – but returned with the comment “How hard can it be? Gin-and-tonic is just Gin and Tonic! And I can start sooner!” Walked out with the job, and ended the summer having had a great time and as an experienced bartender!

  • My first job out of college was a hostess at the soon-to-open W Hotel. I had no previous restaurant experience but the pay was awesome and had full benefits. While I didn’t go on to become a server, they did train host staff to become servers on occasion. However, jobs in hotel restaurants are hard to come by…waitstaff and bartenders are often unionized and many are “career servers.”

    I have also heard the “we don’t like to hire people with experience” from quite a few local restaurant chains, so don’t be afraid to apply anywhere that’s hiring. And, keep up with new restaurants planning to open in a few months. New restaurants are often easier to get into without experience and they typically host massive hiring events.

    Big Tip: NEVER walk into a restaurant looking for a job during peak hours. Only go during off times, like 2:00-4:00. If someone tried to apply for a job when we were prepping for dinner service or during our lunch rush, it was obvious they never worked in a restaurant and were sent on their way.

  • Lie yourself into a job you’re not really qualified for and learn it really quick!

    • It’s generally good advice for pretty much anything in life. Fake it ’til you make it.
      Works for the new members of Congress!

    • My version of that is “say you can then figure out how.” But after 30+ years in the business, (recognizing it is very different now with so much screen button pushing) I’d advise that restaurants are always looking for smart, personable, perceptive people who have a unique ability to learn and adapt quickly, more than someone who just memorized lots of drink recipes. That said, actually tending bar well does take practice – not a class in how to mix drinks – actual practice. Waiting tables has a more generous learning curve.

      But catering is a great way to get experience and connections. And it can be really fun – in a marathon body-crushing kind of way.

  • skj84

    Don’t lie. Seriously don’t lie. It’ll backfire on you. Check Craigslist. Come in to a place between the hours of 2-5, never during service. Fancier places may expect you to start as a busser or bar back before you can become a Server or Bartender. Know your stuff too, the better versed on food and wine you are, the better chances you have at getting a great gig as a server. Some places will test you before they hire. And be patient! Good luck!

    • This. There are enough corporate places that will hire you with little/no experience that there is no upside to lying your way into a job. You’re not going to get a job at Citronelle right off the bat, nor would you want one. Fine dining service is really fussy and detail oriented and it is difficult to get right until you have the basics down. Second the advice about starting as a busser, host or barback to get your foot in the door if you can’t get a server job right away.

  • I’d say find a server job is easier than bartender. If you have no exp. and don’t want to lie you can start in a more informal place like a cafe or something similar. After that it’s not hard to move up.

  • From what I’ve heard, taking a few bartending classes might help you quite a bit.

  • I definitely understand your longing to do something more hands-on with yourself while you look for a more fulfilling career. I had the same dilemma and ended up leaving a pretty lucrative job as a consultant for federal clients to pursue a graduate degree and career change in hopes to focus my time on something I am passionate about (50+ hours a week – you better like it!). It is definitely liberating to take control of your future and not simply fall into the current of a corporate job you secretly (or not secretly) hate. It is easy to become stuck in a career trajectory that you cannot picture yourself doing for years to come, let alone for the rest of your professional life. I encourage you to have an open mind and explore new options. I returned to school to re-vector my career to a more technical field that I already had a degree in but felt I was too distant from the practice after 4 years of government consulting (blech!), so I thought the graduate program would be a refresher and my one chance to make a calculated move. I did this knowing full well that my next job would very well be lower paying (based on industry standards) than the consulting gig but that I’d at least not want to hide under the covers every weekday morning until I am 65, that I’d actually look forward to going to work after the weekends, and that I would actually WANT to work afterhours to pursue a goal I cared about.

    All that said about the positives of doing what you love, NEVER underestimate the power of a steady income, health insurance, and benefits – you never truly understand the meaning of hard-earned money (hard-earned even if by twiddling your thumbs – it was your time, your youth that you spent getting that paycheck) until you make it yourself AND then lose it yourself. Taking a year off of work to figure things out sounds great at the get-go – I’m sure it would be liberating – but be careful with what your plan will be to do during that time. I would continue working until you have every move planned out on how you are going to change your career, and then think about making the move to quit your job and end your steady paycheck. It is very easy to burn through the savings you have worked very hard to accumulate for the last few years just by living. After you burn through your stockpile you may not have a choice anymore to work hourly jobs like bartending / serving while you are figured things out because they won’t pay enough to support your current lifestyle – either that or you may have to move far out of the city. I don’t know how much you have saved, but I’m sure you’re aware that living in a city is expensive and even a pretty healthy savings stockpile can be whittled away pretty quickly between rent, food, metro/car2go/Zipcar or car/gas/parking, and the one happy hour a week that is hard to say no to because your other friends who are earning money are used to these events as a given by now and that will be the only time you see them if you are working nights / long hours at a restaurant or bar. To sum this up, if you don’t have a plan with what you are going to do with your time off, your stockpile will be gone before you know it (you DO have to eat and have a bed) and you may be forced to return back to the same job you left loathing, but now with fewer options to leave and a few months of lost salary that you could have comfortably been earning.

    All that said, it is possible to do a career change – people do it all the time! – and it is possible to take your career in a completely new direction. You just have to be focused, work really hard at it, and HAVE A PLAN. And you may end up spending almost all of your savings (I did – only over 16 months from living and tuition) in order to get there. If the restaurant gig is your plan, just make sure you figure financially to leave you enough time out of work to actually work on your next step, whatever that may be. After this diatribe, I alas have no insight on bar/restaurant gigs – apologies. I actually ended up taking a part time (~15 hrs/wk) gig with my job that I hated to help pay my way though school as a sort of more lucrative Starbucks job. That being said, if you are considering restaurants, don’t rule out chains or even places like Starbucks – money is money when you don’t have anything else coming in. Also check out websites that sell services like dog-walking, etc – I know from experience that at least those businesses take home a hefty chunk of change for a 15 minute walk (not my dog, but a roommates) and I’m sure walking through the city during the day would be conducive to soul searching!

    I wish you luck in your soul-searching – your mind and your ambition are precious and valuable and it is a crime not to use them fully. Hatch a plan and then act – good luck!

  • I would reconsider leaving your job to work in food service no matter how much you hate it.

    I got some good advice from a professional career coach once. I was talking to her about quitting an engineering job to do GMAT prep tutoring and she said that if I want to do it at night, fine, but no way should I make it my full time job.

    The reason is that at some point when you are applying for the next job, you are going to have to explain your career history. You don’t have to put every part time job on your resume, and you are free to spin your story any way you choose.

    But if you have a few years in an office followed by a year doing something totally unrelated, especially something that requires fewer qualifications to do, that looks on paper exactly like what it is: You tried the whole “office thing” for a while and didn’t like it so much, then you didn’t really know what to do with yourself. This is not the message you want to send to your future potential dream employer.

    I’d recommend you do your soul searching while maintaining your current job, or something similar. Then at least you can say something like “I discovered my passion for X by chance while I was doing Y”. That’s a much better story.

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