This post brought to you by National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. The content and opinions expressed below are that of Evil HR Lady.
What do Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and I have in common? We both got our start in fast food–he started at McDonalds and I worked at Burger King. Do I wish I could have skipped the grease and crabby customers and gone straight into an office job? Well, 17-year-old me would have said yes, but 42-year-old me is happy for the experience I had there. Nothing teaches you about humans and what makes them tick than working in a restaurant.
Jeff and I (we’re on a first-name basis because I order so much of his stuff) aren’t the only ones who learned about business and people through asking “would you like fries with that?” According to the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), one in three Americans get their start in a restaurant. That’s a ton of people. And it’s not just about earning some money, it’s about learning how to work.
Why do I look back fondly on my time at Burger King? Well, for one I love fast food–and restaurant food in general–but it’s more than that. I learned a ton during my time. Turns out there’s even a Food and Beverage Service Competency Model that describes what most of us learn from our time in a restaurant. I didn’t stay in the restaurant business, but the first 3 tiers of their model apply directly to me.
Tier 1–Personal Effectiveness Competencies.
I learned quickly that if I wanted the good shifts and to move from the back line to the front line, I should work quickly and carefully. By being dependable and always showing up on time, my boss trusted me with the coveted morning shift. Why would a bunch of teenagers on summer vacation want a morning shift? Because then our evenings were free! (Yes, I napped in the afternoon.)
When I moved onto other jobs, I had a solid foundation. I knew how to work. I knew how to interact with a manager. I knew to double check my own work in order to prevent errors. I knew how to handle customers. I gained great career skills in those early years in a restaurant. I took the opportunity to learn how to work, and that has paid off well in other jobs.
Tier 2–Academic Competencies.
The way the drive thru was set up, the cash register wouldn’t calculate change for you. You had to learn to count change. Fortunately, I didn’t have a problem with that, so I got to work drive thru a lot. But, those that didn’t know how to count back change had to quickly learn.
What about communication skills? I had to interact with hundreds of people every day–some of whom were not the most pleasant people. The Burger King I worked at was right off the interstate on the way to Zion’s National Park, which meant busloads of tourists–many of whom did not speak much English. I learned to communicate through gestures, pictures, and smiling even when I was frustrated.
I also learned how to think and plan. In the mornings, it was frequently me and one other person. We had to organize and get all the opening work done while serving customers. It took planning and coordination and the ability to be flexible. These are things that our teachers want us to learn, but that the schools struggle to teach us. Working in a restaurant will teach you those things.
Tier 3–Workplace Competencies.
People who eat breakfast every day at a fast food restaurant tend to be (in my experience) a difficult crowd. They were mostly retirees who expected us to have their order memorized and ready by the time they got to the counter except (and this important) on they day they changed their mind. I, as a 17-year-old cashier, was supposed to know that *today* was the day that Bill would want a sausage-egg-and cheese croissant instead of his normal bacon-egg-and cheese croissant.
I learned to handle these things with a smile and continued prompt service. In fact, I would apologize for my lack of clairvoyance in a way that kept the customer happy. This skill has served me in innumerable ways as an HR person and a writer. You’re in my office complaining about the fact that your boss is angry at you for (drum roll please) not doing your work? I’m not going to blow up at you and scream that you are an idiot, and you know why? Bill and his daily Burger King habit. These skills gained in a restaurant transferred directly to my career in HR.
Another transfer? OSHA regulations. I learned how to comply with government regulations from my very first job, and that has helped me through the paperwork necessary to keep a company in compliance.
Some of the most basic career skills are taught in the restaurant business–showing up on time, working hard, getting along with coworkers who you wouldn’t chose to be friends with, and many other things. All of which, I got at very young age.
Upward mobility was also part of the restaurant world. True, I quit my restaurant job when I left for college, but I came back the following summer. What did I find there? Well, two of the girls I had trained were the new shift managers. The restaurant manager was now managing two restaurants instead of one and a former shift manager was now working at a competitor as a restaurant manager.
I’m glad I got a chance to start out frying things and 20+ years later, I’m pretty sure I could make a whopper with cheese without any instructions, but that’s not the only skill I took with me. Most importantly, I learned how to work.