The reality of working in the food service industry. Why I love it and why I tell kids to stay away from it.

Nearly 50% of the United States population has worked in the food industry at some point in their life and recent reports show that 1 out of every ten people on average currently works in the food service industry. This shouldn’t come as to much of a surprise though as it’s a well known fact that humans need food to survive. In fact Americans spend around $800 billion a year dining out, at the one million plus locations across the country. Who are these people that work hard day and night to ensure an endless supply of tasty morsels for everyone? The majority tend to be women and minorities but in higher end establishments the kitchen staff are predominately white males, white males also dominate the management jobs, making up the majority of food service managers in America. While salaries vary depending on geographical location and the type of establishment, the median salary for food servers (waiter or waitress) is $9.81 or a little more than $20,000 annually. The average salary for kitchen staff varies but here are some estimates.

Dishwaser –  $8.89 per hour – $18,490 per year

Prep-Cook – $9.77 per hour – $20,320 per year

LIne Cook –  $11.12 per hour – $23,130 per year

Chef –  $21.57 per hour – $44,870 per year

Restaurant Manager – $50,000

man making pizza dough


Obviously this is just the average so some earn less and some earn significantly more. I personally know Chefs and managers that earn over six figures, especially ones that run large scale operations or multi-unit operations. Many of these high paying jobs offer great bonus plans based off of controlling operating cost, sometimes referred to as Prime cost, prime cost are usually considered food, alcohol, and labor cost, they are called Prime cost because they are the largest non-fixed cost and will fluctuate depending on how busy the establishment is. If you as a manager or Chef are able to control your Prime cost there usually is and should be a nice monetary incentive attached,

So what does the normal day of a restaurant employee consist off? Well for a server there is dealing with the general public to start with, but as if that isn’t hard enough, add to it the fact that they are either drunk, or in a hurry to eat. The server is responsible for setting the table, taking the orders, relay orders to the kitchen and the bar staff, delivering food and refilling beverages, busing tables, rolling silverware, and typically cleaning the front of the establishment, and all of this in hopes that the guest will leave a large enough tip to help offset the $2.13 they earn per hour. Most servers have to work nights and weekends as those are the prime times to earn the best tips, so when everyone else is getting off work and preparing to go enjoy themselves, the servers are getting ready to serve them.

woman wearing brown apron standing near table

The average day of a cook can vary widely depending on the type of establishment they work at. Usually their day will start with food prep, food prep consist of cutting the meats and vegetables, making sauces, and anything they will need to have ready for service that night. Just like the servers, cooks usually work nights and weekends as those are the busiest times and will typically pay the highest wages. During the nights there are also busy periods because most of the public eat dinner within a relatively small time frame, so the cooks whole day is a lead up to an extremely difficult and hectic 3-4 hour service where they will prepare a hundred or more dishes in that time. Once the service is over the cook will put away all of his items and clean and sanitize his work area, this includes sweeping and moping. In contrast to the server who has a monetary incentive to work hard and serve as many people as possible because the more people served equals more tips received, the cook has zero incentive to produce a better product or serve more people because regardless of their increased effort, their compensation will not change.

Both the server and kitchen staff will spend 8-12+ hours a day on their feet with almost zero down time, both will receive cuts and burns, with the potential for some serious injuries do to the simple fact of the dangerous environment they work in filled with hot pans, sharp knives, and slippery floors. What makes this so bad is very few can afford health insurance and most if any can afford to miss work for more than a day.

brown and white bear plush toy

I realize that I have made the industry I love sound horrible and nothing like what you see on the food network. Well reality check, becoming a celebrity chef is about as common as becoming a professional athlete. While I am grateful for the new found popularity of chefs, who seem to be hawking every product imaginable, from pots and pans, to cook books and clothing, I am also worried at the influx of people to the industry who think since they love cooking at home and hate being in an office all day, that they should go to culinary school and be a chef. The same goes for the young kid who thinks he will go to culinary school and after graduating, will quickly either own his own restaurant or have a TV show. Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble but the reality is a culinary degree is no guarantee of success, in fact some of the most successful chefs and managers have no degrees at all. Even with a degree, anyone entering the industry should expect years of hard labor for not much more than minimum wage, In fact most employees of the fine dining restaurants can’t afford to actually eat there.

chef preparing vegetable dish on tree slab

However there are some great things about this industry for those that are willing to put in the time and effort to rise to the top. First it is fun and some of my best memories are of being a line cook and hanging out with my coworkers after a long shift, there is a certain bond that is built among food service staff because since they work different hours than the general public, it almost becomes a sort of counter culture. Secondly you are constantly surrounded by great food and beverages that you of course have to taste, most employees eat for free at work, which can be a huge cost savings, I know I used to eat 2-3 meals a day at work. One of the best advantages is the fact that once you work in the industry and deal with a demanding public, some of which will complain no matter what you do, all while dealing with the pressure of working in an extremely fast paced and hot environment, everything else will seem easy. I personally think everyone should work in food service at some point in their life, if every other industry was held up to the standards and expectations of food service the world would be a much more efficient and happier place. Last but not least, once you learn the core foundations of cooking or serving, you can pretty much get a job anywhere in the world just by walking in and asking for employment.

Personally the industry has been good to me and I have been able to raise and support 4 kids and a wife from working in it. I have worked at some of the most beautiful settings in multiple states and meet some of the most amazing people. My kids have come to my work before and thought it was the best job in the world because I got free food for them, some of the jobs I would bring them to see the beautiful marinas, golf courses, and stadiums, they loved it, of course they didn’t see me slaving away in a hot kitchen for the other 5 days a week. So when my kids talk of getting into the food service industry I always try to steer them away, my oldest daughter has worked in fast food, at a local independent restaurant, and at a college as a concierge attendant but I make sure to tell her to study hard in school so she can be the one being served and not the one doing the serving.

Thanks for reading,



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