Cosentino: Don’t discount the experience of serving food
By Stefan Cosentino
Since starting the hospitality and tourism management major at California Lutheran University last year, I have had the opportunity to discuss the dynamic opportunities available in this industry in Ventura County and beyond with local community members and prospective students.
From working for a destination marketing organization to working with a cruise line headquarters in anything from product development to finance, there are so many pathways to explore in the hospitality industry. Several of these conversations delved into the great experiential learning opportunities sponsored by our industry partners in and outside of the classroom.
Sometimes community members express concern that hospitality opportunities are limited, low-paying or dead-end roles that may not be aligned with the career path of a university degree-seeking student, or that these roles don’t provide much value in terms of knowledge or skills learned. These concerns are misplaced, especially for front-facing roles that provide great skills and experience such as front desk agent and restaurant food and beverage server.
From my own experience and speaking with George Cartwright, dining room manager at University Village Thousand Oaks, I have gleaned that students may acquire or improve upon several skills as a food and beverage server, including:
• communication and presentation
• organization and multi-tasking
• interpersonal relations and teamwork
• relationship building
Servers are introducing themselves and presenting to guests at each table, managing the service flow at multiple tables at one time, organizing their time efficiently to be responsive to guests’ needs and delivering service to the standard of the restaurant. Most importantly, they have to close the transaction on a positive note so as to receive their reward — the tip.
When I taught in Hong Kong, the teaching style was one-directional where students did not expect the professor to engage in discussion with them and to some degree resisted an active or participative learning environment. Several of these students later struggled with individual classroom presentations or in engaging industry guest speakers visiting campus. For some students in this situation, it was difficult to obtain an internship simply because they did not present an engaging personality when interviewed by a recruiter. Completing an internship significantly transformed one of these students. I was pleasantly surprised by the way this student confidently greeted me and shared his experience as a food and beverage server. He expressed how he was encouraged to talk to guests and detailed the support and training he received to perform that role.
There may be a low barrier of entry for becoming a food server, sometimes simply having a pleasant disposition and being open to learn. Naturally, skills required will vary based on the prestige and service expectations of the restaurant. Recruiters and restaurant managers, though, have an expectation that they may hire and work with raw talent. Managers like Cartwright know it is their job to help students become comfortable interacting with different guests and, more importantly, anticipating guests’ needs. While training varies by organization, another skill Cartwright focuses on is learning dining etiquette. This includes role-playing with new staff in hosting dinner meetings themselves so they can understand the context of the experience from the guest perspective.
Cartwright and a food server I talked to both shared another value learned in the role — honesty. First, this involves being honest with themselves about what they can do or when they need help from the team. It also relates to being honest about it when a mistake is made and working with team members or a manager to solve the problem.
Roles like these provide great transferable soft skills that employers in most industries seek in their candidates. A couple of these skills are also listed by our university as institutional student learning outcomes. Most hospitality executives and hotel general managers I have engaged with to develop and promote the Hospitality and Tourism Management Program at Cal Lutheran had their start in entry-level hospitality-related roles. I myself had a food and beverage role early in my career that was just as transformative for me as for the student I worked with overseas. These type of roles do provide value and should not be discounted.
• Stefan Cosentino is the director of the Hospitality and Tourism Management Program at California Lutheran University.