Over 13 million Americans work in restaurants, according to the most recent data from Statista, a market data provider. Restaurants are important employers, especially for young people just beginning their careers, and can be major economic drivers in areas dependent on tourism.
Career Opportunities in the Restaurant Industry
And while restaurants typically hire large numbers of entry-level workers, these are not, for the most part, unskilled jobs. Nor are food service jobs a professional dead end: The National Restaurant Association reports that 9 in 10 restaurant managers and 8 in 10 restaurant owners began their careers in entry-level roles.
Customer service skills honed in the front of the house are also transferable to many other industries, including retail, sales, and business/professional services.
Also, waitstaff in high-end restaurants can often earn very good money in tips, sometimes pulling down six-figure salaries, according to The Wall Street Journal. And some restaurants hire for a very wide variety of positions, from highly trained chefs to administrative staff.
Types of Restaurant Jobs
The type of restaurant influences what jobs are available. A large fast-food or casual-dining chain will offer administrative, human resources, management, and marketing positions, whereas, in a small cafe or fine dining establishment, these duties are more likely to fall to the general manager, the proprietor, or even the chef.
In general, the work in restaurants is divided into back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house positions. In large chains, there is also usually a corporate location where the upper management and administration will take place.
If you're interested in working your way up at a restaurant, your chances are probably better at a chain establishment, where there are likely protocols in place for grooming and training staff for promotions. In fact, some high-end chefs get their start at casual dining establishments, precisely because these chains are more likely to offer training programs.
Back-of-the-house positions pertain to the preparation of food, as well as the dishwashing staff. Small restaurants might only have a single chef or cook. Larger places might have an entire food preparation team, including a chef, sous chef, prep cook, line cook, and baker, plus a kitchen manager responsible for training, inventory, and other supervisory and administrative duties.
In chain restaurant locations, the general manager will have ultimate responsibility for both the front and the back of the house, but this role usually has no direct equivalent in proprietary restaurants.
Back-Of-The-House Salaries and Job Descriptions
Cook: As their job title suggests, cooks prepare and cook foods, as well as handling and storing food and maintaining food prep areas. Most cooks learn on the job, although some may attend culinary schools or participate in apprenticeship programs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that cooks earn a median annual salary of $26,360—about half the typical pay for chefs and head cooks.
Prep Cook: These workers chop vegetables and fruit, measure ingredients, clean and sanitize food prep areas, and keep track of stock and supplies. According to PayScale, prep cooks earn an average annual salary of $28,945.
Baker: Bakers prepare, bake, and decorate bread, cakes, pastries, and other desserts and dishes. Typically, bakers arrive at work early in the morning, well before servers or other staff, to make sure that fresh baked goods are available at opening. Per Glassdoor, bakers earn an average annual salary of $21,859.
Kitchen Manager: Kitchen managers hire, train, and schedule kitchen staff, as well as ordering supplies, managing inventory, and responding to customer complaints and questions. PayScale reports that kitchen managers earn an average annual salary of $43,258.
General Manager: The general manager oversees restaurant operations, including hiring and firing staff, maintaining the budget, and ordering food, supplies, and equipment. Typically, applicants for general manager jobs have a great deal of management experience in the food service industry. Per Glassdoor, general managers earn an average annual salary of $89,240.
Front-of-the-house positions are those that deal directly with the public. These titles may include host or hostess (or maître d’, in more upscale restaurants), server (or waiter/waitress), busser (or busboy/busgirl, or back waiter), runner, and bartender.
Some restaurants have specialized roles: someone who advises diners on wine choices is a sommelier, and the manager of the cheese selection, both advising dining and supervising proper storage, is the maître d’ fromage.
Fast-food restaurants will have cashiers and drive-through operators. There may be additional supportive or managerial positions, depending on the size and complexity of the restaurant, such as shift manager, floor manager, or table captain. The responsibilities of all these positions can vary from one restaurant to another, depending on the structure of the business.
Front-Of-The-House Salaries and Job Descriptions
Host/Hostess: Restaurant hosts or hostesses are the first people customers see when they enter the restaurant. These workers give customers menus, show them to their seats, and may assist waitstaff with tasks like taking beverage orders. Glassdoor reports that restaurant host/hostesses earn an average annual salary of $21,582.
Server: Waiters and waitresses take orders, deliver food and beverages, and handle customer requests (and sometimes, complaints). According to PayScale, waitstaff earn an average annual salary of $24,774.
Busser/Back Waiter: Typically, bussers clean and reset tables, as well as restocking napkins, condiments, and other table supplies. They also work with dishwashers to ensure a steady supply of dishes and flatware. Glassdoor reports that bussers earn an average annual salary of $21,679.
Bartender: Bartenders prepare and serve drinks. They also maintain and stock the bar area and may serve appetizers and snacks to patrons. According to PayScale, bartenders earn an average annual salary of $36,009.
Cashier: Cashiers receive payment from customers and make change. Using cash registers and point-of-sale software, they process credit and debit card transactions. Cashiers are often responsible for reconciling cash drawers at the end of the day. According to Glassdoor, restaurant cashiers earn average pay of $11 per hour.
Restaurant Management Jobs
In regional or national restaurant chains, there will be an off-site corporate office which houses the upper management and their related support staff, including administrative assistants, office managers, IT specialists and cleaning crew members.
Often, there will be separate administrative, communications, human resources, research and development, and marketing divisions. These positions are similar to those in the corporate office of any large company, in any industry.
The corporate office is responsible for matters that involve the entire company, or entire regional divisions within the company, such as determining marketing strategy, defining the company’s brand, and developing and enforcing company policy.
PayScale reports that restaurant managers earn an average annual salary of $46,826.