Diatribe With Dave: How to Find Your Dream Food-and-Beverage Job

Diatribe With Dave: How to Find Your Dream Food-and-Beverage Job

Every second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner with Dave at Memphis at the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great night, Dave treats us every Wednesday morning that he's on to a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!

Let's get something straight: working in a restaurant should be fun. I get it—it's stressful, unpredictable and sometimes downright disheartening. But we're not chained to a desk, staring at a computer. Nor are we driving a forklift, digging ditches or embalming bodies (although embalming can be cool, too). The mere fact that the biz can be so much fun lends itself to employee loyalty and satisfaction. And people rarely show up at a restaurant/bar to be jerks and have a lousy time, except in Corona Del Mar.

A lot of first-timers have asked me over the years about how to not only get a job in the biz but, more importantly, how to get one they love. Ahhh, that's the tricky part. Anyone can land a gig making sandwiches at Subway, but is that really your aspiration? There is nothing better than working in the right shop with the right group of people and there is nothing worse than working in the wrong shop with the wrong group of people.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I worked at a not-to-be named theme restaurant (Medieval Times) that started to run a promotion that was less-than-popular with the crew. It was driving down tips and taking staff morale with it. In retrospect, it was possibly one of the worst situations I can remember as far as esprit de corps in the biz. What was management's solution? Hold a massive meeting and basically tell the minions that whoever doesn't like it can leave—while pointing at the door, no less. A prime example of the kind of atmosphere you want to avoid.

I've been in the business a long time now in one form or another and have seen a lot of poorly prepared applicants with little or no idea what they were doing. I have also seen some really sharp ones that had done their research and showed up with their game face on. If you are getting ready to dive in it's a great time to do so; there are lots of new shops opening up. The most important thing is getting your foot in the door in some capacity and then showing your willingness to learn. So for what's its worth, here's my best advice:

1. Being Open to Possibilities is the First Step

Positive like her!
Positive like her!
Photo by Taylor Hamby

If you wake up every morning with the "Everything is stupid and nothing's ever going to work out" attitude, guess what? I guarantee that's the way it's gonna go down. There are two reasons for this: 1) You are setting yourself up for failure before your little foot-o-mobiles ever hit the floor and 2) Nobody likes being around that kind of energy except people of the same mindset—and people with that mindset generally don't get much accomplished. Be positive. Good energy begets good energy and it's an attractive quality for a potential employer. Smile. Be nice. Everything's easier that way.

2. Pointing Yourself in the Right Direction is Next

If the boss looks like him, you're in the right direction
If the boss looks like him, you're in the right direction

There is a bit of arcane knowledge called the OODA loop, conceived by hotshot fighter pilot/eccentric genius John Boyd and currently used by special forces badasses and gung-ho corporate types. OODA stands for "Observe-Orient-Decide-Act,' I'll spare you the details but if you ever want to read about it it's quite fascinating. The most important part of finding your dream restaurant job here in OC is evaluating your situation (observing) and pointing (orienting) yourself in the right direction. Where do YOU like to hang out? If you have friends in the industry where do THEY work? I guarantee you will be way happier working with people you know at a place you like being anyway. Do you really want to work at the corner fast-food joint where everyone looks pissed-off and miserable? Probably not. Do you want to work at the place where they have a great product/brand and everyone looks stoked? No-brainer, right?. Restaurants that are no fun to work at are owned by lousy, petty people, run by lousy, petty managers, and employ lousy, petty crew. Avoid them at all costs.

3. Put Time into Looking for a Great Job

I thought it was lame when my father told me looking for a job was like having a job. I was wrong. If you are currently unemployed you should be looking/thinking about looking for a job eight hours a day (okay maybe four; go catch a surf). Put down the bong for a bit, you'll do just fine. And online applications are great for an intro but should always be followed up by a personal visit and chat. Additionally, I don't know when or why people started putting headshots on their resumes but unless you're a stripper, don't do it.

4. Don't Call a Restaurant Looking for a Job—Go in Person

Nothing irritates a restaurant manager more than getting the "Are you guys hiring?' phone call. I actually just slam the phone down when I get them; maybe they'll take the hint. Calling a restaurant looking for work is worse for your chances of getting hired than NOT calling a restaurant looking for work. What are they supposed to say? "Sure we are! Thanks for calling during our lunch rush! Why don't you come down here so I can slap you?"

You know who calls restaurants looking for a job? Unemployed spoiled brat kids still living at home who are trying to get their parents off their back about not working. That's who. And you don't want potential employers to assume you are that person.

It is, however, okay to call for a follow-up on an application or interview during appropriate hours (or a to-the-point email is good anytime). So when is that? Well, it's not an exact science but here's some pointers. If it's a regular breakfast-lunch-dinner joint, your best bet is to catch someone of importance just after the lunch rush. Calling before lunch or during breakfast hours is probably not the best idea—managers are usually making sure the shop is getting set for the day or handling one of the endless minor crises that haunt the industry. Unless instructed to do so, NEVER call after 5 p.m. Both front and back of house are probably getting rolling for the evening and you don't want to be a disruption. Most of all BE NICE ON THE PHONE! I have made decisions on whether to hire people or not just on how they spoke with me via a phone call. Phrases like "Hope I didn't catch you at a bad time' or "If you're too busy to talk I'll call later" go a long way here.

5. If You Know Peeps in the Industry, Ask Around About Who's Hiring

A lot of small restaurants tend to hire within their "family" sort to speak—in other words, hiring friends of current employees via word of mouth. Personally, I would never hire someone unless I knew him or her either directly or indirectly through a friend. You can teach anyone to pour a drink or carry a plate, but you can't teach integrity. People either have it or they don't. And you want people to think you do.

The restaurant business varies widely in levels of service, but one thing is true—people in the biz tend to be a bit more casual than the 9-5 cubicle dwellers. Unless you are trying for a corporate-level management position, try and take it easy. Here are my thoughts on appearance-

6. Dress Appropriately by Gender

Ladies: Hair-up is always nice; most shops are going to require it anyway if you are working the floor. Dresses are overkill, however, a nice casual skirt is okay. Leave your purse in the car; you look way more professional and together if you're not lugging around your junk drawer. Throttle back on the makeup, keep it natural. Have glasses? Wear 'em! Leave your cell phone in the car; a lot of restaurants are having problems with employees using them on duty and you want to let a potential employer you can live without yours for ten minutes (even if you can't). MAKE SURE you have a plain file folder with an extra copy of your resume.

Gentlemen: Generally speaking, a nice, casual button-up shirt is fine. Stay away from black—everyone wants to meet Johnny Cash but nobody wants to hire him. Nice jeans might be okay depending on the shop, but I'd find some hip pants. How you wear your hair at Coachella and how you wear your hair at work are two different things—keep it utilitarian. SHAVE, DAMMIT! You can look edgy after you get the job. No Axe body spray. Ever. It's offensive. Same thing as the ladies: extra resume, leave the cell phone in the car.

It is said "to the victor goes the spoils" and it's true here, you will find a great job at a shop you dig but it's going to require some footwork. The OC food scene is exciting right now, with lots of amazing, independent joints staffed by people that are probably a joy to work with. If you want that dream gig, it is out there for the taking and will be worth the effort when you land it. And, trust me, don't settle.

Want more of Dave's rantings/ravings/ramblings? Check out www.dinnerwithdave.com for the latest!

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