Pop culture likes to tell us that working in food service is a dead-end job. But if you’re ambitious, take heart—according to National Restaurant Association, 9 out of 10 managers started their career in entry-level positions.
And the same is true for 8 out of 10 restaurant owners.
In a job market where most companies don’t even consider current employees for promotion, the food service industry is one of the few places in America where you can start at the bottom and end up at the top.
Over 300,000 people were employed as Food Service Managers in the US in 2016. That number is only projected to grow.
Below, we’ll take a close look at what Food Service Managers do, where they do it, how to become one, and just how far the job can take you if you’re ambitious. But first, check out this handy infographic that summarizes all the important information you need to know!
What Does a Food Service Manager Do?
Food service managers handle the day-to-day operations of a food service facility. In smaller businesses, they’re down in the trenches, directly supervising entry-level positions. In other cases, they oversee multiple locations with the help of on-site assistant managers or supervisors.
Responsibilities often include:
- Employee Management: scheduling, training, hiring and firing, evaluation, and discipline
- Customer Satisfaction: setting customer service standards, addressing complaints, and ensuring smooth service
- Food Preparation: overseeing orders and presentation, managing delays, and coordinating front and back of house staff
- Administration: ordering food and supplies, managing inventory, managing budgets and payroll, and managing sanitation services
- Compliance: ensuring food safety and hygiene, complying with labor laws, and complying with alcohol service laws (where alcohol is served)
Essentially, Food Service Managers are responsible for keeping the gears turning. Sometimes they’re responsible for managing forward-looking tasks like changes to the menu and marketing efforts. Other times, these are handled from above.
Where Do Food Service Managers Work?
Food service managers work in many different businesses, each with its own unique challenges.
Most people think of restaurants when you say “food service.” Almost half of food service managers work in restaurants, which come in as many flavors as the food they serve. There’s fine dining, casual dining—and a whole spectrum of business models between limited service and full service. Then, there are the odd-balls like “ghost” restaurants” that only interact with customers through food-delivery apps.
Food service managers are also needed at bars or taverns, catering services, cafeterias, event spaces, schools, hospitals, grocery stores, and more.
What are the Benefits of Becoming a Manager?
Let’s start with the most obvious: it pays better.
Earlier, we pointed out that Food Service Managers work in a variety of business models—this has a major impact on your salary.
Hospitals, event centers, and hotels mean money. Full-service restaurants and bars make the median. Limited-service restaurant salaries sit in the bottom 25%. At $30k, local small-town restaurants easily have the lowest-paid managers.
Benefits vary, as well. In local businesses, there may be none. But salaried managers at popular restaurants typically get an insurance package, paid vacation, 401k matching, and a bonus program.
Another upside of management is your schedule. In entry-level food service, your hours are erratic and changeable. You often receive your shift schedule just days ahead of time, and you can expect to get called in last-minute.
But 91% of managers report a regular, set schedule. They may still be called in on short notice, but normal shifts are predictable. This makes it a lot easier to plan the rest of your life.
What are the Challenges of Becoming a Manager?
The hours are more predictable, but they are long. More than half of restaurant managers say they work over 40 hours a week, and many report working 12- to 15-hour days.
Then again, entry-level workers often cover a part-time schedule at multiple jobs, so you’re probably not new to long days.
More importantly, there’s also a high degree of responsibility resting on your shoulders. The success or failure of the business lies with your decisions.
A full 100% rate their degree of responsibility for the health and safety of others as “high” or “very high.” And no wonder—restaurants are the source of over 50% of foodborne illness outbreaks, according to the CDC. It’s your job to prevent that, for the life of your business and the public’s health.
You’re also responsible for labor law compliance: keeping accurate records, satisfying minimum wage and overtime requirements, meeting child labor standards, ensuring workplace safety, and avoiding discriminatory hiring practices.
On top of that, you need to calm down upset customers, manage staff, replace employees in a high-turnover industry, secure the right amount of inventory, and keep the business profitable.
In other words, it can be a very stressful job.
But some thrive on fast-paced, high-pressure situations. For those people, food service management is a match made in heaven.
How Do You Become a Food Service Manager?
College degrees do exist for restaurant and hospitality management. They’re worth the investment later if you want to manage an upscale establishment, own your own restaurant, or enter the top of a corporate structure.
But you need to start with practical experience.
There’s a lot of variation in how you advance to a Food Service Manager: how many steps there are on the ladder, how much formal training you’re given, what job titles you hold. It all depends on the type and the size of the business.
But here’s a nearly-universal formula:
Step 1: Become Excellent at Your Entry-Level Job
Managers can start in the front OR back of the house. Either way, you need to be great at your role. No one promotes a sloppy employee.
Even if you know you have ambition, you have things to learn. Take any constructive feedback that you can and always strive to do better.
Step 2: Help Others Become Better
Don’t rush this step. You can’t tell others how to do a job you don’t fully understand, yourself. It’ll happen naturally.
At some point, you’ll see a co-worker struggling with something you know how to do. Help them. Teach them what you know. Don’t act like you have the authority to boss them around, though—approach it as support from a peer.
Eventually, you’ll find that you are an unofficial leader. Other employees look to you for help or consider you to be someone with answers.
Step 3: Take on More Responsibility
If your manager’s not asleep at the wheel, they’ll notice your effort and start adding more responsibility to your plate.
Maybe they don’t, but they ask for volunteers. Raise your hand.
If they don’t do either of these things, you’ll have to ask.
Mastering up additional responsibilities will give you skills for your resume and make you a natural choice for promotion.
Step 4: Seek a Promotion
Depending on the size and popularity of the business, there may be levels of leadership within a single restaurant. Titles and structures vary, but this could include:
- Team Managers/Leads/ Supervisors, whose responsibility is limited to a subset of the staff
- Shift Managers/Leads/Supervisors, whose responsibility is limited by time
- Kitchen or Floor Managers, who are responsible for the back or front of the house, respectively
- Assistant Managers, who are second in command for the entire location
Each deals with a portion of total managerial responsibility. They let you build up your skills.
Stepping directly into a manager or assistant manager role can be overwhelming unless the business is very small. Gradually increasing your responsibility with these other roles can give you time to learn.
Step 5: Get Formal Training Where You Need It
There are plenty of areas where you can’t just wing it. Accounting, record keeping, labor law, and food safety all require a combination of on-the-job training and “book learning.”
Making it up as you go along can get you in serious trouble. If your employer doesn’t provide training already, ask them to cover the classes you need. Sometimes, they don’t see the wisdom in the investment. That might be a warning sign that their business isn’t the best place for career development.
Some training is legally required. Thirty-two states require some sort of food safety certification. Requirements vary, but most jurisdictions will accept Food Protection Manager Certification (FPMC) accredited by The American National Standards Institute Conference for Food Protection (ANSI-CFP).
Even More Ambitious?
Many managers remain in that role for the rest of their careers. You can advance by taking the same job in more complex, higher-paying establishments.
But if you’re interested in studying business, then becoming a General Manager (GM) is the next logical step.
The manager oversees the daily and routine operations that keep a business running. The GM oversees the manager and makes big-picture business decisions like:
- the maintenance, repair, and upgrade of facilities
- changes to the menu and how they perform
- larger financial decisions
- promoting and advertising the business
- handling legal and regulatory matters
- planning for growth
General Managers in the restaurant industry have an annual mean wage of $77,970. You usually need a bachelor’s degree in business or hospitality.
Some people use GM as a stepping stone into the corporate ranks. They seek promotions into positions like District, Area, or Regional Manager.
Others look at GM positions as practice for starting their own business. Hands-on restaurant owners often serve as their own GM. Serving as GM on behalf of the business owner lets you practice your skills without taking on the direct financial risk.
Here’s a handy chart that illustrates many of the different career paths you can take as a Food Service Manager:
Food service management can be a rewarding and challenging career. You just have to be willing to work from the bottom up and learn as much as you can about food service and business. Look for reputable online course providers. Online training is often half as expensive and time-consuming as classroom learning, and it’s easier to fit it in around your very busy schedule.