Summer on a patio: Employment advice from a bar manager

Brad Harris, general manager at the Lower Deck, addresses concerns and gives advice on securing a summer job in the food and beverage industry.

“Now is the time to apply,” says Brad Harris, general manager of the Lower Deck in Halifax.

With the winter semester coming to an end and exam season well under way, students are frantically trying to lock down a summer job.

The four months of summer are a limited but good opportunity for students to gain valuable work experience, and, more importantly, earn money to help pay for the continually rising tuition fees. But competition can be stiff, and according to Statistics Canada, tens of thousands of students descend on the job market at the same time every year.

“If I post for a server slash bartender [on a job listing], on average I will get about 100 resumes by the next day,” says Harris.

The employment rate for students during the academic year hovers between 35 to 40 per cent of all postsecondary students, while the summer employment rate for full-time students consistently averages around 70 per cent.

According to statistics, female students are far more likely than males to obtain a summer job, in part because of better job opportunities in the retail, accommodation and food service sectors, where females are more likely to work.

The restaurant and bar scene is an active part of the community in Halifax, and the food and beverage industry provides jobs for hundreds of students and locals every summer.

An industry ‘like no other’

Harris says the food and beverage industry is “one like no other.”

Job requirements include late hours of work, long shifts and customer-service scenarios that differ extremely from any other job a student typically has. Members of the industry say it’s more of a lifestyle than just a job, and many servers use the hashtag #serverproblems or #serverlife to describe common struggles other servers can relate to.

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A deeper issue

Despite the jokes, the service industry has been largely criticized for stereotypical and even misogynistic tendencies. Historically a female occupation, the industry has come a long way in shifting its policies to create a safer and more accessible work environment for all students, but a 2010 census data conducted by Service Canada shows that almost 76 per cent of the positions in this occupation are still held by women. No data is available for non-binary students in the industry.

Hannah Wilson, a female university student and recent employee at the Alehouse located in downtown Halifax, has “strong opinions” on this particular issue.

Wilson got offered her job while out drinking one night with friends at the Alehouse.

“Experience is not the biggest of their concern,” says Wilson. “It is mostly just young, attractive girls they want working there.”

This issue, which Wilson calls “the culture of looking appealing” in the service industry, has appeared in more than just a few restaurants and bars in Halifax.

Collin Kelly, a male student who worked as a busboy at one of Halifax’s major clubs last summer, noticed this issue as well. Kelly wishes his place of employment to remain unnamed.

“Women were definitely hired and promoted much quicker than males, especially if they were good looking,” says Kelly. “And I think that’s the case at most bars.”

But not all restaurants or bars in the city endorse these stereotypes. Harris has been the general manager of the Lower Deck for four years and has been in the industry for longer than 20, and he says that primarily his hiring will always be “experience based.”

The only exception to Harris’s rule is always whether or not potential employees will get along and work well with his core staff.

“I’ve hired the ‘super server,’ the one that looks absolutely amazing on paper. But those individuals more often than not have too much confidence in their service and abilities… They come in and start ruffling the feathers of my core staff, and that generally doesn’t go over well,” says Harris.

Harris says he first conducts an informal interview to see how the potential candidate will fit with his other staff. New employees that will get along with and respect their coworkers will, in turn, receive coaching from more experienced staff and produce a more efficient team overall.

Harris says he hires hardworking and approachable, personable individuals above everything else.

Getting hired in Halifax

Halifax has the luxury of being situated right on the coast, which not only gives the summer months a vibrant patio-season culture, but means one thing that is especially crucial to the food and beverage industry: tourists.

Halifax sees about 1.8 million overnight visitors every year, and more than half of them visit during the summer months, according to the Nova Scotia Tourism Agency.

Harris says the Lower Deck increases its staff by 30 to 40 per cent during the summer months in order to support the city’s booming tourism industry. When the patio opens the restaurant’s capacity increases by another 260 people.

Harris typically starts his hiring process at the beginning of spring, and he likes to have his final staff sorted by May 1 in preparation to open the patio for the May long weekend. So if you’re an experienced server and sticking around for the summer, it’s time to start applying.

Many restaurants in the city that have a large patio and draw a younger crowd, like the Lower Deck, typically hire students as the majority of their staff for the summer months.

“A lot of university students don’t work during the school year, so when the summer comes around they are more than happy to work full-time plus and make as much money as they can, which is great for me,” says Harris.

But older restaurants, such as Split Crow and The Old Triangle, tend to have a smaller turnover in the summer and tend to employ more mature servers all year round. So the key to being a successful server and obtaining a solid restaurant or bar job in Halifax is knowing where to apply.

The catch of the industry is that it is hard to break into if you don’t have any experience. Many wonder how someone can gain experience if no one will ever give them the chance.

In the industry, Harris says these people are referred to as “green servers.” It is not common for a green server to get hired and do well, so the best way for someone wishing to break into the industry is to start off as a hostess or a food runner. If they do well then managers will slowly integrate them into serving.

Harris says he sometimes takes a risk because he feels like he has a duty to pay it back.

“Someone gave me a shot once, awhile ago, so I feel like I should do that as well,” says Harris.

 

All in all, anyone who has ever worked in the industry will give you the same piece of advice: you need to work for it.

“I was one of the few at my job who was given full time hours,” says Kelly. “If you want to get full-time in this city you need to be a hard worker.”

Wilson says that the job is a lot of work in a short period of time.

“The only way to really learn is to do,” she says.

Harris agrees, stating those that work hard and show an absolute interest to learn and improve will be the ones rewarded with more hours, better hours and even a promotion.