The Ivy League's New Dream Job: Not Wall Street, But Waiting Tables

As recently as October, we joked that the “best-performing” job category in the US was also the most miserable one – i.e., “bartenders and waiters“, also known as jobs which often times get paid below minimum wages and rely on the goodwill of their customers for tips to survive. And indeed, as of November, there were a record 10.4 million waiters in the US, representing a record 45 consecutive monthly increases in this job category – hardly the stuff robust recoveries are made of.

However, it turns out the joke may be on us after all because as the WSJ explains, “Waiting Tables at Top-Tier Restaurants Is New Career Path for Ivy League and Culinary School Grads.”

It appears that gone are the days when every Ivy graduate’s fast-track to stardom dream was to become a banker (or in the worst case, a corporate lawyer). And with Wall Street’s increasing conversion into a utility, the aspirations of the best and the brightest will progressively shift elsewhere. But waiting tables? Well, as it turns out that’s where the money is because “head waiters at top-tier restaurants can earn from $80,000 to as much as $150,000 a year including tips, according to industry executives. In comparison, a line cook might earn as little as $35,000 to $45,000 a year while working longer hours. The nation’s highest-rated restaurants, including Per Se, Le Bernardin and Eleven Madison Park in New York and Alinea in Chicago, hire as few as 10% of the individuals applying for waitstaff jobs.”

Perhaps what is just as important, is that there is no universal revulsion against head waiters across the US and if and when the great uprising finally crosses the Hudson River, while bankers will be the object of public scorn, to put it mildly, waiters and other servent will probably be cherished. So why not make some good money in the process?

This thought process seems to have spread and as the WSJ reports, “at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., 20% of graduates from two- and four-year programs go into “front of the house” positions in the dining room, which also include maitre d’s, bartenders and sommeliers, compared with 5% roughly 15 years ago, says Jennifer Purcell, an associate dean overseeing the hospitality and service curriculum. In the past six years, the Culinary Institute has added customer-focused courses, including one on brewed beverages and one on advanced serving. This year, 350 students completed the course work, she says.”

And, as noted earlier, it isn’t just anyone who is waiting on the rich and famous: it’s those graduates who (or whose parents) have spent north of $200,000 in the past four years so they could get comfortable jobs:

Many of the servers at Eleven Madison are recent grads of the Culinary Institute, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. To attract young talent, Mr. Guidara says, the restaurant cultivates a teaching atmosphere, with events such as a weekly “happy hour” course on cocktails and wine often taught by experienced servers on staff. “It’s hard for us to keep our staff from coming in three or four hours early,” he adds. “They are not just here for a job; they give themselves fully.”



Several servers who have moved from Eleven Madison Park to more casual restaurants have instituted a similarly professional atmosphere, he adds. A networking group called the Dining Room Collaborative began in New York in 2013 to foster education and a sense of professionalism among wait staff at fine-dining establishments. The idea is to make server “a sexy dining-room job,” says Anthony Rudolf, the group’s co-founder and former general manager at Per Se, in New York.


Celia Erickson, a 24-year-old server at Eleven Madison, has an undergraduate degree in hospitality from Cornell University and completed a yearlong wine and beverage program at the Culinary Institute of America (where her father is provost). When starting at Eleven Madison Park last summer, she shadowed kitchen staff as part of her training and had an entry-level server role. She says she has gained insight into managing a top restaurant. “My first two months, it was really hard for me. I spent five years in school and now I was waiting tables,” she says.

So while we salute this “upwardly mobile” recovery in 6 figure-earning waiters, we wonder what will happen when the day comes that the patrons of such ultra-exclusive establishments as Eleven Madison can no longer afford $60 steaks and $20 truffle fries. Because as hard as we try, we fail to imagine just what portable and marketable skills America’s nearly 11 million waiters will offer when the time comes to move on (aside, of course, for any insider trading “chat rooms” the Dining Room Collaborative may secretly unleash upon an unsuspecting world).

But here we go again: concerned about the future in a world when clearly only the here and now matters.


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