Food Services and Drinking Places Industries

Significant Points

Nature of the Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Goods and services. Food services and drinking places may be the world's most widespread and familiar industry. These establishments include all types of restaurants, from fast-food eateries to formal dining establishments. They also include cafeterias, caterers, bars, and food service contractors that operate the food services at places such as schools, sports arenas, and hospitals.

Industry organization. In 2008, there were 546,300 privately owned food service and drinking places across the United States. As shown in table 1, about 47 percent of establishments in this industry are limited-service eating places, such as fast-food restaurants, cafeterias, and snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars; these establishments primarily serve patrons who order or select items and pay before eating. Full-service restaurants account for about 39 percent of establishments and cater to patrons who order, are served, and consume their food while seated, and then pay after eating. Drinking places (alcoholic beverages)—bars, pubs, nightclubs, and taverns—primarily prepare and serve alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises. Drinking places comprise about 9 percent of all establishments in this industry. Special food services, such as food-service contractors, caterers, and mobile food-service vendors, account for 5 percent of establishments in the industry.

Table 1. Percent distribution of employment and establishments in food services and drinking places by detailed industry sector, 2008
Industry segment Employment Establishments
Total 100.0 100.0
Full-service restaurants 47.6 39.4
Limited-service eating places 43.1 46.7
Special food services 5.7 5.3
Drinking places (alcoholic beverages) 3.7 8.6

The most common type of a limited-service eating place is a franchised operation of a nationwide restaurant chain that sells fast food. Features that characterize these restaurants include a limited menu, the absence of waiters and waitresses, and emphasis on limited service. Menu selections usually offer limited variety and are prepared by workers with minimal cooking or food-handling skills. Food typically is served in disposable take-out containers that retain the food's warmth, allowing restaurants to prepare orders in advance of customers' requests. A growing number of fast-food restaurants provide drive-through and walk-up services.

Cafeterias are another type of limited-service eating place and usually offer a somewhat limited selection that varies daily. Cafeterias also may provide separate serving stations for salads or short-order grill items, such as grilled sandwiches or hamburgers. Patrons select from food and drink items on display in a continuous cafeteria line or from separate food stations that may cluster items according to serving temperature or type of dish, such as appetizers, salads, or desserts. Cafeteria selections may include foods that require more complicated preparations and greater culinary skills than are required in fast-food restaurants. Selections usually are prepared ahead in large quantities and seldom are cooked to the customer's order.

Limited-service snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars carry and sell a combination of snacks, pastries, nonalcoholic beverages, and other related products, but generally promote and sell a unique snack or beverage for consumption on or near the premises. For example, some prepare and serve specialty snacks including ice cream, frozen yogurt, cookies, or popcorn. Others serve primarily coffee, juices, or soda.

Full-service restaurants typically offer several menu categories, including appetizers, entrees, salads, side dishes, desserts, and beverages, with varied choices within each category. Chefs and cooks prepare items to order, which may run from grilling a hamburger to composing a more complex and sophisticated menu item. Waiters and waitresses offer table service in comfortable surroundings. Patrons increasingly eat at mid-scale or family restaurants, typically run by a national chain. These restaurants usually offer efficient table service, and well-priced familiar menu items prepared by moderately skilled kitchen workers. By contrast, customers at upscale dining places tend to seek a nicer atmosphere with skillfully prepared cuisine and leisurely, professional service. While chains are an important segment of the restaurant market, many restaurants remain independently owned and locally operated.

Some drinking places also offer patrons limited dining services in addition to providing alcoholic beverages. In some States, drinking places also sell packaged alcoholic beverages for consumption off the premises. Establishments selling alcoholic beverages are closely regulated by State and local alcoholic beverage control authorities.

Finally, the food services and drinking places industry covers a variety of special food services establishments, including food service contractors, concession stands at sporting events, catering firms, and mobile food services, such as ice cream trucks and other street vendors who sell food.

Recent developments. Technology influences the food services and drinking places industry in many ways by enhancing efficiency and productivity. Many restaurants use computers to track orders, inventory, and patron seating. Point-of-service (POS) systems allow servers to key in customers’ orders, either tableside using a hand-held device or from a computer terminal in the dining room, and send the order to the kitchen instantaneously so preparation can begin. The same system totals and prints checks, functions as a cash register, connects to credit card authorizers, and tracks sales. Many managers use inventory-tracking software to compare the record of sales from the POS with a record of present inventory to minimize food costs and spoilage. Some establishments enter an inventory of standard ingredients and suppliers into their POS system. When supplies of particular ingredients run low, additional inventory can be ordered directly from the supplier using this preprogrammed information. Computers also allow restaurant and food service managers to more efficiently keep track of employee schedules and pay.

Food service managers use the Internet to track industry news, find recipes, conduct market research, purchase supplies or equipment, recruit employees, and train staff. Internet access also makes service to customers more efficient. Many restaurants maintain Web sites that include menus and online promotions, provide information about the restaurant's location, and offer the option to make a reservation. Wireless communication headsets are now being used by some managers, hosts and hostesses, and chefs. Headsets allow a means of hands-free communications with other staff so that they can prevent order backups in the kitchen, better serve patrons in the dining room, or more easily accommodate special requests, such as large groups, diners with special dietary needs, or disability accessible seating requirements. Other wireless technology systems allow managers to monitor orders placed through individual terminals or by particular employees, instantly check inventories, and ensure timely preparation of customers' orders.

Diners continue to express their preferences for fast, on-the-go menu choices, and restaurants of all types are responding. In addition to the typical fast-food restaurant that offers drive-thru service, many restaurants, including full-service restaurants, now routinely accept carryout orders, take food orders by fax or Internet, and offer more menu items in conveniently sized portions. To sustain a lively dining district and please local patrons, some restaurants offer limited delivery services, often through an independent company that serves many neighborhood restaurants.

Working Conditions[About this section] [To Top]

Hours. Many food services and drinking places establishments are open long hours. Staff typically is needed to work during evening, weekend, and holiday hours. Full-time employees, such as head or executive chefs and food service managers, typically work longer hours—12-hour days are common—and also may be on call to work at other times when needed. Part-time employees, usually waiters and waitresses, dining room attendants, hosts and hostesses, and fast-food employees, typically work shorter days (4–6 hours per day) or fewer days per week than most full-time employees.

Food services and drinking places employ more part-time workers than other industries. Thirty-eight percent of workers in food services and drinking places worked part time in 2008, more than twice the proportion for all industries. This allows some employees flexibility in setting their work hours, affording them a greater opportunity to tailor work schedules to personal or family needs. Some employees may rotate work on some shifts to ensure proper coverage at unpopular work times or to fully staff restaurants during peak demand times.

Work environment. Food services and drinking places must comply with local fire, safety, and sanitation regulations, and state or local laws regarding smoking and alcohol consumption within the establishment. They also must provide appropriate public accommodations and ensure that employees use safe food-handling measures. These practices require establishments to maintain supplies of chemicals, detergents, and other materials that may be harmful if not used properly.

Typical establishments have well-designed kitchens with state-of-the-art cooking and refrigeration equipment and proper electrical, lighting, and ventilation systems to keep everything functioning. However, kitchens usually are noisy, and may be very hot near stoves, grills, ovens, or steam tables. Chefs, cooks, food preparation workers, dishwashers, and other kitchen staff may suffer minor cuts or burns, be subject to scalding or steaming liquids, and spend most of their time standing in a relatively confined area. Chefs and cooks are under extreme pressure to work quickly to stay on top of orders in a busy restaurant. The fast pace requires employees to be alert and quick-thinking, but also may result in muscle strains from trying to move heavy pots or force pressurized containers open without taking the proper safety precautions.

Dining areas also may be well designed, but can become crowded and noisy when busy. Servers, attendants, and other dining room staff, such as bartenders and hosts or hostesses, need to protect against falls, spills, or burns while serving diners and keeping service areas stocked.

Most food services and drinking places workers spend most of their time on their feet—preparing meals, serving diners, or transporting dishes and supplies throughout the establishment. Upper body strength often is needed to lift heavy items, such as trays of dishes, platters of food, or cooking pots. Work during peak dining hours can be very hectic and stressful.

Employees who have direct contact with customers, such as waiters and waitresses or hosts and hostesses, should have a neat appearance and maintain a professional and pleasant manner. Professional hospitality is required from the moment guests enter the restaurant until the time they leave. Sustaining a proper demeanor during busy times or over the course of a long shift may be difficult.

Kitchen staffs also need to be able to work as a team and to communicate with each other. Timing is critical to preparing more complex dishes. Coordinating orders to ensure that an entire table's meals are ready at the same time is essential, particularly in a large restaurant during busy dining periods.

In 2007, the rate of work-related injuries and illnesses for full-time workers in eating and drinking places was comparable to the average for all the private sector industries. Work hazards include the possibility of burns from hot equipment as well as sprained muscles and wrenched backs from heavy lifting and falls on slippery floors.

Employment[To Top]

The food services and drinking places industry, with about 9.6 million wage and salary jobs in 2008, ranks among the Nation's leading employers. Food services and drinking places tend to be small; about two-thirds of the establishments in the industry employed fewer than 20 workers. As a result, this industry often is considered attractive to individuals who want to own and run their own businesses.

Establishments in this industry, particularly fast-food establishments, are leading employers of teenagers—aged 16 through 19—providing first jobs for many new entrants into the labor force. In 2008, about 20 percent of all workers in food services and drinking places were teenagers, about 5 times the proportion in all industries (table 2). About 42 percent were under age 25, more than 3 times the proportion in all industries.

Table 2. Percent distribution of employment, by age group, 2008
Age group Food services and drinking places All industries
Total 100.0% 100.0%
16-19 19.9 3.8
20-24 22.0 9.4
25-34 23.9 21.6
35-44 15.5 23.0
45-54 11.5 23.8
55-64 5.4 14.3
65 and older 1.8 4.1

Occupations in the Industry[To Top]

Workers in this industry perform a variety of tasks. They prepare food items from a menu or according to a customer's order, keep food preparation and service areas clean, accept payment from customers, and provide the establishment managerial or office services, such as bookkeeping, ordering, and advertising. Cooks, waiters and waitresses, and combined food preparation and serving workers accounted for 3 out of 5 food services jobs (table 3).

Service occupations. About 90 percent of workers in this industry are in food preparation and serving-related occupations. Most serving-related workers deal with customers in a dining area or at a service counter. Waiters and waitresses take customers' orders, serve food and beverages, and prepare itemized checks. They may describe any special menu items and take alcoholic beverage orders. In some establishments, they escort customers to their seats, accept payments, and set up and clear tables. In many larger restaurants, however, these tasks may be assigned to, or shared with, other workers.

Other serving-related occupations include hosts and hostesses, who welcome customers, show them to their tables, and offer them menus. Bartenders fill drink orders for waiters and waitresses and from customers seated at the bar. Dining room attendants and bartender helpers assist waiters, waitresses, and bartenders by clearing, cleaning, and setting up tables, as well as keeping service areas stocked with supplies. Counter attendants take orders and serve food at counters, cafeteria steam tables, and fast-food counters. Depending on the size and type of establishment, attendants also may operate cash registers.

Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food, prepare and serve items in fast-food restaurants. Most take orders from customers at counters or drive-through windows. They assemble orders, hand them to customers, and accept payment. Many of these workers also cook and package food, make coffee, and fill beverage cups using drink-dispensing machines.

Workers in the various food preparation occupations prepare food in a kitchen. Institution and cafeteria cooks work in the kitchens of schools, hospitals, industrial cafeterias, and other institutions where they prepare large quantities of a small variety of menu items. Restaurant cooks usually prepare a wider selection of dishes for each meal, cooking individual servings to order. Short-order cooks prepare grilled items and sandwiches in establishments that emphasize fast service. Fast-food cooks prepare and package a limited selection of food that either is prepared to order or kept warm until sold in fast-food restaurants. Food preparation workers clean and prepare basic food ingredients, such as meats, fish, and vegetables for use in making more complex meals; assemble salads and sandwiches using readily available ingredients; perform simple cooking tasks under the direction of the chef or head cook; and keep work areas clean. Dishwashers clean dishes, glasses, pots, and kitchen accessories by hand or by machine.

Managerial and all other occupations. Food service managers hire, train, supervise, and discharge workers in food services and drinking places establishments. They also purchase supplies, deal with vendors, keep records, and help whenever an extra hand is needed. Executive chefs oversee the kitchen, select the menu, train cooks and food preparation workers, and direct the preparation of food. In fine-dining establishments, maitre d's may serve as hosts or hostesses while overseeing the dining room. Larger establishments may employ general managers, as well as a number of assistant managers. Many managers and executive chefs are part owners of the establishments they manage.

Food services and drinking places may employ a wide range of other workers, including accountants, advertising and public relations workers, bookkeepers, dietitians, mechanics and other maintenance workers, musicians and other entertainers, human resources workers, and various clerks. However, many establishments may choose to contract this work to outside establishments who also perform these tasks for several food services and drinking places outlets.

Table 3. Employment of wage and salary workers in food services and drinking places, 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018. (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2008 Percent Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
All Occupations 9,631.9 100.0 7.7
Management, business, and financial occupations 233.3 2.4 2.8
Service occupations 8,789.6 91.3 8.4
  Chefs and head cooks 67.8 0.7 -2.9
  Cooks, fast food 528.0 5.5 7.8
  Cooks, institution and cafeteria 52.7 0.6 16.5
  Cooks, restaurant 788.4 8.2 7.4
  Cooks, short order 128.2 1.3 -1.4
  Food preparation workers 456.6 4.7 2.2
  Bartenders 373.3 3.9 6.2
  Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food 2,197.7 22.8 14.6
  Counter attendants, cafeteria, food concession, and coffee shop 345.9 3.6 9.3
  Waiters and waitresses 2,046.6 21.3 6.0
  Dishwashers 417.4 4.3 12.7
  Hosts and hostesses, restaurant, lounge, and coffee shop 316.9 3.3 7.5
Sales and related occupations 277.8 2.9 -0.2
Transportation and material moving occupations 186.2 1.9 -1.9
NOTE: Columns may not add to totals due to omission of occupations with small employment.

Training and Advancement[About this section] [To Top]

The skills and experience required by workers in food services and drinking places differ by occupation and type of establishment. Many entry-level positions, such as waiters and waitresses or food preparation workers, require little or no formal education or previous training. Managerial occupations, though, require prior experience working in food service, which may be acquired through summer or part-time employment in the industry, or through formal internships or other work opportunities while pursuing a culinary or hospitality management degree. Similarly, work in limited-service eating places generally requires less training and experience than work in full-service restaurants, particularly at higher end restaurants.

Service occupations. Many fast-food worker or server jobs are held by young or part-time workers. On-the-job training, typically under the close supervision of an experienced employee or manager, often lasts a few weeks or less. Some large chain operations require formal training sessions for new employees, many using online or video training programs. This type of corporate training generally covers the restaurant's history, menu, organizational philosophy, and daily operational standards.

Training options for chefs and other kitchen staff are more varied. Many food service workers start as untrained food preparation workers. As they acquire kitchen skills and demonstrate greater responsibility, they may advance to cook positions preparing routine or simple dishes. Advancement opportunities for food preparation workers, as well as for cafeteria and institution cooks and short-order cooks, generally require that they move into positions in full-service restaurants. In full-service restaurants, kitchen workers at all levels may acquire the appropriate experience and expand their skills, which may lead to work as a line cook. Line cooks also develop and acquire new skills, moving to more demanding stations and eventually to more challenging chef positions. As chefs improve their culinary skills, the opportunities for professional recognition and higher earnings increase. Chefs may advance to executive chef positions and oversee several kitchens within a food service operation, open their own restaurants as chef-proprietors, or move into training positions as teachers or culinary educators. Other chefs may go into sales or demonstrator careers, testing recipes, products, or equipment for sale to chefs and restaurateurs.

Formal culinary training for chefs and cooks is available through a wide variety of sources—independent cooking schools or academies, community and junior colleges, trade and vocational schools, and 4-year colleges and universities. Many trade associations and unions certify cooking programs conducted at select schools, or they may sponsor Federally-approved apprenticeship programs that combine formal classroom instruction with on-the-job experience in a working kitchen. Many formal training programs offer job placement opportunities that help recent graduates find work in kitchens.

Most culinary programs now offer more business courses and computer training to better prepare chefs to assume greater leadership and managerial roles in the industry and to manage large, complex food service operations. Culinary training also has adapted to reflect changing food trends and eating habits. For example, chefs and cooks must know a wide variety of food preparation techniques and cooking styles. They also must know how to prepare foods to accommodate various dietary restrictions to satisfy health-conscious eating styles and to meet the needs of an increasingly international clientele. Chefs and cooks also need to be creative and know how to inspire other kitchen staff to develop new dishes and create inventive recipes.

Promotion opportunities in food services and drinking places vary by occupation and the size of individual establishments. As in other industries, larger establishments and organizations usually offer better advancement opportunities. As beginners gain experience and basic skills, those who choose to pursue careers in food services and drinking places can transfer to other jobs that require greater skill and offer higher earnings. Many workers earn progressively higher incomes as they gain experience or switch to jobs in establishments offering higher pay. For example, waiters and waitresses may transfer to jobs in more expensive or busier restaurants where larger tips are more likely.

Managerial occupations. Many managers of food services and drinking places obtain their positions through hard work and years of restaurant experience. Dining room workers, such as hosts and hostesses or waiters and waitresses, often are promoted to maitre d' or into managerial jobs. Many managers of fast-food restaurants advanced from the ranks of hourly workers.

Completion of postsecondary training, however, is increasingly important for advancement into management in this industry. Whether it is in the form of a bachelor's degree, specialized training in culinary arts, or hospitality management, completion of such programs demonstrates both the maturity and motivation required for work in a hectic, fast-paced industry. Appropriate training often enables graduates to start as assistant managers. Management programs vary in length; tailored certificate or associate degree programs may last as little as 18 months, while more comprehensive bachelor's degree programs may last 4 years or more. A growing number of master's degree programs in hospitality management provide training for corporate-level management involving site selection and feasibility assessments, in addition to training for restaurant-level customer service responsibilities. Courses are available through community and junior colleges, trade and vocational schools, 4-year colleges and universities, hotel or restaurant associations, and trade unions. The Armed Forces are another source of training and experience in food service work.

Nationwide chains often operate their own schools for prospective assistant managers, so that they can attend training seminars before acquiring additional responsibilities. Eventually, successful assistant managers may advance to general manager of one of the chain's establishments, to a top management position in another large chain operation, or to a management position in an independent restaurant. Assistant managers in smaller, independent restaurants may learn their duties on the job, while assistant mangers in most chain-affiliated establishments receive training through more formal programs. Managers often are required to keep up with the latest food safety regulations, computer management systems, and hiring issues by attending industry or chain-sponsored seminars and classes.

Outlook[About this section] [To Top]

Wage and salary jobs in food services and drinking places are expected to increase by 8 percent over the 2008–18 period, slightly less than that 11 percent growth rate projected for all industries combined. Numerous job opportunities will be available for people with limited job skills, first-time job seekers, senior citizens, and those seeking part-time or alternative work schedules.

Employment change. A growing population that increasingly prefers the convenience of eating out and having their meals prepared for them will contribute to job growth and a wider variety of employment settings in which to work. All sectors of the industry are expected to generate numerous jobs. The numbers of limited-service eateries and fast-casual restaurants that specialize in serving soups, salads, and sandwiches made to order on the spot will grow as time-strapped diners seek out healthful menu alternatives while on the go. In contrast, traditional fast-food and quick-service restaurants that appeal to younger diners and those consumers whose first priority is convenience should increase more slowly than in the past.

Moderately priced restaurants that offer table service will afford increasing job opportunities, as these businesses expand to accommodate the needs of a more mobile population and families with young children. Fine dining establishments should grow less rapidly as diners opt for more casual meals and service.

The food service contracting sector of this industry will continue to grow as more schools, sports arenas, and company cafeterias contract out their food services to these firms. Additionally, the contracting out of personal chefs, who prepare and store meals in clients' homes for later reheating and serving, is becoming more common.

Those who qualify—either through experience or formal culinary training—for skilled head cook and chef positions should be in demand because of the need for skilled cooks to replace chefs that leave the occupation due to the long hours. Employment of salaried managers is projected to increase more slowly than the average for the industry, as more chain restaurants concentrate these workers in regional offices. Employment of self-employed managers in independent food services and drinking places is expected to grow more slowly.

Job prospects. Job opportunities in food services and drinking places should be very good, because the large number of young and part-time workers in the industry will generate substantial replacement needs. A large number of job openings will be created for new entrants as experienced workers find jobs in other, higher paying establishments, seek full-time opportunities outside the industry, or stop working. The greatest number of job openings will be in the two largest occupations—waiters and waitresses and combined food-preparation and serving workers—which also have high replacement needs.

Graduates of college hospitality programs, particularly those with good computer skills, should have especially good opportunities at higher end full service establishments. The growing dominance of chain-affiliated food services and drinking places also should enhance opportunities for advancement from food-service manager positions into general manager and corporate administrative jobs.

Earnings [About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

Industry earnings. Earnings in food services and drinking places usually are much lower than the average for all industries (table 4). In 2008, average weekly earnings for nonsupervisory workers in this industry were $233, which is much lower than the average for all private sector workers of $608. Average weekly hours in all food service sectors also were lower than the average for private industry. Low earnings are supplemented for many workers by tips from customers. Waiters, waitresses, and bartenders, for example, often derive the majority of their earnings from tips, which depend on menu prices and the volume of customers served. In some establishments, workers who receive tips share a portion of their gratuities with other workers in the dining room and kitchen.

Table 4. Average earnings of nonsupervisory workers in food services and drinking places by industry segment, 2008
Industry segment Hourly Weekly
Total, private industry $18.08 $608
Food services and drinking places 9.59 233
  Special food services 11.49 298
  Full-service restaurants 10.21 250
  Drinking places, alcoholic beverages 9.57 213
  Limited-service eating places 8.62 208

Earnings vary by occupation, geographic area, and by type and size of establishment. Usually skilled workers, such as chefs, have the highest wages, and workers who are dependent upon tips to supplement earnings have the lowest. Many workers in the industry earn the Federal minimum wage, which was $7.25 per hour as of July 2009, or less, if tips are included as a substantial part of earnings. A number of employers provide free or discounted meals and uniforms to employees. Wages in the largest occupations employed in food services and drinking places appear in table 5.

Table 5. Median hourly wages of the largest occupations in food services and drinking places, May 2008
Occupation Food services and drinking places All industries
First-line supervisors/managers of food preparation and serving workers $13.46 $13.93
Cooks, restaurant 10.40 10.57
Food preparation workers 8.57 8.96
Bartenders 8.50 8.54
Counter attendants, cafeteria, food concession, and coffee shop 8.33 8.42
Hosts and hostesses, restaurant, lounge, and coffee shop 8.33 8.42
Cooks, fast food 8.10 8.12
Dishwashers 8.09 8.19
Waiters and waitresses 7.99 8.01
Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food 7.75 7.90

Benefits and union membership. Unionization is not widespread in the food services and drinking places industry. In 2008, about 2 percent of all employees were union members or covered by union contracts, compared with about 14 percent for all industries.



*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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