IPA Provides Useful Information about the Food Services and Drinking Places Industry

Food Services and Drinking Places


  • Food services and drinking places provided many young people with their first jobs—in 2002, more than 22 percent of workers in these establishments were aged 16 to 19, almost 5 times the proportion for all industries.
  • Cooks, waiters and waitresses, and combined food preparation and serving workers comprised more than half of industry employment.
  • About 2 out of 5 employees worked part time, more than twice the proportion for all industries.
  • Job opportunities will be plentiful because the large number of young and part-time workers in the industry will generate substantial replacement needs.


Food services and drinking places may be the world’s most widespread and familiar industry. These establishments include all types of restaurants, from casual fast-food eateries to formal, elegant dining establishments. The food services and drinking places industry comprises about 479,000 places of employment in large cities, small towns and rural areas across the United States.

About 45 percent of establishments in this industry are limited-service eating places, such as fast-food restaurants, cafeterias, and snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars, that 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 and are served while seated, 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 11 percent of all establishments in this industry. Special food services, such as food service contractors, caterers and mobile food services, account for 6 percent of establishments in the industry.

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 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 also included in limited-service eating places and usually offer a somewhat limited selection that varies daily. Cafeterias also may offer separate serving stations for salads or short-order grill items, such as grilled sandwiches or hamburgers, on a regular basis. Patrons select from food and drink items on display in a continuous cafeteria line. Cafeteria selections may include foods that require more complicated preparations and better 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, 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 offer more menu categories, including appetizers, entrées, salads, side dishes, desserts, and beverages and varied choices within each category. Chefs and cooks prepare items to order which may run from grilling a simple hamburger to composing a more complex and sophisticated menu item. Waiters and waitresses offer table service in comfortable surroundings.

Cost-conscious and time-strapped patrons increasingly eat at midscale or family-type restaurants rather than at more elegant dining establishments. National chains are a growing segment of full-service restaurants. These restaurants usually offer efficient table service, well-priced familiar menu items prepared by moderately skilled kitchen workers, and a substantially nicer physical setting than limited service establishments. By contrast, customers at upscale dining places tend to seek a more relaxed and elegant atmosphere with skillfully prepared cuisine and leisurely, but professional service.

Many popular full-service restaurants remain independently owned and locally operated. Independent full-service restaurants generally focus on providing a one-of-a-kind dining experience and distinctive design, décor and atmosphere. Food and service remain the primary focus of the restaurant’s offerings, but physical setting and ambience are important components of that experience. They help establish a restaurant’s reputation and build a steady clientele.

Some drinking places also offer patrons limited dining services in addition to providing alcoholic beverages. In some States, they 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.

Technology influences the food services and drinking places industry in many ways, 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 a customer’s order, 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 websites that include menus and online promotions and provide information about the restaurant’s location and offer the option to make a reservation.


Food services and drinking places employ more part time workers than other industries. About 2 out of 5 workers in food services and drinking places worked part time in 2002, more than twice the proportion for all industries. 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. Full-time employees, often 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.

Many establishments in this industry are open long hours, affording some employees an opportunity to tailor work schedules to personal or family needs while allowing others greater flexibility in setting their work hours. Staff typically is needed to work during evening, weekend, and holiday hours. Also, some employees may work split shifts— several hours during one busy period, then off for a few hours and then return to work during the next busy period— to cover peak demand needs of the restaurant. Some employees may rotate work on some shifts on a regular basis to ensure proper coverage during these times.

Food services and drinking places must comply with local fire, safety, and sanitation regulations. 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 and other kitchen staff, such as dishwashers, 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.

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. Also, dining-room staff must be aware of stairs, raised platforms or other obstacles when directing patrons through narrow areas or to distant seating areas.

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 staff also needs 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 2002, the rate of work-related injuries and illnesses was 4.6 per 100 full-time workers in eating and drinking places, slightly less than the average of 5.3 for the private sector. Work hazards include the possibility of burns from hot equipment, sprained muscles, and wrenched backs from heavy lifting and falls on slippery floors.


The food services and drinking places industry, with about 8.4 million wage and salary jobs in 2002, ranks among the Nation’s leading employers. Food services and drinking places tend to be small; more than 70 percent 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. An estimated 222,000 self-employed people worked in the industry, representing about 3 percent of total employment.

Establishments in this industry, particularly fast-food establishments, are leading employers of teenagers—aged 16 through 19—providing first jobs for many new entrants to the labor force. In 2002, nearly 22 percent of all workers in food services and drinking places were teenagers, almost 5 times the proportion in all industries. About 45 percent were under age 25, nearly 3 times the proportion in all industries.


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 managerial or office services, such as bookkeeping, ordering and advertising, to the establishment. Cooks, waiters and waitresses, and combined food preparation and serving workers accounted for more than half of food services jobs.

Employees in the various food services and related occupations 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. In fine-dining restaurants, they may describe chef’s specials and suggest wines. 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 food services 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 at fast-food restaurants. 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 the 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, keep work areas clean and perform simple cooking tasks under the direction of the chef or head cook. Dishwashers clean dishes, glasses, pots and kitchen accessories by hand or by machine.

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 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 perform these tasks for several food services and drinking places outlets.


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. Similarly, work in limited-service eating places generally requires less experience than work in full-service restaurants.

Many fast-food worker or server jobs are held by young or part-time workers. For many youths, this is their first job; for others, part-time schedules allow more flexible working arrangements. 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, many using video training programs, for new employees.

Formal training or prior food-service experience for managers, however, is more common. Training may take the form of industry-sponsored seminars; short-term, subject-specific certificate programs; or associate or bachelor’s degree programs in culinary arts, hospitality, hotel or restaurant management. Seminars often address a variety of complex issues faced by food service managers and suggest ways to resolve problems as they occur and to improve the firm’s profitability, worker morale, and customer service. Some training topics cover proper food handling and safety issues, or methods for recruiting and motivating quality employees. As more restaurants use computers to keep track of sales and inventory, computer training is becoming increasingly integrated into management training programs.

Larger establishments or regional offices of nationwide chain or franchise operations increasingly use video and satellite TV training programs to educate newly hired staff. This type of corporate training generally covers the restaurant’s history, menu, organizational philosophy and daily operational standards. 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.

Completion of postsecondary training is increasingly important for advancement in the food services and drinking places industry. Whether it is in the form of a bachelor’s degree or as 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 may last from 18 months, for tailored certificate or associate degree programs, to 4 years, for more comprehensive bachelor’s degree programs. Courses are available through junior and community 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.

Training options for chefs and other kitchen staff are more varied. Some start out in kitchens as food preparation workers and gradually work their way up to cook and chef positions with experience and improved skills. Or they may start in smaller restaurants or in less demanding work stations, such as the cold station, preparing comparatively simple salads or appetizers, then move up to stations where more complicated dishes are made. Working under an experienced chef and gaining progressively more responsible and difficult assignments is one way many cooks advance.

Formal culinary training for chefs and cooks is available through a wide variety of sources—independent cooking schools or academies, junior and community colleges, trade and vocational schools, and 4-year colleges and universities. Many trade associations and unions also certify cooking programs conducted at selected schools or sponsor Federally approved apprenticeship programs that combine formal classroom instruction with on-the-job experience in a working kitchen. Many cooks gain experience through formal internships, working under the direction of experienced chefs. Some advance to more responsible cooking positions by moving from one kitchen to another.

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 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.

Advancement opportunities for food preparation workers are better, particularly for those who work in full-service restaurants. Some people start as unskilled food preparation workers, improve their skills and advance to cook jobs as they pick up kitchen skills. 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, their 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 educators.

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. Managers with access to the necessary capital may even open their own franchises or independent restaurants.


Earnings in food services and drinking places usually are much lower than the average for all industries. In 2002, average weekly earnings were highest in special food services ($258) and lowest in drinking places, alcoholic beverages ($171). Average weekly hours in all food service industries 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.

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 of $5.15 an hour, 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.

Unionization is not widespread in the food services and drinking places industry. In 2002, less than 2 percent of all employees were union members or covered by union contracts, compared with about 15 percent for all industries.


Job opportunities in food services and drinking places should be plentiful, because the large number of young and part-time workers in the industry will generate substantial replacement needs. As experienced workers find jobs in other, higher-paying establishments, seek full-time opportunities outside the industry, or stop working, a large number of job openings will be created for new entrants. Wage and salary jobs in food services and drinking places are expected to increase by 15.9 percent over the 2002-12 period, compared to 16.3-percent growth 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.

Increases in population, dual-income families, and dining sophistication will contribute to job growth. Consumer demand for convenience and ready-to-heat meal options also will offer cooks and other food preparation workers a wider variety of employment settings in which to work. Moderately-priced restaurants that offer table service will afford increasing job opportunities as these businesses expand to accommodate the growing demand of an older and more mobile population and cater to families with young children. Fine dining establishments, which appeal more to affluent, often older, customers, also should grow as the 45-and-older population increases rapidly. The numbers of limited-service and fast-food restaurants that appeal to younger diners should increase more slowly than in the past. As schools, hospitals and company cafeterias contract out institutional food services, jobs should shift to firms specializing in these services. Some of the increased demand for food services will be met through more supermarket food service options, self-service facilities such as salad bars, untended meal stations and automated beverage stations.

Occupational projections reflect different rates of growth among the various segments of the food services and drinking places industry. Employment in occupations concentrated in full-service restaurants—including skilled chefs and head cooks, waiters and waitresses and hosts and hostesses—is expected to grow slightly faster than overall employment in the food services and drinking places industry. On the other hand, employment in many occupations concentrated in limited-service and fast-food restaurants—including fast-food and short-order cooks—is expected to increase more slowly than overall employment in the food services and drinking places industry. Duties of cooks in fast-food restaurants are limited; faster growth is expected for combined food preparation and serving workers who both prepare and serve items in fast-food restaurants.

Those who qualify—either through experience or formal culinary training—for skilled head cook and chef positions should be in demand. The greatest number of job openings will be in the largest occupations—waiters and waitresses and combined food preparation and serving workers—which also have high replacement needs.

Employment of salaried managers is projected to increase about as fast as the overall average for the industry as a result of sustained growth in chain and franchised establishments. Graduates of college hospitality programs, particularly those with good computer skills, should have especially good opportunities. 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. Employment of self-employed managers in independent food services and drinking places is expected to remain steady.

Industry data is republished with permission by the Bureau of Labor Statistics

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