The Language of Restaurants and the Reality of Owning One

What You Should Know About Owning a Restaurant

May I take your order? How much restaurant lingo do you understand?
••• Karl-Erik Bennion

Waiting… is a classic restaurant movie that was released in 2005. It's about a group of servers who work a dinner shift at a fictitious chain restaurant called Shenanigans. Think Applebee’s or Chotchkie's from Office Space. 

The movie includes just about every type of restaurant staff stereotype you can think of, from the flaky hostess to a sleazy waiter who hits on every girl in the joint. It has busboys sneaking whip-its in the walk-in. But a friend watched the movie and he didn’t like it at all. He has never worked in a restaurant, and he didn’t understand it. 

Life in a Restaurant 

The restaurant world is different from other industries. We act differently, we dress differently, and we speak a different language when we're at work. You have to work in the business to really understand how it operates and to appreciate its subtle nuances and unspoken rules.

Maybe a server who has worked at the same establishment for several years can wear jeans when no one else is permitted to do so. You might have to wash dishes for a month before you're allowed to set foot in the kitchen as a prep cook. You might know that when the owner threatens to fire you for being late again, he'll never actually do that because you bring in too much money in sales and the customers love you.

Every restaurant has its own unique set of rites and rituals, and each has its own language as well.

Restaurant Language 

The language in Waiting… is on the vulgar side, which is par for the course in most restaurants. Then there are those restaurant terms that sound like Latin or Ancient Greek to anyone, not in the business.  Unless you work in a restaurant, something like “You have a 2-top at D-1 who just want apps” just sounds like gibberish. It translates to, “You have two people sitting in your section at table 1 and they would just like to order appetizers rather than a full dinner.”

But why say all that in a fast-paced environment if you don't have to, particularly when you're working in a fast-paced environment with no time for unnecessary dialog? 

Restaurant Resources 

Given all this, the learning curve can be difficult for anyone without any restaurant experience who wants to open an establishment. It's almost a given that his staff will have significantly more experience than he does and that he'll have a hard time understanding what's going on at first. He might not have the faintest clue what his cooks or servers are talking about during a busy shift.

If this sounds like you, I strongly suggest that you read Five Restaurant Myths before you get started. Understand that: 

  • No, it's not fun.
  • You're probably not going to get rich.
  • You shouldn't open a restaurant simply because you make a mean ragout in your own kitchen and you love cooking.
  • Your friends will not stop by and spend money at your establishment just to hang out with you. 
  • The Food Network will not be calling soon to offer you your own show. 

The Bottom Line 

Familiarize yourself with the language and vernacular of the restaurant world with the Restaurant Glossary before you get started. It includes just about every term you might encounter related to working in a restaurant. You might already be familiar with some of them, but others will be foreign. As with any new enterprise, take time to learn the industry first—not just the nuts and bolts but unspoken credos, idiosyncrasies, and trends.