Imagine you have multiple clients demanding your attention at once: four displeased businesspeople angrily checking their watches while, nearby, a married couple with two squirming children not-so-subtly waving you over. The client you are speaking to wants to purchase your product, but has many stipulations. You do your best to give them your full attention, so as not to miss a word they say, while noting that another group of clients has just walked in.

This may sound like one nightmarishly chaotic, albeit unlikely, day at the office, but this is the reality for the 1 in 30 Washingtonians who make up the state’s $13.5 billion restaurant industry. These workers fall in line with other workers in the larger hospitality industry, which also includes hotels and entertainment venues.

More than half of Americans have worked in the hospitality industry at one point or another in their careers, according to the National Restaurant Association.

In fact, many business professionals have started their careers as servers at chic restaurants or baristas at local coffee shops. An overwhelming 1 in 3 Americans touts hospitality gigs as a first-ever job, making getting yelled at regarding the doneness of a customer’s steak almost a rite of passage for young professionals.

For most, these jobs are a means of marking time and collecting a paycheck before something bigger and better comes along. But what happens when these jobs turn into lifelong careers? It turns out many of today’s hospitality industry executives started as valets, dishwashers, bussers, and housekeepers.

Matt Van Der Peet

I relieved the front desk, I relieved the switchboard, I helped out housekeeping, and I even carried the room service pager. I had four or five roles all rolled into one.”

– Matt Van Der Peet

That was the case for Matt Van Der Peet. At age 16, he took a job as a bellman at a nearby Holiday Inn — the only hotel in his small Midwest farming community — to save money for college. Forty years later, he is in charge of more than 300 employees as the complex general manager for both the Westin and the W Hotel in downtown Bellevue.

“What was nice about that first job was that it was a small hotel, and as the bellman I actually wore many hats,” Van Der Peet recalled while sitting in the swanky library on the second floor of the W as subdued techno music played in the background and guests arrived in the nearby lobby. “I relieved the front desk, I relieved the switchboard, I helped out housekeeping, and I even carried the room service pager. I had four or five roles all rolled into one.”

This department crossover is typical in hotels, where the experience gained often leads to a progression through the ranks. It is a primary reason young employees like Van Der Peet — who later graduated from Purdue University with a degree in restaurant, hotel, and institutional management — stay in the industry for the long term.

Across town at the Bellevue Hilton Garden Inn, Dwanita Hunt credits her job as the assistant general manager to this same crossover and progression, without which she said she would not be an effective and compassionate leader.

Throughout her career working at hotels in the Puget Sound region, Hunt said she’s worked in and managed just about every department, the most interesting and beneficial of which has been her time in housekeeping.

“When I was at the DoubleTree (in downtown Seattle), I realized how hard housekeepers work — they probably work the hardest in the hotel,” she said. “There’s a lot of things they have to deal with in the rooms, and so I already appreciated them. But after working with them, the appreciation just went (through the roof). They were my top people in the hotel.”

Natalia Indie

“I can walk into the kitchen and have a really strong assessment of what is happening based on what I see.”

– Natalia Indie

This career ladder isn’t just indicative of hoteliers; many restaurateurs and corporate food and beverage managers, such as Natalia Indie, also at Bellevue Hilton Garden Inn, have climbed the ladder much the same way.

“That is one of my strengths, that I have come up through (the ranks) starting out as a host and graduating from host to busser to a server, and then being able to master each one of those positions makes me a more effective leader,” Indie said in a booth at the 47 North Bar + Bistro inside the Hilton Garden Inn, where she has been running the restaurant for almost a year. “I can walk into the kitchen and have a really strong assessment of what is happening based on what I see.”

Indie said she hopes that once she’s completely immersed herself at 47 North, she’ll be able to explore more of the ins and outs of the hotel’s daily operations and work in different departments, thereby branching out further from her background in restaurants. Perhaps one day she’ll go on to open her own business.

This is a common occurrence, according to Van Der Peet. “Certainly, in the food and beverage arena, we have a lot of people who will either come up on the freestanding restaurant side of the industry or the hotel side,” he said. “Those are pretty interchangeable.”

Moreover, Van Der Peet said, the hospitality business doesn’t just breed hoteliers and restaurateurs; he has seen many employees from varied backgrounds get their start in his hotels.

“When people drive past the hotel, (they think,) ‘That’s a hotel. I don’t know if I want to be in the hotel business,’” he explained. “But we also have a director of engineering (in charge of) building facilities. We have a finance division, (meaning) our director of finance could move to many other industries, and her skill set is very applicable.”

Dwanita Hunt

“People come in (after a) long flight (or) the flight was delayed, and they’re grumpy. You’re that person who gets to lighten up their day. That is the most joyous to me.”

– Dwanita Hunt

Even servers and room service delivery personnel learn marketable skills when transitioning to careers outside the industry. There’s something to be said for the hireability of a candidate who — after putting himself through school waiting tables — has learned grace under pressure from dealing with difficult customers. His ability to recite the evening’s specials from memory, for example, will translate well to the boardroom when delivering pitches to clients.

Whatever the reason for entering the hospitality career field, those who stick around and climb the ladder often stay for one reason: An intense love for the job.

For Hilton’s Hunt, the guests make her days most enjoyable. “People come in (after a) long flight (or) the flight was delayed, and they’re grumpy. You’re that person who gets to lighten up their day. That is the most joyous to me.”

On the other hand, Van Der Peet said, it’s the unpredictability that thrills him most.

“Every day is different. Unlike a lot of other professions, where things are pretty predictable or repetitive, we check in a whole new group of guests every day,” he said. “That can be individual business travelers, people on vacation, (or) it can be a convention. So, the dynamics within the building can change very dramatically from one week until the next, depending upon your clientele.”

From Room Service to Serving Clients

Five reasons you should not only ask prospective hires about their first job, but also hire those who formerly worked in the hospitality sector.

Operates as part of a team
A server is just one cog in a machine of many; he can’t do his job without the rest of his team. The busser who cleared and set the table, the host who greeted the guests, the dishwasher who cleaned the plates, the cook who prepared the meal, and the line supervisor who readied the plates all must work together to accomplish the mission. Any potential employee will understand the ebb and flow of good give and take among his cohorts.

Grace under pressure
A server who is in the weeds with more tables than she can handle likely is at her most stressed. But as the old adage about the customer always being right demands, she puts a smile on her face and is accommodating and polite, despite feeling completely frazzled. If she can do that, she can certainly — and respectfully — handle your surliest client without breaking a sweat.

Understands humility
For many young adults who first break into the job scene via the hospitality sector, putting the needs of others first can be a jarring experience — especially for those who have grown up with some privilege. All it takes is a room service page while sitting down to a long-awaited (and well deserved) sandwich in the breakroom to bring you back to reality: You are not the center of the universe.

A problem solver
It’s the end of a shift, work is winding down, and the last lingering table orders a round of decaf coffee and cream to end the evening. But wait! Earlier diners finished off all the cream left in the walk-in cooler. What is a young server to do? Whether their motivations are service-based or tip-based, most go-getters would literally “go and get” cream from a nearby store.

In the details
“The best hotelier that I’ve ever worked with, he taught me attention to detail,” said Matt Van Der Peet, complex general manager for both W Hotel and Westin in downtown Bellevue. “Everything in our business communicates (attention to detail), from the moment you step into the hotel, the look, the feel, the attention to detail in how your team is dressed, their uniforms, how a cocktail is served, and how a bed is made.”