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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tips for Servers

Yesterday, I wrote a post about how to treat your server that a lot of people complained was one-sided.

Well, yeah, it was supposed to be! The piece was about how to treat your server, not how to be a good server, and the main emphasis was being friendly and polite, and a lot of people seemed to take issue with that. Why anyone would disagree with keeping the attitude at home and being nice to your server is beyond me, but OK.

So, a lot of those same people were saying I should write a post on how to be a good server. I had debated whether or not I should. I didn't think it would be that interesting -- after all, how many servers are reading this blog that want my advice on how to do their job well? But, you guys are interested and I am here to please YOU, my dear readers, so here we go.

Being a server, to me, is not really a difficult job. It's hard work, and you have to be able to handle a lot of pressure, as well as incredibly fast-paced work, but if you can do that, you should be able to be a good server.

I was lucky. The first restaurant I ever served at, Sneakers Sports Grille, had the best training program I've ever had -- whether it was in a restaurant or outside of it.

Sneakers prized itself on giving their customers the best possible customer service there was. The training program was rigorous. Servers were in training for near a month before we were allowed to go loose on the floor. There was "in-class" training, with tests you had to pass and leaflets to read, and then there was floor training, with another server working and you "shadowing". Instilling that kind of service and work ethic in a new server worked incredibly well; it sticks with you forever. I still use the things I was taught there, even though I'm not a server anymore. It was at Sneakers that I was promoted to a trainer and shift leader for the first time, although it wasn't the only time.

So with all that said, there are some definite Dos and Don'ts for servers.

  • Use the thirty-second rule.
    As I said in the last post, I always, always, always went by the thirty-second rule. Within thirty seconds of your table being seated, you need to greet that table. It's preferable to actually start with the drink orders and everything right then and there, but hostesses don't wait to make sure the timing is perfect before they seat you. You might be carrying food out, or in the middle of getting drinks for another table. So even if you can't actually stop, introduce yourself, and get the drink orders, you still need to acknowledge them.

    A minute doesn't feel like a minute for a table waiting to see their server. The time they're sitting around waiting for you to get over there and greet them drags on, and if you haven't made an appearance, your table will be pissed, no matter how busy the restaurant is. Sticking to the thirty-second rule is vital. You gotta keep your eyes open and be constantly aware of what's going on, but it does pay off.

  • Keep a good attitude.
    As noted in the last post, people are not always nice to you. You can be the friendliest, perkiest, most attentive server in the world, and you will still get tables that treat you like dog shit. You can't let it get to you. You have to approach your tables with a good attitude and keep it, no matter how rude or unresponsive they are. Being a server means having to grow a thick skin. It doesn't matter how good you are; people are always going to find faults with you eventually. You're going to make mistakes and it's inevitable that someone will complain about you. You have to be able to take the criticism, grow from it, and then let it go. Be friendly, even if you think it will kill you. If you have to fake it, then fake it, because it's better than walking over to your tables with a shitty attitude.

  • Be informed and make recommendations.
    It annoys the crap out of me when I go to restaurants and the server doesn't know anything about the menu or the specials for the night. It really does, because there's simply no excuse for that. Just about every restaurant, no matter how strict or lax the training is, will require you to pass a menu test before you can hit the floor. While the menu test is a one-time thing, you need to keep yourself informed about everything. Servers should know the menu backwards and forwards, they should know what the specials are, they should know what kind of beer and wine is served and what kinds of liquor brands are carried. If you have to, keep a cheatsheet on the inside of your book, but you need to know these things.

    You also need to make recommendations. When you greet your table, mention the an appetizer or a drink special you've got going on. If your restaurant is featuring a specific dish, mention it. If you don't want to mention that kind of stuff, at least give your table the option: "Would you like to hear about our specials today?". It's better to say something about what is being featured than nothing at all. There are such things as secret shoppers, and if you don't say anything at all, you'll get marked off (that's a big one).

  • Upsell, upsell, upsell.
    Most people do not realize how important sales is to good serving. A server is who doesn't sell is basically a glorified food runner; you have to be willing and able to sell to your tables as well. If you ask your table if they'd like to hear about appetizers and they say yes, don't just mention three or four at random. Pick one of your favorites, and tell them about it in mouth-watering detail.

    Let's use the bar as an example. If a customer orders a margarita, ask them if they'd like it top shelf. If they order a rum and coke, offer them a premium brand rum like Captain Morgan rather than just going for the well. Not only does this boost your sales, it gives them a better drink. Doesn't a premium vodka like Grey Goose taste so much better than a cheap, well vodka?

    Don't be afraid to sell to your customers. The worst they can say is no. If they order a steak, ask them if they'd like sauteed onions and/or mushrooms. After dinner, recommend a dessert. Most of the time, people will turn you down, but sometimes they'll say yes. You'll come across as knowledgeable and your overall sales will rise.

  • Check back at least once between taking the order and delivering the food.
    A good server should be checking on their tables regularly. After you've taken the food order, you should check in with them at least once before they get their food, more often if their order will take a while. They might need drink refills, they might need to adjust their order (its annoying, but it happens) -- you never know what it is they might need. It's better to be there too much than not enough.

  • Keep an eye on your tables.
    If you aren't checking on them, keep an eye on them. Don't wait for them to ask for a drink refill; if you see that their drink is getting low, get your lazy butt over there and ask if they'd like a refill. If you're in one of those restaurants that offers free bread, ask them if they'd like more if they run out. If you see them doing the swivel head, they're obviously looking for you, so run over there and see what's up. You need to be completely attentive to all of your tables simultaneously -- not an easy feat, but one that can be done, and needs to be done. So keep your eyes peeled and make sure you know what's going on with your tables at all times.

  • Pre-bus.
    Whether your restaurant has bussers or not, pre-bussing is one of the most important things a server can do. It's called the "hands in-hands out" rule -- if you bring something to the table, take something away as well. If you bring a new glass out for a drink refill, take away the old one. If you bring out the entrees, ask if you can take the appetizer plates away. If you have bussers, then pre-bussing will make them like you more and they'll bus your tables faster. If you don't, then it makes your clean-up go by faster. Most importantly, your tables will like it. I personally hate it when my server doesn't pre-bus and I'm sitting there cramped with dirty dishes everywhere. It's the easiest part of your job, and it needs to be done.

  • Don't neglect your sidework or your station.
    Being a server is more than just waiting on your customers. There's also sidework that needs to be done. As shift leader, my job was to assign and oversee everyone's sidework. It could be the drink station, for example. So keep it stocked with ice and cups. Taste each of the sodas throughout the night to make sure they haven't run out of syrup; if they have, go replace it. Also, keep up with cleaning your station throughout the night. Sweep the floors even if it isn't closing time yet; no customers wants to see food splattered all over the floor. Keep your salt and pepper shakers full, and maintain the sugars as well. It cuts down on the amount of time you have to clean later in the night, and makes things run more smoothly, therefore giving the customer a better overall experience.

  • Go by the "two bite" rule.
    You've served the food to your table. Their drinks are full. What now?

    Always abide by the "two bite" rule. After approximately two bites, come and check on the food. No, do not hover nearby the table in a stalker-esque fashion to make sure you check back in exactly two bites. The point is to let your customers taste everything before you come and make sure its OK.

    Some customers say this is annoying, but it needs to be done. These same customers would be absolutely livid if there was a problem and the server wasn't there. If there is a problem with the food, you need to be there as soon as possible to remedy it. So, go by the "two bite" rule. Give them time to eat everything, but check back early in the meal to make sure there are no problems. Then back off for a while and let them enjoy their meal free of interruption.

  • Clear off the table of all dishes before offering dessert.
    This is a little psychological trick. Taking away all the dishes helps people to sort of "forget" how much they've just eaten, and they are therefore more likely to order dessert. It isn't a must, but it's a handy little industry trick. And even if dessert is not ordered, no customer is going to complain about clearing away emptied dishes just sitting there uselessly, taking up space. But obviously, make sure they're finished before you take them away!

  • Ask before you leave the bill.
    Not much will annoy a customer more than dropping off the bill when they don't want it yet. Ask if they're ready for it after you've cleared away the dishes and offered dessert and coffee. Don't just drop it off and walk away; it seems like you're trying to get rid of them.

  • Thank the customer.
    After they've paid, thank them very much for coming in. Leave them a comment card if your restaurant has them; I would attach to each and every check I left with a pen. Even if it's negative, feedback is always good to have. Leave mints or candy if your restaurant has them. Ask them to come again, and ask them to ask for you. Don't go overboard with it, and make sure to be sincere and genuine. It seems obvious, but a lot of people don't do it. Your customers will appreciate hearing it -- everyone wants to know that their patronage is appreciated, so let them know!

  • Continue to wait on them, even if they've paid.
    This one was a point of contention with a lot of you. I still stand by a firm no-parking rule. But for servers, this one is beyond their control. And even if that person is, in effect, screwing you out of making more money off another table, you need to screw a damn smile on your face and keep on serving them. If their drinks get low, refill them. They'll remember it.

  • Clean the table immediately after they leave.
    Don't wait around until you see more people come in, and don't rely on bussers to do it for you. After your table has left, start clearing away dishes (which, if you've done your pre-bussing, should be non-existent). Wipe off the table, and refill the sugars if needed. That way, you're ready for a new table almost automatically, and turning over tables quickly is the best way to make a lot of money as a server.

  • Make nice with the cooks.
    One of the most important things a server could possibly do is to be friendly with the cooks. A lot of servers have a tendency to ignore them or treat them like their slaves, but this does you no good. Actually talk to the cooks; ask them how they're doing, joke with them. If you need a favor, ask nicely and say thank you. If you have to return food, apologize. Don't be rude to them if the customers complain about the food. Just make sure you remember not to look right through them as if they don't matter. Having the cooks on your side will go a long, long way to a better working environment.

    There's a lot than servers can do to be a decent server, but going from average to extraordinary takes more than a little extra effort. These are some good guidelines to follow, but being a truly great server is in more than just following the rules. You either have it in you, or you don't After all, not everyone's meant for the restaurant industry. But if you're thinking of trying it out, or if you want to get better tips each night, following the above might be a good jumping off point to bridge the gap between good and great.

    mkfreeberg said...

    Maybe you could comment on this, since you have experience in this industry and I have none.

    I get real suspicious when I take a bite and just start chewing...and there the server is asking how it is...I can't manage anything but "nomnomnomnomnom." And then it happens again. By the third time, it seems deliberate.

    Is this a hint that I need to take smaller bites like Mom told me to and I'm starting to make the other diners sick? Or is it just coincidence?

    Anonymous said...

    I've been on both sides of the apron as well. You've nailed it!!! When my boys were teens and we'd dine out, they KNEW that if they did anything stupid to the server, they'd have the wrath of Mom on them.

    I've seen the kids doing the'dump the sugar and draw pictures in it' done by older kids as well as young'uns. As a server, I'd head straight over and wipe it up, (smiling) thus letting the kid(s) know it ain't happening on my watch. Funny how some kids can pick up on that.

    As a parent, I watched how my boys interacted with the servers, and will admit now that I am very, very proud of how well they've learned those lessons.

    Keep up the good work, Miss Cassie!

    Angry White Guy said...

    mk, I usually grab them by the wrist, and hold them in place as I finsished chewing (slowly), and then give them an answer.

    Angry White Guy said...

    And this post is too one-sided. You make it sound like the customer can do whatever they want, and the server just has to take it...

    *runs for his life*

    JsinGood said...

    Having worked in a few restaurants, long ago, mostly in the kitchen and behind an oyster bar, and having eaten at restaurants where the service was 10-star on a 5-star scale (like Gramercy Tavern and Babbo in NYC), I can tell you your post is 100% dead-on.

    I will note, though, not enough managers work to ensure that service is outstanding. They really need to push the "good service" aspect of the job. Your "Be informed and make recommendations" section comes to mind. More restaurants need to provide tastings of ALL menu items, especially specials, to staff. And they need to make sure all servers know every ingredient and the basics of preparation of each dish. It's a must. And any server not willing to put in the time to learn these details shouldn't be on the floor. I highly regard honest opinions, and I can usually tell when a server is full of it.

    Any upselling needs to be extremely subtle - if you can't pull it off without sounding like a used car salesman, don't bother trying. It'll just annoy customers to no end.

    Johm said...

    This is probably a stupid question, but do some places use mics or something to catch customer complaints? I was at the Cheese cake factory with my family, including my uncle and aunt. My uncle had a series of problems. The waiter had messed up his order but hadn't taken it off the bill. At the end of the meal (over 30 minutes later) my uncle said (not loudly( "We aren't leaving a tip because of that prick manager".Literally a minute later the manager was there ensuring us my uncle's meal was free.No one could have heard him.

    Anonymous said...

    I waited tables for seven years and I can honestly say that this short post is the best list of basic rules I've ever seen. Everything here is 100% accurate.

    I would like to just add a few notes of my own:

    -- The 30-Second Rule is an iron-clad law. If YOU do not greet your table immediately, you are screwed.

    -- Never ever ask "is everything okay" just seconds after the entres have been delivered. How they hell would they know? This is especially a big problem now in the era of so-called "team service" where some other dipshit is bringing YOUR food to YOUR customers. Don't take jobs waiting tables where there is team service. If you have no choice, slip your "team" member a $10 and tell him to take the night off. No one likes a "server" who just takes orders and then asks "is everything alright" as the plates are hitting the tables.

    -- Waters. Don't ask. Just bring them. If management has a problem with it, adjust your spiel so that customers always ask for it. They will.

    -- Problem customers. Like our beautiful hostess says, unavoidable. My trainer at the Blue Bayou told me "Never let the bastards see you sweat" and that is my general rule, so I agree with the advice here. However, is someone crosses the line--and I mean clearly crosses the line--I've found doing a knee-bend and speaking directly to them something to the effect of "I don't want any problems here but I will under no circumstances tolerate that sort of behavior from you or anyone else, so I suggest to drop the crap" works fine. If management sells you out, walk out. Plenty of wait jobs in the sea. Personal pride is not negoiatble. Again: this is NOT for run-of-the-mill shittiness. This is for real situations, like the black woman who called me a "white fag" for example.

    Anonymous said...

    I get real suspicious when I take a bite and just start chewing...and there the server is asking how it is...I can't manage anything but "nomnomnomnomnom." And then it happens again. By the third time, it seems deliberate. -- MKFreeberg

    I heard it was deliberate. When your mouth is full and you're busy eating, you CAN'T complain about the food or service, and Silence = Assent.

    Me said...

    How about keeping the coffee refills coming? That's one of my pet peeves--when I can't get a refill on a cup of coffee to save my life.

    spidey said...

    Excellent! You nailed it. The one thing I always did when serving was clear all the plates at the same time, after the last person was finished. It drives me insane when servers clear plates of those who eat a little faster.

    How about some good server stories? I used to hit unruly kids in the head with the edge of the plate. The parents are then finally forced to quiet down the kids.

    My favorite was when one of my fellow servers mistakenly made a Bloody Mary with French dressing instead of tomato juice (the bar area was dark), and served it an extremely hung-over customer for brunch. He drank the whole thing! He says, "I'm pretty messed up today, but this drink just doesn't taste right. Can I havea screwdriver this time?."

    Fosterdad said...

    You forgot the most important rule. Do not refer to the customers as "you guys" unless all of the people at the table are men. This drives me up a wall when I'm out with my wife and daughters. My wife and daughters are not guys.

    Joe said...

    As a cook, I will say that the last point is absolutely spot on. I've worked with bitchy servers who ordered me around, and people who were good friends. I can guarantee you your food will come out faster and prettier if you make nice with cooks. In addition, you'll get the little stuff customers ask for after they get there food like extra blue cheese or onions or whatever much quicker too.

    But as a qualifier to that, I would also say that, especially in a place that takes a lot of pride its food, it helps to do your job well and get your food out quick. Nothing pisses me off more than making a gorgeous plate and then just watching it die in the window for 10 minutes. If you don't help me make look good, what motivation do I have to do it for you?

    Joe said...

    Whoops *Their* food.

    I guess that's what I get for not previewing my post.

    Springs1 said...

    new sisyphus
    "-- Waters. Don't ask. Just bring them."

    I TOTALLY DISAGEE 100%. 99.9% of the time I will NEVER want water and if you bring it without asking me, it's in MY WAY, so I will ask for you to take it back. You would have just wasted TIME for YOU, ME, and OTHER CUSTOMERS. ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ASK the customer if they don't order water. You might just be suprised that they don't want any. My husband one time was asked if he wanted water while a keg was being changed, so he had to wait for his beer, which he DECLINDED the offer, because he said he could take some sips of my drink if he needed it. I CANNOT STAND servers that "ORDER FOR THE CUSTOMER." It's the CUSTOMER'S JOB to order. I don't care if it's just water, it's in the way if the person does not want it. Especially at a small table or booth. It's NOT my server's right to make a decision about what I want at my table. I get to decide that, NOT them, a STRANGER of all people. One time I actually sent a glass of water back, because the table was too small to fit stuff, it was just IN THE WAY.

    ALWAYS ASK or LET THE CUSTOMER ASK if they want something. The server's job is to get what is wanted, but if there is no communication, you won't know 100% for SURE that the customer wants it.

    "-- The 30-Second Rule is an iron-clad law. If YOU do not greet your table immediately, you are screwed."

    To be honest, sometimes it's nice to have a good minute to look over the menu, because if I am trying to decide on a bar drink, I may need more time, so I may only order a soft drink at first or water. I would feel pretty rushed to make a decision if I was greeted in 30 seconds. I say at least 60 seconds give the customers before greeting.

    tipman said...

    Springs1, you have never worked as a server and waited around while customers took up your time, then stopped you on your way to another table because they decided they finally wanted water.

    These days, 90% of the customers want water. If you don't, go ahead, and send it back.

    A server lives on their tips. Unfortunately, the rule is the more customers they can serve, the more tips. If I want a living wage I can't afford to wait around while you fiddle and fart your way through the menu.

    Cass you nailed it on almost every particular.


    Springs1 said...

    "These days, 90% of the customers want water. If you don't, go ahead, and send it back."

    You still should find out if that particular person does or not. WHO CARES IF "90%" WANTS SOMETHING? When you are server, you serve INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE WITH INDIVIDUAL TASTES. How dare you act like the server should make a decision of what the CUSTOMER wants to drink!! It's NOT the server's decision, it's the CUSTOMER'S ONLY!

    A good server ASKS their customers if they want water instead of ASSUMING things by WASTING VALUABLE TIME getting UNWANTED ITEMS.

    africanstardust said...

    I just wanted to say thanks for this post-I have a new job at a restaurant, and your tips will definitely help me out to serve my customers better, especially since I'm new at this. Thanks so much:)