“A restaurant is a fantasy–a kind of living fantasy in which diners are the most important members of the cast.” ~ Warner LeRoy
Mr. LeRoy, the late and flamboyant restaurateur who owned the famed Tavern on the Green and Maxwell’s Plum in Manhattan among other other famous restaurants, and who was the son of Mervyn LeRoy, producer of the beloved 1939 fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland, believed rightly so that diners (customers) are the most important cast members (stars) of the restaurant show. He felt strongly that dining out in a restaurant should be a show. And, we know that the show cannot go on without its stars.
Remembering this concept will be your guide to success in waiting tables at your summer or weekend job, or internship in the restaurant industry, especially as the server has the closest relationship with the diners.
Waiting tables can be a very challenging job, however, and not everyone is cut out for it. I found that out first-hand when I was a teenager and took a counter job at a restaurant in the local shopping center. I had no experience and received no training. In my zeal — and panic — to keep on top of the orders I moved with great haste and finally wound up sliding a pair of sunny-side-up eggs onto a customer’s lap as I whirled around from the pick-up station with the plate. It wasn’t even the customer who ordered the eggs on whose lap I toppled them. Not that it would have mattered! So, my counter job lasted only one day.
Years later as a 20-something when I applied as a cocktail server at a discothèque in Chicago to supplement my income, you would think that I would recall that teenage experience. But, no; ever the optimist I donned the uniform (black hot pants, a red tank top, fishnet stockings and high heels), which I had to purchase at my own expense. During the interview, I might not have made it clear that I had no prior experience. In any case I was hired and I arrived for work early, costumed and eager to learn the ropes in this exciting new venture. There was a slight hitch, however; I was assigned to a block of tables near the door. Those tables are difficult to manage — as I would discover — and are usually assigned to a more experienced server. Miraculously, I managed not to mess up too many drink orders, even though in addition to keeping the orders straight I also had to prepare my own setups at the bar and add the proper garnishes. I hadn’t a clue how to do setups or which garnish went with which drink, but I watched the other servers and caught on quickly. And, as I had done my share of dancing at discos, I soon got the knack of holding up my little round tray at shoulder height as I swayed and stepped to the rhythm of the music while traveling up and down the spiral staircases. Unfortunately, I discovered the reason my assigned tables were a challenge when several customers slipped out the door without paying. So, my disco job waiting on tables lasted one only night.
Thus, I have deep respect and admiration for servers. And I really appreciate it when they provide top-notch service, as do others. After all, people want that fantasy experience when they go out to dine, otherwise they’d stay at home and eat. So, to do your part to deliver that expected outstanding service and stand out as an exceptional and exemplary server, keep in mind the pointers provided in the previous entries on summer jobs (Summer Job and Supermarket Job Savvy), and take note of the following baker’s dozen additional techniques and skills as they apply to waiting on tables:
- Learn the rules, which tend to increase exponentially with the formality of the establishment; i.e., a more upscale restaurant might have many more details to learn and master than a casual eatery and, therefore, more duties and responsibilities. But, the salary might be higher and the tips certainly should be. And, speaking of tips, be sure to clarify the restaurant’s practice concerning them; i.e., are tips kept in total by each server who receives them or are they pooled and divided equally or proportionatly among the wait staff.
- Research the restaurant thoroughly. Learn its history, background on the chef, specialties of the house and so on. This will not only impress your bosses, but will help you to answer your questions knowlegeably and confidently and become a more interesting server.
- Be a team player.This is extremely important in a restaurant, as your success in serving your customers promptly and accurately — and, receiving good tips — will depend on how well you work with the other servers, headwaiter, host who seats the customers, kitchen staff to whom you deliver your orders, chefs who prepare the food, bussers who set up and clear your tables, and the cashier who takes your customers’ payments and returns their receipts to you.
- Know where everything you will need is located, and how to use such equipment, tools and supplies.
- Listen to instructions, take notes and ask questions. Often one’s orientation and training can be truncated or rushed. Don’t hesitate to ask for clarifications of instructions so you are clear on your table assignments, responsibilities, routines and procedures. Know your limits while you’re on a learning curve, and don’t be too proud to ask for help if the place gets busy and you become overwhelmed.
- Learn the menu inside out so that you can answer diners’ questions readily and confidently. Check on updates and specials when you arrive for work; know the chef’s specialties and dishes that are popular with customers. However, don’t make stuff up. If you can’t answer a question, offer cheerfully and graciously to find out; then do so to the best of your ability and return to the customer promptly with an honest response.
- Don’t keep your customers waiting. If it’s a busy time and you have many tables to cover, sometimes customers might have to wait to be served. However, strive to be prompt while not sacrificing quality of service or accuracy in taking orders. Be friendly, smiling and charming while maintaining your professionalism and apologizing sincerely for any delay in taking or delivering their orders.
- Be attentive, but don’t hover. There is such a thing as too much attention; be available and check in, but overall remain in the background. Be friendly, but maintain a professional distance.
- Don’t interrupt a conversation to ask how everything is or if you can get anything more; wait until there is an opportune moment to inquire.
- Offer consistent service. Don’t base the quality of your service on how much you think a diner or group of diners are going to tip. Your service should be based on your professionalism and pride in your work, not the size of the tip. Treat all customers as though they were your parents or best friends who made a special point to dine in your restaurant.
- Make suggestions, but let the customer decide. Recommend, but don’t make judgments or inappropriate comments about your customers’ food choices. By all means promote the restaurant’s specials, but don’t be pushy and don’t be put out if your suggestions are not taken. Your mission is to make your customers comfortable and happy.
- Know your customers and take charge of their dining experience. Ensure that the diners at each of your tables enjoy a dining experience that they will rave about to others and review enthusiastically online. Make them want to return repeatedly, and ask for you to be their server when they do.
- Always be gracious about the tip, or lack thereof. It is not the customer’s but rather the restaurant’s responsibility to compensate its staff adequately and fairly, and that includes its servers. It is strictly at the customer’s discretion to tip his or her server. In some countries it’s customary not to tip. In the U.S., however, it is; and, it’s usually a highly unusual situation in which a customer does not tip. In any case, a server should be gracious to the same degree whether or not a customer provides a tip or despite its size. Do your best with all your customers and the tips should average out to an acceptable amount.
If you follow these pointers, and the ones in the previous entries, you’ll be elevated to the rank of star in your restaurant’s show!
Until next time,