One of the most essential tasks a waiter can master is something that’s difficult to teach – the art of reading a table.
Some people are naturals at it. Most of us, not so much.
This is a skill that requires ongoing work. About the only way you get good at it is by trial and error. Even those in the business for years will occasionally misread a table.
Reading a table requires that you somehow get into the head of the guest. You do this by observing body language, inflection, tone and facial expressions.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to know that the guest is under stress if he’s sitting bolt upright, fists clenched, eyebrows furrowed and an unpleasant cadence to his voice. It’s harder when the signs are more subtle.
I’m not here to give you a tutorial on body language. I’m no particular expert when it comes to determining intent from the way a person is leaning or whether she crosses her legs or not. I can’t read a man’s soul by the way his eyebrows arch. But what I can do is to tell you to be observant and see how people respond when they are acting, sitting and talking a certain way. Eventually, you’ll start to see patterns and start to be able to predict behavior.
I’ve found that there are some general categories of guests and table behavior. Table behavior is ofttimes contagious. If the Alpha at the table is behaving a certain way, you’ll see people start to fall into the same behavior, if only out of self-preservation.
I’ve listed some of the categories I’ve found for general behavior. This could describe any or all of the guests at a table, but I’ll use it to describe an individual.
1. The relaxed pro. If you are reasonably competent, this is a dream table. This person isn’t hung up on formalities, although he or she expects top-notch service. They are happy to be dining out (actually they are probably happy to be wherever they are), are there for a good time, enjoy a bit of banter, and don’t “sweat the small stuff”. Entrees running a little behind? No worries. They don’t have a stopwatch and, besides, they’re too busy having an intelligent discussion about Doctor Who with their tablemates. They actually enjoy their food, not over-analyse or critique it (unless there’s something seriously wrong with the way that it’s been cooked, they ordered the food knowing what they were going to get based on the restaurant that they’re in). They tip properly, and will cut you a break if there’s a foul-up or two, as long as you express a desire to make things right. To give this type proper service, you simply have to do your job.
The control freak. This person has to play waiter, chef, and GM. This person can’t let the chef design a recipe without modifying it somehow, will tell a waiter how to do service by constantly demanding that the waiter do things his way even if it will negatively impact service, and will demand a certain type of solution to a problem. There’s no fighting a person like this because you will lose. What you can do is start to turn the tables by asking her about every little detail, assuming that you have time, of course. If you play to this (you can’t fight it anyway), you can have some fun in your head laughing about how you are manipulating them. “How long would you like between courses, ma’am”? “Would you like a lot of dressing or just a little, or should I bring it on the side”? “when you say ‘On the rocks’, do you mean regular ice or light ice?” Might as well have a little fun and, by playing to their ego, you’re likely to get a good tip. If you try to impose your own will, you’re likely to get a mediocre tip.
The celebrity. As my friend Marta wrote about at her most excellent blog, “How To Be a Better Restaurant Customer” (see blogroll for link), there are people who think they are a celebrity. You should know who they are (“Don’t you know who I am?” is a question that I was recently asked, believe it or not!). These people are close personal friends of the GM/owner/mayor/rock star and they demand only the best. They also usually want something for free. How do you deal with them? With a bit of diffidence. “Really, that’s cool. what would you like to drink?” You want to maintain an air of awareness without being impressed that they hang out with Nickleback whenever they’re in town. You can be impressed but not too much. If you’re feeling bold, you can trot out the fact that you once waited on Cybill Shepherd back in the Moonlighting days, or whatever story you have in your back pocket for just that sort of occasion. Put yourself on more equal footing but don’t try to outdo them. Play to their ego just enough to keep the tip up because these sort of people think that 3% of your tip is worth the privilege of waiting on such a “celebrity”. Just don’t tell them that most real celebrities are quite generous. You will probably have to get them something for free. Make it as much of a token thing as you can. No need in reinforcing their sense of entitlement any more than necessary.
The sourpuss. Never smiles. Always has had a bad day. Is married to someone who they hate. Has had the fun sucked out of life years ago. Will always find something wrong with the food, even if they have to work at it because they’re not happy unless there’s a problem. If there isn’t a problem, they’ll manufacture one. Don’t try to cheer this one up – it won’t work. You might try the co-dependency route – reinforce his sense of gloom. “Yes, the weather has been way too hot”. “The gumbo’s too spicy? I know how you feel, gumbo should only be a little spicy”. “I’m sorry that it’s so loud in here – I can barely hear myself think. I wish they’d put some sound-deadening material on the walls”. You can actually turn a table around with this approach. You might save an average tip and I’ve actually seen some really good tips come out of a table like this if you don’t take the “Let’s try to cheer up Mr. Grumpypants” routine. They’ll appreciate it. Just don’t be as dour as they are. You want to let them maintain their level of dourness without sinking them into despair. You don’t want them hanging themselves in the coat room.
We’ll continue this in a future post.
I’m sorry that we don’t have your type of boutique bottle water sir. Can I get you a free appetizer to make up for it or do I have to let you eat my first born child?