So You Want To Be A Waiter

The best book on waiting tables that you have never read – yet

Skills A Server Needs – Pt. 1

Serving isn’t brain surgery.

But what is, really? Other than brain surgery, that is.

There are many traits and skills that come into play when it comes to waiting tables.  The more skills that a server masters and the more traits that he or she embodies, the more successful they will be. Most servers have a healthy mix of all of the things that I’ll talk about. And some servers can use a heightened mastery of one skill to overcome a deficiency in another.

This discussion isn’t just for people considering going into the job – it’s also for seasoned veterans who sometimes take things for granted because of the grind of years of waiting tables. For the former, this is both a cautionary tale and a primer on what you will expect to be required to either master or possess. For the latter, I hope it gets you thinking about all of your skills and personality traits and finds you evaluating yourself and doing some recalibration if necessary.

I’m not discussing them in a particular order of importance. First of all, waiting tables is highly situational. What is important during one shift assumes less importance in another. So, without further ado, let’s begin the beguine:

Speaking of the beguine,waiting tables is a dance. So, it’s helpful to be graceful. This is as much a mechanical thing as well as a state of mind. If you are a klutz (like me), you have to pay  particular attention to your movements, especially as things get crazy. Servers are fighting for terminals, aisle space and even their personal space at the table. A great server never “seems” out of control or panicked, even as the restaurant is going down in flames. It’s rare to find such a Zen master – a Jedi who can bend time to his or her will, to slow down the rest of the universe like a Zach Braff scene where he’s standing still and all movement around him is a blur. So, the rest of us can only aspire to attempt grace in the middle of chaos. You do this by selectively slowing down. Servers are conditioned for speed. Greets must be made in a minute, drinks must be delivered in 5 minutes, check-backs must happen in 2 minutes, etc. The server life is bound by time standards. And the problem is that a server’s 1 minute is 5 minutes in dog’s tim…I mean guest time. But, paradoxically, one of the ways that you get around this limitation is the deliberate application of calm. You might have to pick up a drink order from the bar, and you’ve just been sat, and you needed to fire table 4 yesterday, and you can see table 3 motioning for you out of the corner of your eye while you’re carrying the appetizer plates back to the kitchen and you can’t see a way that you’re going to make anyone  happy. Well, you have to  create structure out of madness. There are a number of ways you can do this, and I’m going to outline one of them.  Other servers might find a different flow or strategy, but this is an example of one of them. First of all, you have to triage (this is an ability that we’ll mention specifically later and something that every good server does well). On your way to the kitchen with the plates, you swing by your station, plates in hand, and give some eye contact to table 3 to indicate that you see them. Then you hit your new table on the fly and say, “Hi folks, I’ll be with you in just a minute. Welcome to The Grisly Boar“. You turn to the table that needs drinks and tell them, “Your drinks will be up in just a minute folks” and then you hit table 4 and say, “Folks, let me drop these plates off to the kitchen and I’ll be right back to help you. What can I get for you”? If it’s something like, “We need more bread”, you can say, “Right away”. If it’s something that starts getting complex or mission critical like “I’ve changed my mind on the temperature of my steak”, best to stop them politely and say, “Sir, I’ll be right back to help you. Let me get rid of these plates”. Best not to promise something that you can’t immediately deliver. You don’t have time to incur the wrath of the chef at this moment. Use the fact that you have an armful of plates as an excuse. By putting it off for a couple of minutes, you reduce the cause for a guest to complain. After all, you had an armful of plates, right? Anyway, you now drop off the plates, circle back to the bar to get your drinks, stop by table 3 to find out that the guest now wants their steak medium well instead of medium (“Thank goodness it wasn’t the other way around”, you think – “that gives us more time to react”). Now you go to the table that needs drinks, deliver them and point to the new table saying, “I’ll be right back to talk about the menu with you but I need to say hi to our friends over there”. Being the polished server that you are, you don’t let them bully you into giving them the specials but you defer in the nicest way possible. You swing by the new table and do your normal solicitation of bottled water and drinks. Being the polished server that you are, you don’t let them bully you into telling them the specials on the spot. You go to the terminal, but someone is there before you. This is the time to reach for your inner calm. This is where you bend time to your will. This is where you find your center of being. You calmly visualize your station and note where everyone is in your meal. You slow down your breathing and you wait.

And wait.

And wait.

What seems like 5 minutes is actually just 45 seconds. Congratulations, you have just become a guest.

This is the time where you break one of the basic laws of a restaurant – multi-tasking and consolidation. Most of the time, you are like a shark – if you stop moving, YOU WILL DIE. However, you just have to wait. You need to get those drinks in and you need to fire the food to another table. Even though it seems like it might be more efficient to blow it off and go script the table that you just brought drinks for, it’s not a good idea. When you come back, you might still have to wait because someone else beat you to the terminal yet again, and you still haven’t fired your food or rung in your drinks.

So you use this time to gain clarity. Clear out the clutter a little. It’s a micro version of the power nap.

As you hit the terminal, you now know what you have to do – first, ring in the drinks. Then you fire the other table. You will have to bypass the station if possible to tell the chef about the change in temp (you almost forgot about that, didn’t you?). You can’t have your new table stopping you to order apps or have the other table demand that you tell them the specials. This is triage at its finest.

You swing through the kitchen and take the chef’s wrath. Then you grab bread for your new table and you glance at the line to see if your fired food is up. Good, it isn’t quite yet. You hit your new table with bread and tell them that their drinks are working. You tell them that you’ll be talking about the specials in a moment. Then you go to the table where you delivered drinks and STOP.

Even though your heart is pounding and you’re a bit out of breath, you have to just forget about everything else for a moment – this is triage at its finest. You can’t set this broken leg if you’re worried about the fellow over there with the cut on his head. You have to employ tunnel vision (which normally kills a server because you really have to have your head on a swivel, noting everything in your section – in this case, you can’t be distracted by the needs of your other tables). Now you use the line reading skills that you’ve perfected in your server acting career and you go through the specials, deliberately pausing for dramatic effect. It’s too easy to rush this because you’re short on time. The guest is like a predator – it senses blood in the water – it feels a wounded prey cowering behind a bush. If yourrushingthroughyourpresentationbecauseyouareunderthegun, you lose the advantage and power over the guest. You’ve ceded the high ground. You’ve blown the 4th and inches call. Sure, you trim your spiel, but you do it without rushing it. After you’re finished, you solicit an appetizer order. They just want to look at the menu (the thought balloon over your head has a single word – WHEW!).  Now you can swing by the table waiting for drinks and tell them that their drinks will be up in just a minute. “I’ll be telling you about the specials in a moment, but would you like to order an appetizer?” “But Waiter, we want to know about the specials”. You really have to avoid this at all costs for several reasons. First of all, the guest is setting the agenda at the beginning. You can’t give up control. Second, have you forgotten about your fired food? What if they have a lot of questions? You have to diplomatically beg off. But if you can get an appetizer order, you’ve at least shown them some positive movement. By the time you’re ready to script them, their appetizer will probably already be ready and you’ve just compressed time for them.

So now, your main tasks are delivering the food for table 4 and getting their drinks.

And the cycle continues. You have to take the order for the other table, script your drinks table and do a quality check on table 4, because you’ve probably spent a couple of minutes on the spiel and the order taking. You do all of this by simply turning around in your section and taking a couple of steps. While you’ve done this, your inner waiter has prompted you to do your table maintenance by removing the empty Splenda packets, and you’ve almost unconsciously noted that the camel on table 4 needs water yet again but the server assistant hasn’t been able to get back to them so you’re going to have to do it on your next pass through the station.

This sort of thing happens during the rush and it can last for hours. 

So, there’s a lot to talk about in terms of skills and traits and we’ll be doing this in following posts. But let’s review:

We need to multi-task, but we also need to know when not to multi-task. We need to consolidate but we also need to know when not to consolidate. We need to be a diplomat, as well as an entertainer – an actor. We need to be fluid and smooth, a veritable Rico Suave. We need to be able to triage. and we need to have the power to maintain control over the table. You’re running this show, not them. 

In the future, we’ll be talking about the importance of menu knowledge, drink knowledge, the computer system, the ability to create order out of chaos. We’ll talk about being a camp counselor, psychologist and best friend, all rolled into one. and we’ll talk about the importance of responsibility. So bear with me as we pull back the curtain to see the wizard behind the giant, flame-spewing Oz.

3 responses to “Skills A Server Needs – Pt. 1

  1. Kristy June 1, 2009 at 8:49 am

    This piece had me at the edge of my seat.
    I couldn’t take my eyes away..A pounding .. pulsating ride of what it REALLY is like in the middle of a rush…A verbal..or written regalia it were.. of the reality check and reinforcement of the reasons why I will NEVER be able to be a food wench again..Thanks a lot :O)

    This is about the BEST piece I have ever read..about MY profession..Once a food wench..always a food’s in our blood forever..Like the drugs we did in the 70s.
    I tip my top hat to thee and the others who do dance the dance.. every day..How I miss it.

    Crisp and clear and concise and cowabunga dude.

    You had MY stomach churning..Yes ..serving is a dance and a science and put science and music together …and what you got??
    I dunno’…you tell me :O) I know there is a song there.
    Dolby was it??
    Best tip I can offer to any server..Just smile and kiss ass.

    I will buy your book …Much good luck.

  2. Pingback: Pet Peeve « So You Want To Be A Waiter

  3. Mike July 24, 2012 at 9:38 am

    Absolutely great. Just found your blog the other day and haven’t been able to take my eyes off of it since. Lucky for me I still have a lot more to read 🙂

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