So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

Skills a Server Needs – Pt. 2

In Part 1, you had to suffer through a very convoluted description of the challenges that a server faces. That was deliberate. Servers rarely have to deal with a set job flow. It is often confusing and hard to keep track of. So, hopefully you got a sense for the presence of mind that a good server has to maintain. And that is indeed a primary skill that a server needs to cultivate.

But we’re not going to talk about that now. Today, we’re going to touch on the fine art of reading people.

Yesterday at lunch, we had a rather blustery fellow come through the door and hit the front desk, where our lunch host/manager (who knows everybody who’s anybody in this town was standing post). He greeted her rather boisterously and she playfully scolded him that she hadn’t seen him in forever. He happened to be meeting another fellow who was already seated at one of my tables and so she asked me to take him to the table. As I was taking him to the table, I thought I’d cut a corner and ask him if he wanted to see the wine list. You see, even though it’s lunch and 99.99% of people can’t have wine because they have to go back to the office, we still have to ask because it’s part of our steps of service.  He kind of looked at me quizzically as we walked and said no. Quizzically because, first of all, he didn’t know that I was to be his server, and second, well, it’s an unusual question to be asked before you even hit the table. Of course, I was simply trying to save having to present an unneeded wine list.

I sat him and went to get the lunch menus. He was already deep in conversation with the other fellow (a trend that would continue through the meal, making it very hard for me to insert myself when I needed to, like having to gently find pauses to ask about food quality, etc.). Anyway, when I got to the table, and started to hand them the menus, he said in mock annoyance and scorn, “What do you want now?” in that same blustery fashion. I put my hands on my hips like a harridan getting ready to launch into an attack and replied, “What do you think I want? I want to know what you want to drink – that’s what I want”! He chuckled and said, “Nothing. Go away now”.

And I did.

When I got the bill, he had tipped me $20 on $70.

It’s important to be able to read people in this business. It allows you to take some latitudes with people. It allows you to have some fun and also to know when you better not have any fun with your guest. It helps you determine the needs of the guest. And it pays off most of the time, as it did in this case.

As soon as I came in contact with the guy, I had him pegged as someone who liked to give some mock grief, because he did that with our host, a lady who also likes to dish it out, which is why people love her. Had I not witnessed that exchange, I might have taken his mock brusqueness as real. And the lunch might have gone quite differently.  I suspect that I would have been able to tell that he was all bluster, but you never know. And I had another benefit to sussing him out so quickly. By him pretending that I was bothering him before we even got started, he telegraphed to me that he was in no hurry as so many lunch diners can be. So that let me pace his meal properly and also put me in the mindset that he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon so I shouldn’t mentally check myself out for the end of the shift. All good things to get me synced in with the needs of the guest.

It’s very possible that this could have backfired. It would be easy to have misread his playfulness with the host as a willingness to allow others the same sort of intimacy. So, you have to carefully cultivate this insight into people because they can surprise you sometimes. You should always err on the side of caution, but as you gain experience with a lot of different people, you start to hone this skill – a skill that frankly can’t be taught. But, while it can’t be taught, it can be developed and nurtured.

The better you can read people, the more you can anticipate their needs, because, believe it of not, people aren’t always clear in their minds what their needs are when it comes to dining. Sometimes, it’s important to be able to see that someone has been struggling with a bad day at work or home. Or that they are nervous because it’s a first date. Or that they expect you to entertain them. Miss these signs and cues and you’ll struggle with your service and you won’t get an optimum tip.

That’s why we sometimes say that a waiter has to also be a psychologist/camp counselor/best friend. Those people are either trained or conditioned to be able to read people. And, if you’re just an order taker with no particular interest in your guest because you just want to get through your shift so you can go drinking with your buddies, you’re not a very good server at all. Start paying attention to what your guest is telling you without actually telling you and you’ll see your shifts become more fun and profitable at the same time.

But, for the sake of all that is holy and pure, be careful. Always err on the side of caution. Always. Especially if you’re just starting out. Don’t be using me an excuse if you pretend to berate a guest because you thought that they wanted you to. Got it?

One response to “Skills a Server Needs – Pt. 2

  1. waiterextraordinaire May 19, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    The reading of a guest is so important. Nice post!

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