So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

Skills A Server Needs – Pt. 3

Consistency and flexibility.

These two seemingly contradictory traits are a necessary balancing act for the smooth operation of a busy night.

First of all, you need an internal game plan – a way to approach being in the weeds in a consistent fashion. In other words, you don’t need to be reinventing the wheel every time you get triple-seated. Everyone has a different flow, a unique way to approach it, although there are some principles that most good servers will follow – get drinks in front of new tables before you fire food for existing tables, for instance. So this isn’t something that’s easy to teach. When I trained servers during the rush, I always told them “Watch and learn, but I guarantee you that you’ll probably find a different way to do it once you become skilled”. Most servers will learn by trial and error and I might talk about strategies in the near future, but for now, we’re just painting broad strokes.

However consistent you become, you have to be flexible because no groupings of humans are the same and no progression of getting triple seated while working two other tables is the same – mainly because of those pesky humans. Sometimes, the best laid plans of mice and men go awry. You might have the perfect strategy to get you through the rough patches and someone will throw a monkey-wrench (spanner for our British friends) into the works. For instance, you have every intention to hit up all three tables for drinks, fire your food after that, then swing by the service bar and get drinks for all of your tables at once, at which point you’ll solicit appetizers and script the specials for all three tables after you fire and deliver the food for the other tables. However, the second table insists that you tell them the specials and won’t take no for an answer. Or the bar has to change the keg on the Miller Lite, thereby messing up your perfect plan to sweep those three tables with drinks. Or the kitchen needs you ASAP to tell you that they just ran out of halibut and they’re sorry but the broiler guy miscounted the number of the halibuts that they had left and you aren’t going to get one for the table that you were going to fire as soon after getting drinks to the other three tables, so you have to make a detour and give the bad news to the already grouchy couple on 14. You have to be prepared to change the dance. If you let it get to you, it will throw your whole rhythm off. It’s OK for a song to have shifting rhythms if it isn’t a waltz. And, believe me brothers and sisters, the weeds ain’t no waltz.

So, it’s all fine and dandy to have a consistent game plan, because, let’s face it, you’re going to need it. But, as I noted, you also have to have the flexibility and creativity to adapt to the ever-changing flux (deliberate redundancy in order to hammer home an important point) of the restaurant. As you gain experience, make sure that you keep what works and toss the rest. But don’t be surprised if, one day, you have to again utilize a procedure in one situation that didn’t work in a previous one. don’t discount it simply because it didn’t work before. If you need it, use it.

Finally, on the point of consistency, when you first start out, the best thing you can do for yourself is get a rock-solid consistent and unique set of abbreviations for your menu items. First of all, you don’t want to write out 15 oz New York Strip – medium well every fricking time. That’s pretty obvious because you don’t have a heck of a lot of room on your captain’s pad or little spiral notebook or your register tape (yes, I do all of my orders on a register tape because every single restaurant in the world has register tape whereas not so many supply you with a captain’s pad and those who do run out of them periodically and I don’t like having to scramble for an alternative – consistency, remember?).  The important thing is to come up with an abbreviation that is rock solid – that won’t be confused with something else. You probably don’t want to abbreviate New York Strip with “strip” because, a. what if they add a strip steak down the road and b. NY is shorter and quicker than writing out strip every time. Once you come up with an abbreviation, be consistent and stick with it.  

The more stuff that you can do without thinking, the more automatic things become, the more you can focus on reading your guests and fulfilling needs.  Paradoxically, becoming more robotic in logisics and procedure will free you to become less robotic in your personal interaction with the table and in your response to the weeds. And that, my friends is a major key to better tips and smoother shifts.

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One response to “Skills A Server Needs – Pt. 3

  1. waiterextraordinaire May 21, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Prioritize , prioritize , prioritize , is what you learn when becoming an effective waiter. All your points are well explained.Nice post.

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