So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

Selling the sizzle…

This is an old school advertising term that applies in spades to waiters and waiter-wannabes.

Originally, the term probably came from the mouth of a mid-60s chain-smoking, chiseled jaw, (m)ad man describing how he could make a client’s product or service pop by making it as mouthwatering as a sizzling steak on the Weber.

The actual phrase is “Sell the sizzle, not the steak” but you usually don’t hear the last half of the quote. However, the whole quote illustrates the concept better because, let’s face it, if you were confronted with a sizzling steak on the barbie or a shrink wrapped, perfectly marbled porterhouse, which do you think would push your buttons more?

Since the concept is a food metaphor in the first place, it’s particularly apt for waiters.

<editorial insert here> For any new readers of the blog, realize that I use the word waiter to describe both female and male servers>

If you are simply a passive order-taker, I suppose it doesn’t matter, but then, that just makes you a mediocre waiter. You really don’t want to be one of those, do you?

It’s a commonly-held psychological fact that people respond on an emotional level to “s words” (it’s one of the reasons that vowel-filled French  is a “romance” language and consonant-ridden German isn’t). The sound of “s” and vowels are soothing (even the word soothing embodies this concept). It’s especially true when s is followed by vowels. For instance, the words “shit” and “sharp” aren’t particularly soothing. But the word “soothing” is…well…soothing. There are certain consonants that mimic vowels to a certain extent. For instance, “w” is a softer consonant when following an “s” and, therefore, you could consider “sweet” as one of those “sizzle” words.

But a word doesn’t have to be an “s” word to be a sizzle word, especially in the culinary world. Crisp is a sizzle word (yes, it has an “esss” sound that finishes it). Toasty is a sizzle word.

Basically, a sizzle word is a word that triggers an emotional response in the brain similar to a sense-driven trigger like the sense of smell. One of the big axioms in the biz is that we eat with our eyes. That’s true. But we also eat with our ears. that’s why fajitas are so popular – the sizzling mound of meat is soooo enticing. A good example of this sensory conditioning is the smell of popcorn. You smell it – you want to buy and consume food. Basically, you want your words to be the aural equivalent of hot buttered popcorn. Which sounds better, “We have a nice 24 oz porterhouse as our special tonight” or “I love the olive oil brushed, broiled, perfectly marbled porterhouse that we’re offering tonight. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it”?

The application of an appropriate sizzle word or phrase conditions the guest to be pre-disposed to wanting that item. “Crispy, deep-fried tender calimari” sounds so much better than “fried calimari”. Basically, you want the guest’s mind to start manufacturing in their minds the very qualities that you are describing.

Is it manipulation? Sure it is. All successful selling is.

Start coming up with your own list of sizzle words – words that make your own mouth water. Words like buttery, succulent, soft, luscious, unctuous, tasty, round, feminine (the last four usually used to describe wine). Phrases like perfectly broiled, seared rare, subtly spicy, outrageously decadent. Triggers like tequila-laced, caramelized crispy skin, steaming hot cappuccino.

Start pairing those words and phrases with appropriate menu items and you’re on your way. Once you’ve done that, learn how to stretch the words out slightly or emphasize them just enough. Learn to build a vocal rhythm to your spiel, much as a skilled playwright creates music from dialogue.  Don’t get sing-songy, but try to elevate your spiel from a flat, uninvolved line reading.

Once you get practiced at it, you’ll find that you can guide your guest into an above-average dining experience by suggestively selling the strong items from your kitchen.

And you’ll move this:


To this:


2 responses to “Selling the sizzle…

  1. Hi April 30, 2013 at 11:48 am

    ‘Unctuous’ is generally not considered a positive word.

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