So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

“Think you’ve got enough pens, pal”?

Yes, I never get tired of that question from guests when they see the 6 pens in my breast pocket. It’s almost as entertaining as the “Give me your number so that I can call you at 3am if this isn’t decaf” riposte after I assure them that the coffee is indeed decaf.

For any greenhorn server, let me say this quite plainly – you can never have enough pens. Anyone who only carries a couple of pens is inviting the wrath of the the thing on high (some have named it Murphy) and will surely cause you to suffer a large table with separate checks at the very time that you’re getting slammed.

I suggest that you have no less than 5 pens during every shift. This gives you separate checks for 4 plus one for yourself while the others are being used. I try to have even more.

In the old days, Houston’s was notorious among the server world for doing a “pen check” during preshift lineup (that might still be in their corporate culture as far as I know). You could only use  black ink click pens. No removable top stick Bics. No fancy gel pens that have removable tops. There’s a case to be made for not using the stick Bics. Their tops go to the place in the universe that holds single odd socks that are lost in the laundry. Plus, they’re just cheap looking and too long to be practical. Yes, I know you can get a dozen for like 50¢ and all, but I say, steer clear of them. Fortunately, these days, there are some nice gel pens in a click style (back then, if you wanted a “soft tipped pen”, you only had “Flairs” – oldsters might remember them). I like the feel of a good gel pen on paper so I use them whenever possible. I always keep at least one regular ink ball-point pen though because sometimes I have to have guests fill out a form that’s on nice paper and I find that gel ink doesn’t soak in and is easily smeared. You probably don’t have that issue at your work though.

I think that a pen that has the right feel on paper is one of those little things that adds comfort to the shift. If the pen clogs all of the time, it’s no use to me. If it doesn’t glide over my captain’s pad, it makes me uncomfortable.

You might not need this level of writing utensil to provide you comfort during the shift – it’s up to you to find your own safety blanket. It might be a certain wine tool or pad to write on. Once you find something that’s comfortable, try to stay with it. A waiter needs all of the help he or she needs, even if it’s something as subtle as a pen or a favorite crumber.

Finally, it’s considered pretty crude to use a pharmaceutical or other advertising pen to present to a guest. Servers in nicer restaurants often have access to those same pens that you find in a doctor’s office because drug companies usually leave a lot of them behind after they wine and dine people. Resist the urge to use them though. I used to keep a Viagra pen in reserve though. I used it a few times for comic effect.

Don’t forget, the last thing a guest is going to do before they leave, and the very thing that they’re going to do with that pen is to fill out your tip. Don’t come off as cheap with the very instrument of your income.

If it weren’t for the fact that you’ll lose at least a couple of pens a week from guests who take them (and there’s nothing more frustrating that getting a shitty tip and having them walk off with your pen), I’d use really nice dress pens. Otherwise, I use the nicest pens I can reasonably afford. I look at Office Depot/Office Max boxes of things like Pilot G-2 07. Sometimes Target will have some cheap packs of generic gel and ballpoint pens marked down to almost nothing. I have never been disappointed when I’ve bought those various packs but I have been disappointed when taking a chance on a sexy-looking pen from other discount stores though. When that happens, it stays home in the pen cup.

So, find a good variety of pens that work for you and make sure you take at least 5 of them with you to work. Or suffer the waiting gods consequences.


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