So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

Carrying plates and pivot points

In the past day or two, someone found my site by searching for “how to be a waiter – carry three plates”. So, I thought I’d tell you how to carry four plates.

In your primary hand (if you’re a lefty, you probably use your right hand because you use your left to serve), take a plate between your thumb and index finger on the inside edge after taking a serving napkin in your hand and draping it over both your hand and your forearm. Spread your fingers slightly and slide a second plate between your index finger and your middle finger on the outside edge and squeeze down. You’ll support this plate with the last two fingers. This is called “butterflying” the dishes (if you looked from the top, it would resemble the wings of a butterfly). Slide your third plate on your forearm under the two plates and hold it by cocking your arm so that the edge closest to you is held by the inside of your elbow. Make sure that it’s held tightly and as level as you can. Also, make sure that the edge on the first plate in your hand doesn’t touch any food on the second or third plates. Take the fourth plate in your free hand. This is the plate that you’ll set first.

You should always pick them up in pivot point order. You can either pick them up in reverse order and serve them from lowest number to highest number, or pick them up in reverse  normal order and serve them “backwards”. In other words, if you are doing the first and you want to serve positions 1 through 4 in order, you’ll start with position 4 in the hand that’s going to butterfly and built from there – 4 and 3 in your hand, 2 on your forearm and 1 in your free hand. Or, you can do it backwards pick them up forward from 1 to 4 but you’ll have to remember to serve backwards, from 4 to 1.

About this forward/backwards thing – first, I should define for any novices what the pivot point system is.

The pivot point system is a system for numbering the guests at a table so that you always serve the proper person the proper food, even if you aren’t waiting on the table. It’s a system designed to be consistent throughout the restaurant and known by everyone who has to run food.

In classical service, pivot points were done counter-clockwise from a given point. Usually, the point designated as number one was the point to the right where you normally  approached the table. Or alternately, it was point closest to a given point in the restaurant no matter how the table was situated in the restaurant (the entrance or the kitchen usually).  You would start at that position and number counter-clockwise. You went counter-clockwise because you always served from the left and removed from the right. If you think about it, doing it counter-clockwise allows you to avoid having to go around someone’s back to place a plate. You’re always in position to place a plate first and then go around the person’s back to approach the next person. It’s the most natural way to do it.


…I have never worked in a restaurant that goes counter-clockwise. Most modern restaurants go clockwise. I’m not sure why this is, except to say that that perhaps clockwise is easier to remember and feels more “natural” to modern folks. In this system, you start with the person to your left as you approach the table. Obviously, you’ll be trained in the system that your restaurant uses, as well as the method to determine the first pivot point.

If the guest is seated at a banquette, you start with the first person on the bench and go around in a clockwise fashion ending up with the person sitting to your right on the outside side of the table (they’ll be the closest to you).

You should always try to serve the women and children first. However, this isn’t always practical if someone is helping you run food or it’s insanely busy or you have a really large table. If you have a four-top or smaller, this requires you to know which positions the ladies are sitting at so that you can rearrange the order in which you pick up the plates. I’ll admit that I don’t always do this either, but if you start early in your career, you might get to make it an engrained habit.

A couple of things – there are waiters who can carry more. Don’t try to carry too much too soon. Practice, practice, practice! Also, be very careful about carrying smaller plates like side plates on your forearm. You have to have great balance to be able to put one on your forearm because you can’t lock it between the plates in your hand and your forearm. If you don’t have perfect balance, don’t do it. Also, some napkins are slicker than others. Those napkins with a high cotton content have a better grip, while those “for show” mostly polyester ones are quite slippery. If the napkin feels slippery, try another. You need a napkin with good grip on it. That’s why many servers carry their own, although health departments are starting to frown on the old practice of hanging a towel or napkin from your pocket. Also, make sure that the plates have been cleaned of any spatters on the edge before you go. That’s normally an expo or chef’s job, but you are the final quality control person. Carry the plates as level as you can to avoid disturbing the plate presentation and, as I said before, don’t let another plate touch any food. If you can’t avoid to do to the way the plate was plated (it might have food placed too high), then carry fewer plates.

Here’s a pictorial from venerable server Helmut Schonwalder at The Waiter’s Digest (link posted in the Waiter’s Stuff blogroll). You have to click on the pictures to see the entire set.










Photo by Shumon Huque


6 responses to “Carrying plates and pivot points

  1. Sue October 7, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    That is not your picture. Shed a few years. Shame.

    • teleburst October 7, 2009 at 1:30 pm


      Not quite sure what your point is.

      If your point is that the photo isn’t mine, yes, that’s true. It’s attributed and I was given permission to use it. Here is the original photographer’s permission:

      “Yup, no problem. Thanks for the attribution”.

      If your point is that this isn’t the sort of depiction of what I was describing in my post, or that it was supposed to be me showing how it’s done, it wasn’t intended as such. It was a semi-humorous depiction of carrying plates taken to the nth degree.

      Don’t know why you should write “Shame”.

      In any case, thank you for reading. If you are interested in a real-life depiction of how to carry plates, please click the link and go to The Waiter’s Digest. Helmut has done a fine set of photos clearly showing the technique.

      Once again, thank you for visiting.

  2. cesar ordonez December 6, 2009 at 10:59 am

    pls teach me how to do that kind of bussing out plates..i really want to know how to start that kind of technique, how is the process i mean. pls reply, tnk u so much..

    • teleburst December 6, 2009 at 11:32 am

      It’s similar to carrying plates, only you can put more plates on top of the two that you have “butterflied” in your carrying hand. Some people actually stack plates on top of each other, but the better restaurants prefer that you don’t use a single stack but start with two plates spread in the hand then additional plates on top of those two. You can then add another plate in the crook of your arm and pick up one last plate with your free hand.

  3. theoldtimewaitress May 22, 2013 at 12:49 am

    WOW, I must be old! I started waitressing when I was 15 years old at the Ramada Inn in Denver, at the time, you had to carry at least 4 plates, 5 is better and 6 plates was: Wow! you had the job! I worked with an old banquet waitress, she was about 100 pounds, she easily carried 12 plates: arm service or on trays, it didn’t matter. So, I was carrying 6 plates within 6 months. (If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have a job!) So, we can talk all day long about how it’s done, but back in the day it was about how many plates you could bring there safely, and without diseases being transferred! Come on, the plates are cleaned in a dishwasher that is 1000 degrees and the waitress just put her hands in a bleach bucket 1000 times and carried the plates to you! Hopefully that GMO food that your going to eat won’t kill you! LOL Let’s talk about how many plates can be carried out and now: Who can do it!?!

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