So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Daily Archives: July 9, 2009

Warning the guest without dissing the chef, the kitchen, or the food

The other day, we had a soup de jour that had a very profound and prominent herb. To be fair, this herb was actually part of the name of the soup. To be additionally fair, it’s not one of my favorite herbs in and of itself, although I certainly appreciate the appropriate use of it. And finally, everyone knows what it tastes like, so it’s not like it’s an exotic ingredient or anything.

However, I thought it was way over the top, especially since it was the only obvious seasoning component other than salt and pepper.

So how does one communicate this without trashing the restaurant’s product? Here’s how I did it.

I gave the name of the soup and said, “The (X-herb) is very prominent in the soup. If you like (X-herb), you’re going to love it.  However, if you’re ambivalent about (X-herb) or dislike it, you should try our other soup. And, just so you know, I’m a little sensitive to this herb, so take what I say with a grain of salt”.

You notice that I haven’t run down our own product or questioned the ability of our chef or our kitchen. As a matter of fact, it might have been a really great soup for most people. But I did my due diligence by tasting it, I formed an opinion, and I was able to communicate that opinion my guests in an appropriate fashion and also cover my ass if they didn’t like it.

Things I considered (and discarded) were:

“Man, this soup sucks! It’s like chewing on a pine tree”.

“Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t feed this swill to Saddam Hussein”.

:sound of random gagging noises:

“It would make a good disinfectant”.

“It’s the smell of clean”.

“I hate the waste of a perfectly good chicken”.


Quick Tip – Abbreviations

One of the first things you should do as a server in a new restaurant is work on getting very short abbreviations for your menu items. There are certain common abbreviations that quickly become fairly apparent – things like R for “rare”, W for “well-done” and M for “medium” (and of course things like MR and MW). You can’t get much shorter than one or two letters, can you? Other common ones are BC for “blue cheese” and TI for “thousand island”.

However, you have to be careful about abbreviations tripping you up. One way is if you have similar but different items that share abbreviations, or if an abbreviation can accidentally be read as another meaning. For instance, if you use R for “ranch” and you don’t have it clearly tied to the salad course, you could miss-read it as “rare” if it falls close to where you’ve written your steak abbreviation. Some of us just jot things down in a block of scribble, so we have to be careful how to delineate modifiers for specific menu items.

Also, let’s say that you have a lot of steaks on your menu. Let’s say that they occasionally offer variations of those steaks as specials or menu rewrites. You have to be careful about using a single abbreviation for a particular cut of steak. You have to be ready to either modify it or have a completely different abbreviation in order to avoid ordering the wrong steak. If you’re lucky enough to have a restaurant that has completely different discrete weights for various cuts, and you don’t have two different cuts that share the same weight, the best way to abbreviate is by weight (i,e, 9oz, 13 oz, etc). Avoid writing out “cowboy” (for cowboy ribeye), filet, sirloin, etc.

I can’t tell you what abbreviations are “best” because everyone has a different thought process and a way of mentally organizing material. The key is to be internally consistent with your abbreviations. The less you have to write down, the quicker you can be and the more compact whatever form you use to write down your order can be. In my case, I keep it simple. I use a piece of register tape cut the height of a check presenter. I can get an amazing amount of information on one side of that tape. I like this system because it works in any restaurant. I don’t have to be tied to a specific “captain’s pad” and I don’t have to carry a spiral notebook as some waiters do. I don’t like having to turn pages because it slows me down. When I fill up one side of my register tape, I simply flip it over.  Also, by using a check presenter, I can keep all of my paperwork (closed checks, credit card slips, etc.) on the left side and write on the right. There is a neat little pocket-sized accordion file that I’ve seen some waiters use, and it’s nice and secure, but I find it a bit unwieldy to use (it’s bulky, you have to slip off a little elastic retainer, etc.) I find that the check presenter is a simple, elegant solution. Once again, it’s a portable solution that I can use instantly in any restaurant. However, you should use whatever solution you find comforting.

Finally, as always, I recommend that you repeat every food order back to the guest, especially in regard to temperatures. “Medium well” can easily be heard as “medium rare” if you have a loud restaurant or a mumbling guest. I can’t tell you how times I’ve had to scratch out one temperature and replace it with another after I’ve repeated it back to them. 

Get your abbreviations down to a science and it will make your job a lot easier. However, be flexible and be ready to alter them if menus change.