So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

How does the darn food get to the table? Pt. 1

Guests probably don’t know what goes into getting their food and servers might not know any way other than the way their restaurant does it, so I thought I’d quickly outline the main ways an order gets processed.

In the old days, you had one of these:


You’d write the order on the green copy and tear off a carbon copy and give it to a chef, who hung it from his or her line in sequential time order. The chef would call your table whenever it was ready. You would tear off the original after totally all of the food and taxes and hand it to guest, who would then pay a central cashier. This system is still being used in diners and you’ll still see the pad used in buffets and cafeterias, even though the waiter never has to use the carbon (they might need to keep it for audit purposes though).

There are also individual versions of this as well.


This can either be one piece (pictured) or two piece (with a tear-off front sheet for the kitchen). Most restaurants at least keep these around should the POS (point-of-sale) system goes down.

Most restaurants have gone completely computerized. There are various systems that a waiter is likely to encounter. They have odd names like Aloha (considered by most to be the best, most flexible, idiotproof, crashproof, easiest to program and use), Micros (sometimes buggy, it’s come a long way since the early days – they were a bit slow to embrace graphical interfaces), Squirrel (from what I understand, fairly similar to Aloha, but I’ve never used it), and others.

Much of what a server can do on one of these terminals is determined during initial programming. Managers will pick and choose how the information is organized and designed. For instance, it has to be determined which orders go to which printers and which printers are considered “backup printers” should a printer go down for any reason. You don’t want drink orders going to the kitchen or drink orders going to the kitchen. You don’t want pantry salad orders going to the hot line and vice versa, and this can be tricky coordinating between the two when you have a salad or appetizer rung in “as entree”. You also have to determine how the modifiers are printed on the check. Most systems will group like items together, i.e. 4 @ Filet, so how all of the temperatures and modifiers like “no butter”, “no salt”, blackened” “Pittsburgh medium rare”, etc has to be determined by the initial setup. Different systems have different ways of dealing with this, but most have to be programmed with modifiers listed numerically in terms of priority (this is somewhat “behind-the-scenes”, something that waiters don’t have to deal with except for the consequences). Depending on the skill of the manager doing the initial programming, this can either work very well or be a disaster. Each modifier is a discrete thing. So when you have, say, a “10 oz filet, Pittsburgh medium rare, no salt or butter”, the computer is having to deal with FOUR different modifiers. If there are also 3 other 10oz filets, and two of them are medium rare, one medium, one is no butter and another one is Pittsburgh, how the computer is programmed can mean the difference between a broiler cook getting it right or getting it wrong without any guidance from the waiter, and waiters are almost programmed not to talk to the line, so the waiter has to find a way to assure that the order is going to be done right. After all, there are some systems that have been programmed to simply read:

3@ 10 oz

2 Medium Rare
1 Medium
2 Pittsburgh
2 No butter
1 No salt

Without guidance, the only way that a broiler cook will nail this order is by sheer luck. Some systems are sophisticated enough to deal with this and break out any special orders separately. And sometimes, your own system will be able to do it but it just hasn’t been programmed properly. I recently had to get our district manager to wade hip deep into just this issue, and he was able to get it sorted out. Now it’s a lot easier for broiler dude to do his job without me having to draw a fricking diagram. As a waiter, if you see any SNAFUs in the way that orders are being printed in the kitchen, bring it up to your management. In other words, if you’re constantly having to verbally communicate about certain special order situations, see if management can’t take a look under the hood and see if it can’t be fixed. Normally the chef addresses this sort of thing, but sometimes they don’t see a problem until it’s brought to their attention.

Anyway, different restaurant kitchens have different systems that they use to actually cook the food. The simplest system is order by course and this is what we’re going to talk about in Part 1. Of course, simple doesn’t mean foolproof. And it’s not necessarily the easiest on the kitchen either. Generally, it’s used in restaurants that have fairly quick cook times – nothing that takes more than about 15 minutes from start to finish. The order is put in, the food is cooked and runners are called for. Easy-peasy, right? Well, there are some hitches that can occur.

When the waiter takes the guest’s order, he or she puts the order in the following order: appetizer, soup, salad, entree, dessert but doesn’t put the order in until the previous course is finished. Things that a waiter needs to do is have the information available to put the order in in a timely fashion and also find out from the guest whether they want to combine courses. For instance, if a 4 top has one person having an appetizer, one person having soup and two people having salads, the waiter needs to know if he or she can or should combine them into one course.  Usually soups and salads are considered one course anyway, but appetizers can be funny creatures. Some people insist that they are treated exactly as an appetizer, in other words, served before anything else. and many appetizers are designed to be shared anyway. Some people want to get on with lunch or dinner and don’t mind snacking on an appetizer while they’re slurping their soup or noshing on their salad. The best waiters ask how they want it done instead of assuming or trying to read minds.

It seems pretty simple to order by course. However, one thing to keep in mind is that most people expect the next course within 5 – 10 minutes, unless they tell you that they’re not in a hurry. They start getting antsy at about the 10 minute mark, especially if they’re struggling with their blind date or dining with a bunch of dullards. So, sometimes, you’ll want to anticipate the entree course and put in the order in the middle of the salad course, assuming that they’re eating at a normal pace. This is especially true if you have something well-done that needs 15 minutes to cook. Most times, if your kitchen is predictable in hitting their time window, you’ll put the order in right before you clear salad plates.

A waiter has to have his or her order sheet organized so that he or she can easily access the order when it’s time to ring it into the kitchen. since you’re liable to be juggling 4 or 5 tables at the same time, each in a different stage of their meal, you need to be able to immediately go to the necessary order information for each table. Bear this in mind when you’re working on your order-taking system.

The art to this system falls in when you put in the order. When it works, you get a seamless flow of courses to the table – not too fast and not too slow. You want to shoot for about 7 – 10 minutes between dinner courses absent any instructions from the guest. At lunch, if you can make the courses hit bam bam bam, one after the other, that’s great, because most people don’t have a lot of time.

There are only a couple of things that can screw it up – the waiter forgets to order the course or gets stuck doing something for another table that prevents them from ordering it right on time, or the kitchen can go into meltdown, slowing all orders. One is totally preventable, the other is semi-preventable. If you keep your ear to the kitchen and stay attuned to it, sometimes you can anticipate problems and order early. When I found out that my kitchen was going down, I generally knew how long it would take for them to get the ship righted. Until that point, I would actually order entrees only a minute after I brought the salad plates. I would also let my guests know what I was doing before I ordered. I’d say something like, “The kitchen is getting hit hard right now. As you can see, we’ve had a flood of business. Do you mind if I order your entrees now? That way, we’ll be sure to get them in line, but there’s a chance that they could come out a little early. Is that OK”? this way, I’m off the hook if the kitchen gets back up and running earlier than I thought and if I have to bring out their entrees before they’re finished with their salads, I’m off the hook, because they said it was OK.  Conversely, if they say, “Don’t bother, we’re not in a big hurry”, I can wait, and I’m off the hook if it takes a little while. Plus, now I have a little more information on how they want to be served for the rest of the meal.

One other SNAFU that can possibly occur is if one or more people suddenly slow down their eating and start picking at their salad. this can happen after you’ve already ordered the food. There’s not much you can do other than try to slow down delivery of the food. This is where you have to judge how long you can drag out taking the food to the table. Sometimes you can tell the chef and they can slow things down, but more often then not, the food is going to hit the window. The best you can do is tell the chef that you have a dragger at the table and find out how long the food can sit in the window before it suffers. Usually, about the maximum time you can leave a dish in the window is about 2 minutes under the heat lamp. If you have a fully dressed burger, you have less time because the lettuce is going to wilt. and remember, meat continues to cook anyway after it’s removed from the grill or the oven. When it sits under a heat lamp, it really keeps cooking, so your medium rare sirloin can turn into a medium well in a couple of minutes. This is one of those situations where you’ll just have to work with what you’ve got. The skillful waiter can finesse most of these situations without the guest being any the wiser. The “order taker” panics because they aren’t used to dealing with anything other than just getting the order from the guest.

Waiting tables is full of little subtleties and nuances that separate the order-taker from the great waiter. I hope you will work on being the latter instead of the former.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss the “fire” system.

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