First of all, let me distinguish between regulars and call parties.
A regular is someone who frequents the restaurant enough where they become a recognized patron. A call party is a reservation or a guest who asks for a specific waiter. Not all regulars are call parties, but the vast majority of call parties are regulars.
Regulars tend to tip better than the average diner. There are a handful of regulars who are clueless, but most usually tip 20% or more because they feel comfortable in the restaurant and appreciate the added personal attention that they receive from the staff. They are greeted by name when they enter the restaurant, and, oftentimes, their dining habits are known by those who wait on them.
A call party is like a super-regular. They know their waiter and their waiter knows them. There’s a lot of shorthand communication that goes on; drinks are remembered, food preferences known. There are very few call parties that don’t tip at least 20% and often they tip more.
We have a regular couple in our restaurant that I wait on occasionally. They prefer to sit in a certain area so it really depends on who has that section on Sunday nights (they usually dine about 2 or 3 times a month, mostly on Sunday night). When they dine, I always come by and say hi if I’m in another section. I’ve probably waited on them 3 or 4 times over the past 4 years. The Sunday before Christmas, the gentleman called me over before I could come by and said, “I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas. You always are so nice when you come by and my wife and I just wanted to say ‘Thank you’ “. As he shook my hand, he passed me a twenty dollar bill. You can’t imagine how that made me feel. Just his recognition of me and his sincere thanks was enough – the $20 was over the top.
Last Saturday night, we were very busy between 5 – 7pm. I had a three booth section and most of the action was going on in the area where larger groups could be accommodated. I had 6 booths all night. Three of them were regulars. Here was the breakdown – the first three were regulars and all totals are post-tax final totals:
$340, all of which was paid by a gift card and whose “presented bill” was $198 due to coupons being used – $68 tip
$103 – $22 tip
$288 – $85 tip
$134 – $27 tip
$225 – $45
$252 – $50
After tipout, I walked with about $210 on basically on one turn, although one of the regulars was my last table after the rush and stayed until closing. But, if you tip $85 on $288, you’ve paid your rent.
As you can see, the regulars tipped far better than average, even if you discount the one super tip. A non regular would have been more likely to have tipped on the discounted amount of the $340 check – a regular isn’t likely to do that, although it’s certainly not impossible, the odds are much more in the waiter’s favor.
Are there downsides to regulars or call parties? Sure. Even my restaurant has a few people that nobody wants to wait on because they are either clueless, arrogant or needy. In fact, someone had to wait on such a regular that very same Saturday night. They got a 12% tip on something like $500 (post-tax used for easy comparison) plus, they got stuff like, “They never charge me extra for this ingredient X that I added”. God help you if some creep actually likes your service enough to make you their call party.
Also, there’s always the issue of holding a table for them. One of my regulars dines virtually every Saturday night at about the same time. They aren’t huge spenders and some people bitch a little about waiting on them because they are a couple that doesn’t spend a lot of money (you can guess which of the tables it was in the above list). However, I take a different view. They are a dependable $20 – $30 tip and they always tip around 22- 24%. They are very easy to wait on once you get the food mods down. And our management always seats their table first thing so that the server gets an early turn. So I don’t mind waiting on them at all when I’m in that station. There have been times when I was getting hammered by my other tables and they were a bit of a “port in a storm”.
And that gets to one of the main reasons that I like regulars and call parties. They usually offer a safety valve if things are going to hell in a handbasket. They understand if you’re getting creamed because, not only can they see it for themselves, they know your normal standard of service. They are generally more patient and they also know the dynamics of the restaurant very well so they usually don’t complain about things that others would. If a steak gets overcooked, they realize that 99% of the time, the steak is correct and that mistakes (no pun intended) happen. You don’t always get that from a random guest, especially someone who hasn’t dined in your restaurant.
And, for me, there’s something nice about waiting on people who know me as a professional waiter. And there’s something even nicer when they appreciate my service enough to ask for me specifically.
I’m not too much of a small talker, and my regulars and call parties know this about me. some of my fellow servers are known for being super personable and spend far more time than I do conversing when they can and their call parties ask for them for exactly that reason. Me? I do a certain amount of small talk, but my call parties seem to like that about me – that I don’t overwhelm them with personal stuff. And the regulars that I’ve waited on don’t seem to demand a huge amount of interaction. We might catch up a little, but that’s about all. They know that they’re going to get efficient, prompt but not too prompt service and get the proper tone (some like my off-the-wall sense of humor and some appreciate that I know when an important business discussion is going on).
Regulars and call parties can make the difference between a good night and a great night. Rarely are they an inconvenience and that they are mostly pluses far negates the occasional downside.
How do you generate regulars? Well, that’s the goal of every waiter anyway. You want guests to return repeatedly, even if they don’t turn into your personal call party. You really don’t do anything other than give top-notch service. So, basically you just want to give your normal great service.
For turning either a regular or a new guest into a call party, there are certain things that you can do. First of all, if your restaurant offers free business cards, and some do, take them up on it and put your card in the check presenters of guests that you have enjoyed waiting on. It’s even better to put them in the host’s hand. You can even be blatant and hand them the card and say, “Feel free to ask for me the next time you come in”. I actually did this with the $134 table. They were great to wait on, every easy, were happy to be dining in the restaurant and thanked me for my great service. I told them that I hped that they’d ask for me the next time they came in and I handed them my card. They said that they would and that they’d be dining again next month and that they’d ask for me. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that they will, but if they do, I’ve guarnateed myself a pleasant, easy-to-wait-on table that tips 20% and doesn’t “round down” the tip. what’ s not to like? That will be one table that will come into the restaurant with a positive feeling that they will be taken care of and appreciated. they don’t have to worry “Will I get good service?’ because I’ll give them the benefit of a closer attention to detail because they’ve taken care of me in the past. Plus, I know what they like in terms of food and drink.
If your restaurant doesn’t offer business cards, you can certainly get them made yourself. they aren’t that expensive. You might ask your manager if you can use the company logo, but that isn’t necessary. All you need is your name followed by “Waiter/Server/Waitress/whatever term you like”, and the name, address and phone number of the restaurant. Of course, it might be wise to ask if the house allows you to give out business cards because it might be against house policy (although for the life of me I can’t imagine why it would be). These cards can also be used in your private life. Just as people who you bank with, do business with or entertain with sometimes give you their business card, you can reciprocate and give them yours. When you do this, you can say something like, “BTW, I wait tables here and I’d be happy to serve you if you ever come in”. If your restaurant empowers you to give a free appetizer or dessert to new guests, you can also say something like, “I’ll take good care of you”. When they come in, you can give them that appetizer or dessert as a thank you for coming in and asking for you. If your restaurant has free stuff cards that managers give to valued guests as some do, you can ask your management for a couple and tell them that you’d like to give a couple out along with your business card. Make sure that you have the blessing of management when offering free stuff though. Don’t do it on your own by trying to scam the system.
If you can’t do business cards, you can still ask a really good guest to ask for you the next time that they come in. If the restaurant has a computerized/online reservation system, you have an advantage. If they agree to ask for you, you can assure this by upping the ante and telling them, “I can make it really easy for you. Should I put my name down under your information”? If their name is listed on the computer, and it will be if they weren’t a walk-in, most rezzie systems will have a “notes” area where you can put a notation like “Request Jean”. The best way to do this is to walk them out, stopping at the host stand and having them verify that they want you as their waiter because some waiters unscrupulously add their name to big tippers’ names without their knowledge. Management is understandably wary about a waiter simply saying that a guest wants them as their waiter. If you don’t have time to walk them out, tell your manager while the guests are still at the table. This way, they can verify if they want, plus they know that a waiter isn’t going to risk their job if adding their name can be verified on the spot.
If you are concerned about getting screwed out of a turn by a regular and you have access to the reservation book/computer, check the reservations every night and look for the presence of call parties. Let’s say you have a 7:00 call party. Alert the host/ess or MOD about it and ask if you can have an early turn on that table. Most reasonable MODs will accomodate you if they can, and they might have missed the call party status until it was too late to seat the table first.
Having said all of that, ironically, I don’t like to wait on personal friends. I find that I have trouble establishing the proper footing. I just feel a little uncomfortable, even if it’s a sure thing that a personal friend is going to hook you up. Many waiters love seeing friends because it means a fat tip, and I say, more power to ya for that! For me, waiting on “professional friends”, i.e. those who have gotten to know me through the restaurant, is fine and dandy.
The more call parties you have, the more invaluable you appear to management. the more positive comments you get from regulars, the better you look. You can even use them periodically to write letters to the restaurant in your behalf.
To wrap up, for most waiters, call parties and regulars are like a bird in the hand. While it’s nice to be challenged by the unknown, the known can smooth a rocky shift, can offer friendly and familiar interaction and can make an otherwise challenging night fulfilling. A call party is a sure thing. And I’ll take a sure thing every time. I wouldn’t want to wait on all call parties because that would get boring, but having a few in my back pocket is a nice thing. I think you’ll find the same thing.
Image from Museum of London