So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

After Armageddon

I was watching a show called After Armageddon on The History Channel the other day. I highly recommend it as a pretty gritty and realistic look at a post pandemic America, portrayed through a husband, wife and pre-teenage son. It’s interspersed with four or five different experts in different fields taking us through what would happen if 10,000,000 Americans died from a world-wide Asian-spawned giant pandemic. Try not to watch it before bedtime.

It ticks off the various stages of what survivors would face day by day and week by week. It’s a pretty logical progression of dominoes falling. Imagine what happens, for instance, when internet services cease because there’s not enough staff to keep the infrastructure running. It’s not just a matter of you not being able to read this very fine blog – commerce now depends very heavily on the internet (almost dangerously so). Shipments grind to a halt, ports have to close, financial transactions are unable to be effected – you know, those kind of things that we don’t like to think about. I think the most chilling part was about 2 weeks into the pandemic when the lights were still on but the television suddenly stops working. It was portrayed perfectly with that sense that panic was about to set in.

The reason that I’m writing about this in the context of a restaurant blog is that a restaurant should have an “emergency plan” in case the point-of-sale (hereafter referred to as POS) system fails. Many corporate restaurants actually have an emergency plan in the office in the case of robbery, fire, natural disaster, but few of them have a step-by-step plan for if the POS system goes down for more than a minute.

Think about it – it’s a busy Friday night and the terminal goes down. This happens in most restaurants every once in a while, but it’s usually off-line for only a couple of minutes at best. But what happens if it’s down for 10 minutes while the GM is scrambling to get instructions from the support company for a hard drive that’s just gone down in the main server? Most POSes have redundancy built in, but sometimes it takes some time to get the whole system back on-line. Is your restaurant prepared? Do you have old-fashioned guest checks somewhere where waiters can get their hands on them? Can your kitchen handle manual checks and are the managers able to guide you through reconciliation when you have to move all of those checks back into the computerized system?

I actually went through this once. It was my first night at the restaurant that I had transferred to. I was the assistant manager of a brewpub in a different city than the one that I had managed for the past three years and we had a different POS system than the one that I had come from (different hardware, newer version of the software). And, to top it off, ironically it was St. Patrick’s Day (which is probably another reason my thoughts went from the History Channel to the restaurant, since St. Paddy’s Day is in three days).

Our system went down at about 7:30pm in the middle of a very busy night (I wonder why it was so busy – it was only St. Patrick’s Day in a brewpub!)

It took me almost 20 minutes to get us back on line – mainly due to my unfamiliarity with the system. and yes, it was a bit of chaos having to guide a bunch of waiters, bartenders and kitchen crew that I didn’t know through having to switch to manual orders. We got through it of course, but it could have been smoother ( the restaurant having a more seasoned manager would have helped…)

Anyway, as a waiter, you aren’t in the position to do much to influence management in this regard. Management traditionally doesn’t listen to us very much, especially when it comes to back-office stuff. They will see you as a nuisance if you ask them if guest checks can be put somewhere in an already crowded and untidy waiter’s station. They will look at you like you’re crazy if you ask them if the restaurant is prepared for a POS meltdown. It’s really not part of your job description to maintain such a plan.

They are like the rest of us in society; they just don’t want to prepare for the worst case scenario and they really don’t want to think about it.

So, what should you do?

Well, not much, really. I just want you to think about how dependent we are on electronics. The main thing you can do is keep this in mind – if the POS goes down when it’s busy and it doesn’t come up any quicker than about 5 minutes max, the first thing you should do is to go to a manager and ask if they can break out guest checks and get your hands on some. You should let them know that you are going to start putting in orders into the kitchen using the checks and that you are going to present guest checks to guest if you have anybody just about ready to pay.

Managers aren’t dummies (OK, I know that some of you will disagree because of facts on the ground). But it’s easy for them to get lost in trying to get the POS back up to the exclusion of what’s going on in the dining room and the kitchen. You might need to be forceful in getting this issues in the dining room taken care of. You should also prep yourself for possible kitchen meltdown because they aren’t used to manual orders. And you should make sure that you keep a copy of EVERYTHING that goes into the kitchen. This is easier said than done. If you order an appetizer round and the system comes back up and you go back to computerized ordering, you have to remember to enter that appetizer round in as a “don’t make”. Why “don’t make”? Well, the kitchen is going to make it for a second time if you don’t. Also, a smart manager might want to audit checks to make sure that everything was rung in. They might keep all of the paper orders that the kitchen received and verify that they hit the computerized guest check. And you don’t want to get reamed for forgetting to ring them up – plus, you obviously don’t want to lose the additional revenue which will drop your tip.

If you can’t do much about preparedness, then why am I writing about this? Well, it’s just to put a bug in your ear and something for you to keep in the back of your mind. I’m not trying to be alarmist or come off as a survivalist but it’s worth knowing what to do as a waiter if the worst happens. You might need to be the voice of reason to a manager who’s running around in the middle of his first shift in a new restaurant on St. Patrick’s Day.

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