So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Daily Archives: May 12, 2010

How do I become a great waiter?

This is a question that every waiter should ask themselves.

Sadly, it’s a question that never crops up for many. Many waiters simply are trying to get through the day or are only waiting tables because it’s a stepping stone to another career; a way to put bread on the table while working toward a different career goal. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

But shouldn’t the goal in any job to be the best that one can be? Should the day to day burdens of the job blind us to this basic premise?

First of all, despite all of my pompous and officious statements and insights on the job, I’m not a “great waiter”. I make too many mistakes, whether it be missrings, misreads of guests, shifts where I’m just going though the motions, lack of physical grace, etc. There are waiters where I work that seem to have a seamless waiting persona. They never have to struggle with missrings, they “look the part”, and they have an ease no matter what the dining world throws at them. Even when all around them is collapsing and weeds are growing well above the heads of fellow servers, they never seem to break a sweat, nor do they do anything but slightly increase their pace.

I envy them. They are what you might call “naturals”.

For the rest of us, we have to work at it.

Much of my blog is geared toward hints, advice and support to enable the rest of us to “up our game”.

There are some keys that I think that can move us toward the goal of “great waiter”, regardless of whether we work in the most tony establishment or the most humble meat and three. Obviously, god is in the details. There is a matter of degree when you are waiting on a table spending $1000 vs waiting on a clientele that’s trying to grab lunch in an hour while having to wait for a table for 30 minutes. But I think that there some broad stroke “global” things that every waiter should keep in mind.

These are in no particular order of importance.

1. Know who you are. This means, know your limitations and abilities and constantly strive to work toward your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses. You can be the greatest “people person” in the world, but if you can’t deal with getting quadruple-seated in a restaurant where this sort of thing happens regularly, you won’t be able to be a great waiter. You need to look less on refining your tableside manner and more at organization and focus. Why spend time trying to polish things that you seem to do well already? Better to devote the time and energy into where it’s needed. Why do you seem to melt down when others seem to easily deal with the crush? Is it because you panic when it comes to putting orders in while you know that you’ve just been sat with two new tables? Is this why you ring in the wrong meat temperature or forget to ring in an entrée? Is it just a matter of focus because you deal with the stress by developing tunnel vision, which leaves you breathless when you’re trying to deal with the things that you’ve put on the back burner? If you can identify these “flaws”, you can deal with them head-on and develop some strategies to attack them. It’s not easy, but you should make the attempt. Perhaps you could talk with some of the “superstars” at your restaurant, preferably over a beer or cocktail.

2. Know your menu. I’m constantly harping on this. You should know everything that goes into your dishes. You really can’t ever be a “great waiter” otherwise. You can have all of the personality in the world, but, let’s face it, people are there to dine. They have needs when it comes to the food, whether it be allergies, preferences, biases, or safety concerns. You need to be able to address every one of these needs, and knowing your food inside and out will give you the ability to do this.

3. Fine tune your ability to read body language and also be able to read what the guest is telling you even if they don’t themselves know. A few people have this gift naturally. The rest of us have to learn on the fly. You do this by trial and error. There’s nothing I can say to make it easier, except to say that every table adds to your “internal Rolodex”. Don’t discard this information. You have to absorb this like a sponge and retain as much of it as possible. Every table is different, but there is some commonality to the way that people react to social situations. Keep in mind that dining out is one of the most common social situations, and you are a part of this social interaction. You are the glue. How you interact with the table is of paramount importance. If you are just half-stepping through a shift, as most of us do on occasion simply because of preservation, you can never forget that you are the lynchpin to even the most anti-social and rude table. Yes, there are tables that you can’t ever turn around. But many of them are just dying for you to “make them whole”. They just don’t know it. This is the time for you to dig deep and try to remember those occasions where you were able to turn it around for a table. Maybe it will work; maybe it won’t. But you’ve got experience on your side.

4. Never assume that you’re better than the guest, even if they assume that they are better than you. Yes, that’s the curse of this job – people can look down on the waiter as someone beneath them. But we waiters sometimes judge as well. I guess it’s human nature. Just don’t let it be a roadblock to a great service scenario. After all, let’s face it, it’s the guest who suffers when service is substandard, even if it’s their fault. You’ll wait on another 30 people that night, but they only have one meal. You’ll move on, even if they stiff you. But they have lost a great opportunity for a great meal. Even if they put up roadblock after roadblock, it’s your job to knock them all down. Most of the time (excluding other variables such as problems within the restaurant itself), it might very well be their fault, but the “great waiter” finds a way to overcome these roadblocks. Sometimes it might even mean some humility and even taking the blame when it’s not even our fault. but you’d be surprised how many times it will pay off at the end. Instead of having a sour guest and a sour waiter, you might end up with a mollified guest and a waiter breathing a sigh of relief. Is it fair? Not really. But sometimes you have to remember that it’s easy to win the battle but lose the war. Remember Sun Tzu: “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious“. He also said, ” If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles“.  Is the enemy the guest? No, the enemy is everything that keeps you from being a great waiter. Sometimes the guest is simply the manifestation of this.

5. Work on your poise. If you are awkward (as I often am), keep working on your body mechanics. If you are sometimes clumsy (as I often am), try to focus on your body awareness. If you stumble through your spiel, you need to work on it specifically. Don’t leave it to chance. Work out some key phrases that bind every spiel, regardless of content. One way to do this might be to take a public speaking class at a local institution. Another might be to practice in front of a mirror. The key is to make it seem natural and not like you’re reading from a teleprompter or cue cards. It should seem to the guest that you are speaking extemporaneously, that you are saying these words for the first time. Some waiters have an advantage – they might be unemployed actors or just natural public speakers. For the rest of us, we need to work on our phrasing, rhythm and pace. Try to duplicate the sound that you make when you tell your spouse about the day you’ve had.

There are obviously other things that I’m might talk about in the future. I’ve certainly covered other things in previous posts. Just remember that if you can attack these 5 areas, you will make great strides toward being a “great waiter”.

One other thing – a great waiter is a team player. You can have the most call parties, sell the most every shift, always have the best tip percentages, but if you forget about the things that the team has to do during the shift because you want to “concentrate on my tables”, then you aren’t a “great waiter”. You’re simply a “welfare waiter” who depends on your fellow waiters to pick up your slack. Shame on ya. It’s easy to be a great tableside waiter if you don’t have to do any of the things that the rest of the “mere mortal waiters” are dealing with. And myabe you shouldn’t be so proud as this might be the only thing propping up your “greatness”.