So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

Monthly Archives: October 2010

Halloween uniform check

No, I’m not suggesting that you wear a costume while working tonight. I’m sure that some of you will. I once wore a costume for a Halloween.

I was “The Invisible Man”.

No, I didn’t pull a no-show – I actually dressed up in the style of Claude Rains, the original 40s “Invisible Man” from film fame (he was the same actor who played CPT. Louis Renault who said the famous line, “Round up the usual suspects” in Casablanca).

I wasn’t an exact replica of the movie character. I didn’t own a smoking jacket. And I didn’t have the wide cloth wrapping that he used – I was forced to use three-inch gauze. A lot of it.

I went to the Salvation Army and found the most old-fashioned, thin lapel gray suit that I could find. I bought a fedora, some big old clunky sunglasses, a black cane with a white tip and white gloves. It was great, but it would have looked better with a smoking jacket, like this:

But I have to say that I wasn’t about to pop for an expensive smoking jacket, just for Halloween, especially as I had already paid a bunch for the other stuff (and this was around 1980, so i wasn’t making a huge amount of money waiting tables). Just getting enough gauze to wrap around my big head was about $10 (which was about a fifth of what I was averaging on a typical dinner shift).

Anyway, you can imagine what waiting tables while swathed in gauze and wearing shades was like. Fortunately, the restaurant that I worked in was small and easy to maneuver in. After work, I went to a big “Halloween party” held in a movie theater and sponsored by a radio station and I won second place!

Anyway, it’s not about wearing a costume but reminding you that it’s the end of the month and time to make sure that you your uniform doesn’t look like you’re wearing a hobo’s costume.

Look for the usual suspects – frayed, stained or tattered cuffs, faded blacks, impossible to remove ring-around-the-collar, worn out soles, etc. Once you get in the habit doing this either at the beginning and end of the month, it will become second nature. What you’re doing is looking very closely and critically at each piece of your uniform. During the month you’ll do spot checks but this is the time to determine whether a piece needs to be discarded, refreshed, put in the emergency stack or tended to.

This is called managing your appearance. Don’t let your appearance manage you. By this, I mean that there’s nothing worst than to have your manager tell you that you need a new shirt and you’re on your last shirt and you’re 5 days behind on your rent.

There’s something also to be said for keeping a brand new shirt in safekeeping for when a corporate visit is announced, especially if you have to order it through the company.

A couple of interesting things about the movie The Invisible Man – the movie was directed by James Whale, the British director of Frankenstein. And who’s that beautiful lady in the picture? Why that’s Gloria Stuart, the actress who played the Titanic survivor in James Cameron’s epic movie. Sadly, she passed away at the age of 100 just a few weeks ago.

Yes, dear friends…

..it’s a new look.

I liked the old look except for the size of the font. It was just too small.

So I kept a similar look with a larger font.

I dropped all of those silly blog vanity badges (truth be told, I might bring a couple of them back at some point). There are now three footer areas, so check the bottom of the blog. I might keep tweaking this theme for a couple of days, so be alert for changes.

I’m not one for changing my blog nilly-willy. This is my 4th theme in a little over a year and a half. The first theme lasted a long time and the last two have been transitional themes, with me trying to simplify and yet making the blog look visually interesting. Not being an under-the-hood type, I’m sticking with prefabricated themes. I hope that this one sticks for a while. But, who knows – next week you might find me back to the previous theme…

Any long-time readers are welcome to weigh in.

“Ass, Cash or Grass” – I used to be a Swinger

Love, absolutely LOVE this story:

http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2009/11/ass_cash_or_grass_-_i_used_to.php

This is my favorite part:

We ordered our grub and then I launched into my odd, back-storied request; “My daughter wants to be a Swinger’s waitress for Halloween…”

“Wow, cool!” she marvelled.

“Thing is, we need a skirt.”

“Oh…people always want those. But they’re only for staff.”

“Yeah, but see, I used to be a Swinger’s waitress myself.”

And that’s when it happened: this girl ogled me in total disbelief. As if to say is it possible this crone, with her teenagers, her sensible cardigan, her freckled hands and crepey cleavage, could have once been hip and young enough to hustle hash? And then I watched as her mind cartwheeled over to the next logical and more terrifying thought: could this be me one day?

The waitress gaped at me like I was living history — Miss Jane Pittman come to put her withered lips to the “Young Only” fountain straw of ageism. “No way,” she gasped, as though the Crypt Keeper herself had just texted her this news from beyond the grave. I peered at her over the tops of my progressives and said, “Way.”


Image from http://www.laobserved.com/

I waited on you and all I got was this silly pen.

Well, sorta.

There’s little that bugs me as much as someone taking my pen. I find it annoying, dishonest and thoughtless. You wouldn’t nick a mechanic’s wrench, would you?

But I found something that annoys me even more. and I’ll have to say that this was a first.

The other day, I actually had a guest who took my Pilot G-2 07 gel pen and left me a cheap, advertising pen. Maybe it was unintentional but I don’t think so. He saw his chance to snag one of the best disposable pens around and ditch a cheap, no-cost, crappy pen that he probably has a drawerful of. Maybe he thought that it would be good promotion for his business. Or maybe he thought that it was a good way to ditch a pen that someone else had foisted on him.

Regardless, the comapny is screwed because I would now never use their services, nor would I recommend them to anyone. I would name them here, but I can’t be 100% sure that it’s actually the company that he works for.

I would have thought that I’d find some small comfort in at least getting a pen in return, but I find that it actually bugs me more than he he simply stolen my pen.  Additionally, I’m not allowed to present an advertising pen to a guest, so it’s useless in my work. It now will knock around the house as a last-ditch pen.

So, here’s to you, asshole. I’m glad that you tipped me 17% but the least you could have done is leave me 20% instead of doing some torturous calculation.

After all, you got a really nice gel pen from me and all I got was a silly T***ourse green shitty pen.

Goodbye old friend.

Brand refresh

Any Doctor Who fans in the house?

I was re-watching a couple of the new season and was reminded that the (new) series always refreshes the opening title sequence slightly. I’m actually old enough to remember Tom Baker as perhaps the most famous Doctor Who of all time – the doctor from the mid-70s (he’s the iconic one, all tweedy and wild curly hair and the trademark scarves).

For those of you unfamiliar with Doctor Who, it’s a venerable BBC series that has been around since the early 60s and ran until 1989, when it went dormant.  In 2005, it was revived, bringing happiness to those who grew up with the series.

Doctor Who is a Timelord. He looks human but is actually a separate species with two hearts and one very advanced brain and an immune system to die for (basically, as long as certain conditions are met, he can’t die, but he is “regenerated”, complete with a new body and face. His last name isn’t Who. We don’t know his name. He’s just the Doctor. Doctor Who gives the writers plenty of opportunity for clever wordplay when someone is first introduced to him – “Doctor WHO”? “No, just The Doctor”.

This regeneration is a very clever conceit by the producers as it allows them to bring in a new actor to play the part. There have been 11 “Doctors” since the story began (12 if you count a guy who thought he was the Doctor because he had absorbed all of the information about the Doctor – of course, he was just a human, but it made for an interesting Christmas episode and starred the always charming David Morrissey as the misguided Victorian with a balloon replacing the Doctor’s famous TARDIS and a wooden version of the famed “Sonic Screwdriver”, the Doctor’s only “weapon” besides his brain and wits.

Why am I going off on a fanboy’s idolization of Dr. Who?

Because it illustrates the difference between a brand refresh and a re-branding.

The Doctor Who title sequence/theme song has been basically the same since the beginning. However, each season (at least for the 3 renewal seasons and certainly for some of the original series), there is a slight difference in the graphics and the theme song. this would be a “refresh”. It doesn’t change the basic nature of the title sequence but it “modernizes” it or provides a difference to delineate it from the preceding season.

However, when Dr. Who regenerates, it’s like a “re-branding”. The face is totally changed. The new actor brings his own quirks, characteristics and cadence to the role. The first Doctor in the revival seasons was a bit dark (Christopher Eccleston), the second more playful but full of power, intense and is judgmental at times (Scottish actor, David Tennant) and the new Doctor seems to have a more childlike and buoyant personality (Matt Smith). However, many of the basic personality traits of the Doctor’s own quirks are preserved.

This is the mark of a successful rebranding. Sometimes the slate is wiped clean and the restaurant takes an entirely new direction and flavor. But generally, when you rebrand, you want to retain a link to the past. You want to keep the basic character of the restaurant that has been developed over time, and you don’t shift from one concept to another (a Mexican restaurant goes to Italian, for instance). Usually shifting concepts or market niches occurs when a restaurant is sold to another who wants to turn it into a brand new restaurant.

Many, if not most rebrandings take the idea of rebranding literally. They change the name, the decor and the product mix. However, they tend to try to retain a lot of the things that made the previous brand strong while bringing the restaurant into a new era. The Houston’s rebranding to Hillstone is a good example:

 http://www.nrn.com/article/hillstone-restaurant-group-rebranding-houstons-units

They aren’t moving up or down market – they are trying to create a mental link with a more local and seasonal-type menu and  insulate themselves from the image of being a “chain” (Houston’s is a venerable brand but is seen as just another mass-market chain in a sea of mass-market chains). This is always fraught with danger, especially when you tamper with a chain that has seen massive success and is perceived as a restaurant that provides a certain level of consistent quality. Houston’s is leveraging this danger by not converting all of its units to Hillstone. There will still be Houston’s in certain places, but I suspect that if the rebranding is successful, the Houston’s brand will eventually disappear from the face of the Earth.

On the other hand, you have what I would term a “refresh”. Three years ago, Ruby Tuesday’s “rebranded” but I think that  it was really closer to a refreshing. the name only changed by removing “Bar and Grill” from the title. One could argue that, by moving upmarket with some pricier items, this was a rebranding, but I don’t think that they did a substantial change to decor (this had already occurred. They kept most of what was good about the restaurant (the salad bar, the upscale bar food like premium burgers, etc.) and tried to push check averages up and attract a slightly more affluent crowd.

So why would I term this a refresh and what is a refresh? In my mind, a refresh is when you retain more of the original concept. Instead of going up or down market, you introduce aspects of those markets which you haven’t really captured. For instance, a trend in steakhouses is to incorporate value meals, prix fixe specials, more modern drink offerings, etc. Another restaurant might revamp their platewear, plate presentation, do a dining room remodel, expand a wine list and premium liquor brands or offer only premium brands as their well brands. They might design a new logo. They might aggressively seek to-go and meal replacement business. One of the most common refresh items is the uniform. It’s relative cheap and can give the impression of a freshened decor without doing a lot of demolition.

One example of a refresh that appears to have possibility for success is the Palm Steakhouse. I have a friend who is a long-time regular in one of the East Coast restaurants who pointed me to their new website. Having been to the previous website when doing posts on other subjects in the past, I knew that it was in desperate need of renovation. It was ugly, unwieldy and not particularly informative or evocative. It was basically a placeholder. However, the new website has a timeless sort of look that reflects the heritage of the long-standing restaurant chain (which, oddly enough is still privately owned). It has a burnished look that fits the decor (sort of a men’s clubby look that doesn’t seem or feel ‘exclusive”). digging deeper, I found this statement from Libretto, the company which worked on the redesign:

September 2010 – Libretto is pleased to announce the launch of the redesigned Palm Restaurant website. Libretto and Korn Design were engaged by The Palm to revitalize the classic American steakhouse’s brand, messaging, and website. During an extensive discovery process, the two firms worked closely with The Palm to surface and reinterpret the authentic brand attributes that distinguished the restaurant prior to its national expansion. Libretto then developed new messaging and Web content to support The Palm’s polished identity. The resulting site features clear navigation, engaging content, and a vibrant mix of contemporary and historic photos.

Clearly, they didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. They focused on the heritage of the 80+ year old restaurant and did a virtual steam cleaning which didn’t alter the character or the restaurant but made it sparkle.

Here’s the new website:

http://www.thepalm.com/

There are moving parts without it being distracting. There are multigenerational shots, showing younger and older people enjoying dining together. There is a requisite number of trendy ear-length closely cropped sideburns and more than a fair share of modern pricey eyewear while retaining more than a few receding hairlines, pin-striped suits and grey haired, well-tended older types as well. This seem quite intentional. The Palm is known for having an older clientele and so, it would seem incumbent on them to try to steal market share from hipper, more trendy expensive restaurants. There’s enough food porn to caress the eye and the site is fairly logically laid-out and easy to negotiate.

My friend wasn’t too specific but she implied that there were going to be some menu refreshes as well as some changes in presentation. She said that she actually went to one of the restaurants that has started the change and was pleasantly surprised. She said that the plates had changed but didn’t get too specific about any other changes.

I tried to find a cached version of the old website but didn’t have any success. Trust me when I say that it was bleak. I can’t really comment on whether or not the menu needs refreshing as I’ve never dined out there (it’s a bit out of my price range). Having reported on some of their menu changes, I’ve seen their menu and it seems fairly old-school, so perhaps it could stand to move forward a little. But they are quite successful and have been since the 20s, so I suspect that, as with their website, they will update without losing touch with what has made them the hit that they have been.

The Palm isn’t the only steakhouse to refresh. They’ve all done it during this time of economic crisis. whether it’s offering bar food specials or bundled meals for lesser prices, look for more, not less of this sort of refresh. Other restaurant routinely tweak their product yearly, sometimes doing enough to call it an actual refresh or, more often, just doing enough to call it a tweak. People like familiarity, but they also don’t want to eat in a stale environment. they need just enough change to make them feel like they’re eating in a newly-scrubbed dining room with a modern menu. 

Man, all of this from watching Doctor Who.

One thing though, BBC producers, don’t you think it’s time for a female Doctor? 

From the Palm website.

New blog added – Culinary Grammar

This is a nice blog for foodies. There’s enough food porn to keep the “gourmand” in each foodie happy and there is a personal touch that marks the best private culinary blogs.

The author is/was in Nashville, so there’s that. There’s lots of local color that she exposes to the rest of the world. She is a graduating student who is moving to Dallas to teach, so this might explain why the last post was back in April. Perhaps she graduated back in the spring and she’s getting established in her new career. I suspect that she will pick back up when things get stabilized because she obviously has an affinity for talking about food. I know all about having to take a break, although my recent break was less to do with recharging and more to do with taking care of business. I normally don’t recommend dormant blogs, but I just get the feeling that it’s a temporary condition.

Perhaps I’ll do a post in the near future recommending truly dormant blogs because there are a few that remain relevant, funny and interesting even though the author might have left the food industry.

So, let’s drink a nice sweet tea over our plate of collards and welcome Steph to the fold!

Here’s a pic from the blog (I reduced the size – it’s bigger there). It’s a nice table of food from my friend and great chef Margo McCormack’s lovely restaurant, Marché:

Photo from the blog “Culinary Grammar”. Photo presumably from the author of the blog.

http://culinarygrammar.wordpress.com/about-2/

I’m still around…

…just dormant right now.

I’ve had to deal with a personal issue and it’s just about wrapped up. In the meantime, I’d suggest that you go back and relive the glory days of the archives. I’ll bet that there are a few posts that you have to catch up on, especially considering how prolific I have been in the past.

Also, remember that we’re in a change of seasons period. You might reread the posts that concern that. You can probably find them by using the search function.

Anywho, thanks for hanging in with me…

Analyst optimistic about restaurant growth

From Nation’s Restaurant News:

Improved sales expected in next round of restaurant earnings

Analyst: Chains still face higher commodity prices and shaky consumer confidence

October 6, 2010

Mark Brandau

While commodity price inflation looms on the horizon and the Consumer Confidence Index has retreated to its lowest level since February, Morgan Keegan analysts Robert Derrington, Destin Tompkins and Joe Drake think recent improving same-store sales at 15 of the restaurant companies the firm tracks should continue this quarter and into 2011.

Read the rest of the article here:

http://www.nrn.com/article/improved-sales-expected-next-round-restaurant-earnings

On Schedules

Our friends at Tips On Improving Your Tips (link in Ye Olde Blogroll) started a very nice 3 part series on the advantages and disadvantages of set schedules with this post:

http://tipsfortips.wordpress.com/2010/09/20/the-disadvantages-of-set-schedules/

In the last of the three posts, it was written, “I will be honest here.  I recognize this is probably not the most exciting series I have written on this blog”. It might not have been the most exciting, but it certainly was interesting to me, at least.

I’ve worked both set and floating schedules.  When I managed, I was fortunate to inherit a set schedule (well, it was reset quarterly when necessary in order to accommodate students’ school schedules). There were several key elements to making it work.

First, we had three different evening floor charts – one for Fri- Sat (10 sections plus 5 bar tables as a section), one for Tues – Thurs (9 sections) and one for Sun – Mon (8 sections). At 4:15 every afternoon, I assigned sections to waiters. Seniority was only an issue in that I tried not to give a new waiter a challenging section until they were ready.  Our sections were fairly even in terms of difficulty and popularity and we sat in strict rotation (unless someone requested a certain server or wanted to sit in a different section).  We had two large rounds that were part of a three table station while the rest of the stations were 5 table stations, and it was those two large top sections that I kept away from weaker waiters. We only had a couple that I had to worry about, and they eventually came around. In the almost 3 years that I managed, I only had to hire 2 or 3 waiters, so I had a fairly stable, competent and reliable staff.

We didn’t take reservations and we were rarely on much of a wait during the week (maybe 15 – 20 min). Our average table turn was about 50 minutes and once we were full, we’d generally get rid of about 2 tables every 3 – 4 minutes or so. So we were generally able to keep things flowing. On Friday and Saturday, we’d go on a wait around 7pm and it would last until about 8:30. Generally the wait stayed at about 45 minutes. So, as you can see, we weren’t the busiest place in the world, but we had decent business. These tendencies allowed for a certain comfort level in having a locked-in schedule with a set number of waiters.

We had a shift swap/pickup board that was fairly active. there were always a couple of notes up there either giving away a shift or asking to pick up shifts. I think I only had 2 times where I had to run a short floor because something came up at the last minute that couldn’t get covered. The key to shift swaps or pickups was that the pickup or swap had to be put in the daily book, initialed by both parties and approved and initialed by a manager. There were always shift sharks out there willing to pick up any stray shifts and there were always waiters who wanted to go camping or do a road trip or see a concert and it always seemed to work out. On the rare occasions where someone couldn’t get a shift covered, they came to me and I helped by finding someone who appreciated some extra consideration in the future.

As I mentioned, we rewrote the schedule every quarter to accommodate changing school schedules. Usually, we only needed to do minor tweaks. Basically, every waiter was required to submit any changes that they needed to make. They still needed to submit something in writing that said that they didn’t need any changes. During this period, I might need to help with the shuffle by asking a waiter if they could move from here to there or pick up a shift here and drop another shift there. I don’t think that I ever had to mandate a change in someone’s schedule. Through cooperation, I was always able to make it work.

Not having a section rotation was also important. Since the sections were fairly even in terms of desirability, it was fairly easy to avoid accusations of favoritism. If I knew that if someone didn’t have a lot of luck in a certain station, I kept them away from it (we waiters are a superstitious lot). The only hard part was the bar, which required a certain skill set. I tried to build a core of three or four servers who could not only handle it but could also make money there and I tried to rotate them in every once in a while. We also built a small patio while I was a manager and I had to account for that as well. I only had to do it for two seasons so I don’t really remember much about how I accommodated it. 

One concession that each waiter had to make was to be ready to go home if business didn’t warrant the floor coverage. I’ve found that, no matter what restaurant I’ve ever worked in, there’s always a waiter willing to go home early and there’s always a waiter there to make as much money as possible. So, we had a little flexibility if the night wasn’t developing. Sometimes, if I suspected that it was going to be light, I would put certain people in certain stations. As in any restaurant, we had stations that were easier to close early than other sections, and there was a handful of sections that could be used as closing stations.  Except for Friday and Saturday, I would generally ask around to see who might want to be first cut and who wanted to stay until the bitter end. One of the keys to success was being smart in station cuts throughout the night. If I had a strong couple of waiters willing to stay, I could be more aggressive in making cuts. If I didn’t, I would have to keep people on longer.

This system wouldn’t work in my current restaurant, where we need anywhere from 6 – 15 dinner waiters depending on the day of the week, private parties and special events in the neighborhood (when you have a Paul McCartney performing right down the street on a Tuesday night, you need more than the usual waiters!) Our schedule changes every week, although each waiter has the option to request set days off, so it sort of combines the best of both worlds. It’s ranked from top to bottom by seniority, with the more senior people getting first choice of days off. Those days are blacked out so the waiter knows that they’re always off on those days. Each waiter has to work at least 2 lunches (Mon – Fri only).  The sections are pre-selected, so you always know if you’re closing or working private parties or are in a less desirable section. On-the-spot section swapping is allowed by management. Rarely, someone will even switch into a closing station if someone has decided that they’ve had enough. There’s a lot of deal-making that goes on among certain waiters in terms of pickup shifts and section swaps.

This sort of set schedule would  be unnecessary in my previous restaurant.

I guess that my point is, each restaurant has to find its own happy medium. The most successful system is a co-operative one. When I was transferred to a different restaurant in a different city with the first restaurant that I described, I found that the system that they had in place up there was different from the one that I had and it needed to be tweaked to be closer to the one that I was familiar with. However, I did it with input from my new staff. They were a bit dissatisfied with the “favoritism” and irregularity of their schedules, so I outlined how I did it in my previous city and it was agreed that this would be a fairer system. We didn’t change it totally because we had a bigger bar in the new restaurant and the section layout was different as well. I don’t remember exactly how it was different, but the system that I had employed in the previous restaurant wouldn’t have worked exactly in the new restaurant, partially due to the wildly different table layout. So, we adapted the old system to the new circumstances. Note that I said “we”. I needed a lot of waiter input because the traffic flow and customer mix was very different. Even the hours were different.

I want to thank  Tips On Improving Your Tips for approaching the subject of schedules. It’s something that affects both managers and waiters on a daily basis. It can mean the difference between a contented and productive staff and a staff on the edge of mutiny.