So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

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:

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.

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