A couple of weeks ago, I covered waiting on the small business dinner. Today, I complete my discussion of business dinner service by talking about the dynamics of the large business gathering.
I’m really not going to get into the large catered affairs since that’s a different animal entirely. Those are structured differently and the service aspects are different. I was going to say more limited, but that’s not exactly correct. While most of the service is choreographed, there is plenty of service going on.
What I’m going to discuss is the large business dinner that you find in quite a few restaurants that have private dining rooms or who occasionally do buy-outs of the restaurant for large groups. These are basically extensions of any normal table in the sense that most of the same service steps that you have to employ for a table of four have to be applied to the larger group.
Restaurants manage the large party in different ways. Most restaurants that do substantial private party business have a dedicated banquet manager, whose responsibilities include not only managing the functions through contracts and setup instructions to the staff but also selling the restaurant’s availability to the business community as well as working with the client to nail down the best menu, beverage choices and service needs. There are a few restaurants who actually manage this function as part of the management team’s responsibilities instead of having a dedicated banquet manager.
Before I get any further, I don’t want to you to confuse the term “banquet manager” with that position in a large hotel or country club. That position is really a department position roughly equivalent to a GM in a restaurant, except that the banquet manager answers directly to other on-site personnel instead of a regional manager. They deal with some different issues of service and personnel that the restaurant “banquet manager” doesn’t.
I’m really not going to go into the different ways that a restaurant manages the larger parties except to discuss certain facets of service that can vary.
Also, under the rubrik of “business dinner”, I’ll also touch on the non-business larger dinner as well (the rehearsal dinner, the big birthday party, etc.
A waiter serving such parties has to apply different strategies depending on the circumstances of the different parties. Some of those circumstances are predetermined (pre-set menu, restricted beverage choices, etc.). Sometimes the flexibility is required based on the flow of the party (party arrives via bus vs. trickles in, award presentations and discussions, etc.) We’ll try to address these in a free-flowing fashion ourselves.
Let’s start with the first challenge – dealing with the party as it arrives.
If everyone arrives at once, it can be a challenge to get everyone either settled in their place or settled with a drink. Sometimes, the party order includes a “cocktail hour”. This means that they will stand around and visit before sitting down. This may or may not entail hors d’oeuvres, passed or set. The key to a successful cocktail hour is blanketing the arrivees with drinks. If they all arrive at once, this can be a challenge. The key is to try to get drink orders from 4 – 6 people at a time max. If you try to get more than that, it can take more time distributing the drinks and the chance for error is greater. There are some waiters who can easily memorize names and drinks and if you are one of them, that’s great. But for many waiters, it’s easy to get confused, especially if there are a lot of dark business suits mingling around. Try not to extend your capabilities past their limits. It could be that you are foced by a lack of manpower to push the envelope and that’s just part of being flexible. But try to make it as quick and easy to get drinks in the hands of partygoers as quickly as possible. Remember, you’ll get 4 drinks quicker from the bar than 8 and you can distribute them quicker that way. It could actually take longer to get 8 drinks to drinkers than to make two trips to get 4 drinks a trip. You might have to tell someone that you’ll be right back, but remember that they don’t know how many drinks you’re wrangling. Just give them the idea that you’re maxed out and most people will be patient. You might also signal one of your fellow waiters to get their order first. Teamwork is key in this situation.
The better situation is if the attendees come separately. The quicker you hit them up for a drink, the better. If they come in in knots of two to four, it’s easy to get their orders quickly. This also applies to people arriving for the large lunch where alcohol isn’t going to be served. Let’s say that they go straight to the table – best that you get them their tea or coke as soon as possible. This means that you won’t have to deal with this when taking orders.
When it comes to actual food service, there are a couple of considerations. The smart restaurant will require a fixed menu for parties of over a certain number (varies according to restaurant and kitchen capacities). If it’s a fixed menu, you can actually take orders before each table fills up, but it’s best to wait until most of them are sat. Obviously, if your house service policy forbids this, ignore this advice. But if you are allowed to do this, it can save you a lot of time and you can get your order to the kitchen a lot quicker if you take the orders as the tables fill up. It’s essential that you leave pivot point spaces open on your order pad so that you can fill in the missing spots properly. Also, even if the host says that everyone has arrived, leave any open seats blank in case a straggler arrives. If you don’t, you can screw up delivery of the food to the table. If they never show, you can tell your food runner to skip that spot. Some people like to get rid of the empty spaces, but I prefer to leave them where they are. You can decide for yourself. While I will eventually get rid of the place setting, I try to leave the chair to keep the position in place. That way, there’s no confusion. they might want you to remove the chair so that the table can spread out. If you do that, make sure you re-number your positions in order to make sure that there’s no confusion when handing out the food.
If you have a fixed menu and it includes salads, try to resist the temptation of presetting salads unless it’s part of the event order. while it would appear to make your job easier, there’s a drawback that inexperienced waiters fail to consider – the gap between the sald course and the entree. some diners will start nibbling at their salad when they first sit down. They might very well be almost finished with their salad before you even put in the entree order. The entire party will surely be finished with their salads quickly and then they’ll have to wait and wait and wait for their entrees. Best to deliver the salads after you’ve taken the entree order. That way, the gap is lessened. Also, even the dressing on the salad is set, there will be the inevitable dry salad requests or requests for different dressings.
In our next installment, we’ll discuss dealing with the host.