So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Serving the business dinner pt.3 – The Host

Business dinners invariably have a host. He or she might not be called The Host, but there is always someone “in charge”.

It might not be the boss, it might be the boss’s administrative assistant. It might not be the boss’s administrative assistant, it might be the head of HR. It might not be the head of HR, it might be the “party planner”. It might not be any of them; it might be the “on-site contact”.

In any event,  it’s always helpful to find the person with the power. The power might actually be shared by more than one person. One person might have the power of the purse while deferring to the “wine geek of the company”. Or The Boss might be the center of power but is merely the person that everyone is deferring to (read “sucking up to”), while someone else is making all of the critical decisions (bottled water vs. tap, drinks by the glass or wine by the bottle, cheap wine vs. expensive wine, etc.).

If you work off of some sort of written contract, and there’s a person designated as on-site contact, it’s important to find them as soon as possible. As people arrive, I usually ask the first people if they will tell me who it is when they arrive. Sometimes it’s the first person to arrive but it isn’t always the case.

I try to find out a couple of things.

First, is this a formal business meeting or is it just colleagues just getting together socially? If it’s a formal business dinner, is there going to be a presentation, lecture, Q&A, or any sort of structured timetable? If there is a presentation, should service cease until it’s over or does the service staff serve through it? If it’s the former, I always like to find out if that means no presentation of food but continuation of refilling glasses, taking drink orders etc. Sometimes they’ll even ask the service staff to not reënter the room until the presentation is over. You don’t want to teach the person all of the nuances of service, but you should try to find out as much information as you can without making the contact’s head spin.

Next, you’ll want to ask if they want to offer bottled water to their guests. If so, do yourself a favor and just offer flat water. Try not to say “sparkling or still or both”. Make it easy. If someone prefers sparkling as you pour around, just get them sparkling water. You don’t want yourself or your server assistants to have to keep track of who’s having what.

If you have no “on-site contact” name, don’t be shy about asking who’s in charge as soon as people start arriving. Identify the person in charge and go through the previous sequence.

The next thing you’ll want to find out is whether they want to choose wine for the group (if it isn’t already known). Sometimes they’ll defer to someone else. Before you talk to anyone around wine, have a couple of “go-to” red and white wines in the budget, mid-priced and expensive category. You don’t want to fumble around if they ask you on the spot what you’d recommend. My strategy is to lead with wines in the $50 – 70 range unless it looks like they’ll want something expensive (this is a matter of feel – sometimes you can just sense that this is an important function where they’ll want to impress their attendees). But I generally don’t offer suggestions immediately. I like to hand them the opened wine list and point out the various categories. By doing that, I can sometimes tell what price range they are focusing on by following their eyes and their fingers. If they are only looking at budget wines, that tells me that I need to avoid talking about more expensive wines because I don’t want them thinking that I’m trying to gouge them.

Next, I want to find out if I can provide appetizer assortments for the group.  I try to imply that sharing some appetizers can make it a smoother dinner since there’s one less decision that each attendee has to make.

While the “power person” in the room might not be paying or even making any decisions about food and drink, they are still the Alpha of the group. You always want to be cognizant of their mood. However, you never want to give them extra attention. The same goes for the person who ordered the wine or the person who’s paying. You don’t want them to think that you’re grassing for the tip or avoiding their guests to concentrate on them. Just always be aware of them throughout the meal.

These are just some general guidelines for working with the host of the party. Feel free to flesh out the subject by commenting.

2 responses to “Serving the business dinner pt.3 – The Host

  1. Christina April 28, 2012 at 5:03 am

    Thanks for your tips. I’m a waitress at a restaurant where there tends to be alot of big business dinners. How do you ask who the host is without sounding blunt if you don’t have any notes on who will be in charge? The last thing I’d want to do is put a guest on the spot or go round every person asking. Thanks.

    • teleburst April 28, 2012 at 7:54 am

      Good question, Christina. There is no pat answer. Sometimes, you can tell by the name on the reservation, if there IS one. And then you can simply say something like (in an informal tone), “And who is Ms. X”? Of course, it’s not always true that the host is the person who actually made the reservation. Also, if a couple of people have arrived early, you can simply ask, “is there anyone in charge tonight”? If they say, “Mr. Y is”, you can ask them to point them out when they arrive.

      Another way is to ask “Who’d like to take charge of the wine list”? Usually, the host will either take it or be the one to pass it off to someone else, or alternately, he or she might be the one to say that they aren’t having wine.

      Many times, you can tell by the body language and demeanor of the table. People tend to defer to the host, who is usually the boss. But this isn’t always true because, if you have two separate groups, one company wooing the business of the other, it can get murky. Sometimes the host is on the “home team” because it’s their city in which business is being conducted, but sometimes, the host is on the “away team” because they are the ones trying to woo the home team. This starts making it more complicated than it really is, but the dynamics of a business dinner can be fascinating.

      The bottom line is, never be afraid to ask who the host is. I like to do it in an informal manner if the participants don’t seem to be too uptight. If they are jovial and convivial, I’ll usually say something like, “Who’s hosting this wing-ding/soiree/etc?” It’s probably putting the cart before the horse to ask something like “Who’s getting the check”. If someone hasn’t indicated that they are picking up the check, don’t ask. Just place the check presenter in the middle of the table and let them go through the check-picking-up-ritual. BTW, on that subject, if someone tells you privately that they’re picking up the check, give it to them and don’t let anyone bully you into giving it to them instead. Let THEM fight over it. This can have a negative impact on you if that person backs down and let’s the other pick up the check, because they can hold it against you, but thems the breaks. If someone is mad, I say that I have a policy of giving it to whomever asks for it first. I try to say it in a light-hearted manner and I HAVE pissed off someone who was actually the host, but whom I didn’t know was the host. It happens. You’re not a mind-reader and if they don’t make it clear, then whose fault is it in the end really?

      Oh yeah, sometimes I don’t even bother finding out who the host is. I just go with the flow of the table. I don’t find out until the check presentation who the “host” or the “boss” is. This is a good policy to keep in the back of your mind because it keeps you from focusing all of your attention on them. It’s not rare for someone other than the host/boss/alpha to pay the check and that could be the very person that you’ve ignored the entire dinner.

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