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Business dinners redux redux

In part one, we discussed the beginning of the business dinner.

We’re going to wrap up the discussing in this post.

After presenting and serving the wine, it became clear that they weren’t going to need a lot of entertaining, as people kept talking about this and that to each other. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason or any particular direction that the various conversations were going in.

So, this was my cue to ask if they wanted me to order some appetizers. Which they did. And I did.

 This gave me another clue as to how to wait on them. I suspected that they wouldn’t even need me to give them a song and dance about “The Specials”. Sometimes you can just tell that they are simply going to order directly off the menu. When this happens, the best thing to do (especially with a group of 6 or more) is to simply start going around the table and quietly ask each person if they’ve decided. This accomplishes two things. First, it establishes that the meal is going forward and, it gets the menus out of their hands. Menus can be a real distraction if you have appetizers coming.

So I started around the table and, sure enough, I got an order pretty quickly.

The rest of the meal was pretty standard. Appetizers were served and eaten, app plates bussed and new silverwear marked, salads dropped, salad plates bussed, silver marked and entrees delivered.

Finally, about 3/4ths through the entrees, one of the principals started making a low-key pitch. Apparently, they were trying to entice a couple of potential new account managers. At this point, I made myself scarce, although I stayed within eyesight most of the time. Whenever I had to refill a glass or remove a plate, I did it as silently as I could. I was like a Ninja!

As is the custom with a lot of this type of group, when they finished their meal, they were pretty much ready to wrap up the eating.  I gave them a cursory “W0uld you like to see a dessert menu”, knowing that they wouldn’t be interested. I did have a couple of coffee and espresso orders though.

At the end of the meal, I presented the check and the guy said, “Great service as usual”. I was pretty sure that this wasn’t the kiss ‘o death that it usually was. The bill ended up $1150. I thanked him and shook his hand and them proceeded to shake each of the other guests’ hands one by one.

The tip?

$240.

Nice.

I guess the thing that I’m trying to get across is that the business dinner can be lucrative if you follow the cues that your guests are giving you. Not every business dinner is going to go this smoothly or have a huge payoff.  The key is to go where they lead you, establish yourself with the table, and try not to step all over whatever business that they might be conducting. Just remember this as well – they don’t have to be overtly discussing business to be conducting business. Sometimes, the dinner IS the business.

Business dinners redux

I know I’ve discussed the concepts around serving business dinners but I recently waited on one the other night and, well, I need to get back in the swing of things, so I thought I’d dissect  this particular one.

It was a 7 top. They were all late 30s – mid 40s. Dark suits. Well groomed but not stuffy. They were all talking with each other as they sat down. As they settled in, they were all engaged in conversation, joking a bit and smiling.

At this point, as I brought them their menus, I scanned the table and saw that every one of them was either laughing of smiling and they seemed to be in the mood to enjoy their time together. As I passed out the menus, I asked them if they wanted the wine list. One pointed to the other, who pointed to another and two of them pointed to another guy. So I said,  “Guess you’re elected by popular vote”, which elicited some chuckles.

At this point, I knew that they were going to be a pleasure to wait on.

I’m going to stop here to say that it’s the initial impressions of a business table (or any table for that matter) that will determine what your service strategies are going to be. They were all dressed very formally but their demeanor was one of relaxation. Had they conveyed seriousness when they sat down, I would have been more formal. Or, had they been dressed more casually but seemed to be “all business”, I would have been similarly more reserved. I think what I’m trying to say is that you have to be sensitive to all aspects of the table, from their dress to their mood, to their body language.

So, rather than wait for a wine choice, I immediately asked first for their water choice and if they wanted cocktails. Which they did.

For those of you who haven’t waited on a lot of business people, take note – a lot of the time, the first thing they want to do is have a round of cocktails, even if they’re going to have wine. So don’t try to jump the gun and force a wine choice out of them. A cocktail round helps you as well –  it gets them settled. Usually cocktails are accompanied by either idle chitchat or work discussion or both. In this case, it was both.

After delivering the cocktails, I went to the guy with the wine list and we discussed wine. He was discussing some wines in the $100 category so I mentioned a particular wine that is a real sleeper at about $115 and he thought it sounded good. I might have been able to move him to $150 but, AND THIS IS IMPORTANT, with a table like this, greed should be the last thing on your mind. Especially when he orders a Pinot Noir as well. The fact that he ordered a Pinot as well as taking my advice showed me that he knew wine, was looking out for the welfare of the others at the table,and was also confident enough in himself to trust the waiter.

So, I ordered two each of the bottles. Did I ask him? Nope. First of all, in my restaurant, I can return an unused bottle. Second of all, I have no idea how many are going to drink Pinot and how many are going to drink Cabernet. And third, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to sell at least a second bottle of one or the other and what happens if the bartender forgot to tell me that I was buying the last bottle or that there was only one left and another table orders it before I can. Always hedge your bets whenever you can. Now this doesn’t mean that I’m going to pour the entire bottle of either on the spot. However, I don’t know how many people are going to want Pinot or the Cabernet. So, I asked how many people would be drinking the Pinot (guessing correctly that there would be fewer people drinking it). Now I know that up to 5 people will be drinking the Cabernet. So, after I present the bottle, I go around to the Pinot abstainers and pour about 4 oz for each person (turns out that all 5 guests wanted wine, which might not have been the case). This left about 5 oz in the decanter. Why didn’t I pour the whole thing? Because I knew that we’d be into a second bottle pretty quicker. Basically, I’m telegraphing that I’m not out to gouge them or drain every single penny out of their wallets.

I poured a little more for the two people who wanted the Pinot, but it was still less than a full glass. With two people, I figured that I probably wouldn’t get a second bottle unless I really manipulated them and I wasn’t about to kill the goose that might lay the golden egg. Yeah, I could have probably forced a second bottle, but they probably wouldn’t drink a lot of it. I would have another $70 on the check, but heck, it was going to be a pretty good check to start with. And I’m firmly convinced that some guests are able to tell when you’re trying to get the last penny out of them and will penalize you for it when the time comes.

The main lesson that you should take away is that you should NEVER pour the whole bottle on the first go-round. You should always leave a little in the bottle. If you are pouring a bottle for 8 people, then only pour a couple of ounces per person.  Obviously, in that extreme case, you would ask if you can bring two bottles because you know that there’s no way that anyone’s going to get more than a sip or two. And if they say that you can pour from two bottles, then by all means, pour 5 ounces. But make sure you leave some in the second bottle.. Don’t try to force a third bottle.

OK, I’m going turn this into a multi-part page turner. This has officially turned into part one.

It might be a day or two before I do part two, but I’ll be continuing the lesson shortly.

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.

Serving the business dinner pt. 2

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.

Serving the business dinner pt. 1

I’ve discussed this before, but it seems appropriate to delve into it again.

There are a couple of variations on the business dinner.

The first is the small non-business business dinner. This would be your standard table of business types (up to about 6 – 8 people). This is a gathering of people with shared business dinners just getting together for a social dinner. There will be some business discussed, but mostly in the context of work-related conversation, much like we as waiters do when we gather for post-shift drinks. Lots of shop talk, but little actual business done.

This table is treated just like any other table. while they might all be dressed in Armani suits, they aren’t needing any special consideration. However, it can be helpful to identify the “host” or the alpha male/female. They might be the one to either order the wine or identify the person who’s considered the “wine geek” of the table. However, you shouldn’t play to this person to the exclusion of the others because you’d be surprised how many times someone who you didn’t expect actually pays the check.

This brings up an important point about every table. You should give everyone equal attention. You never know if someone who you don’t suspect ends up paying the check after all. I can’t tell you how many times it’s an administrative assistant or other diner who ends up paying because they have the corporate card and perform the task of paying the bill in lieu of “The Boss”. It’s almost like “The Boss” isn’t bothered with such mundane things like paying the bill.

How do you find out if the event is a social one? Simple. You ask up front. If it appears to be business-related, you ask someone who appears to be in control if it’s a business dinner and if you need to serve them in a particular way. If they say, “We’re just getting together; we don’t have any special needs”,  then it’s full speed ahead with the normal service steps. If they say, “We’re going to discuss some business, so we’re not in any big hurry”, or “Yes, we’re going to need some time before/after the entrée to discuss some things”, then you proceed to:

The small business dinner.

This requires restraint on your part. Interrupting conversations to inquire how everything is is not a good thing. You almost have to throw out the service steps book and rewrite it. the main thing is to make sure that they get cocktails/drinks quickly. Once you do that, take a step back and observe them. If the menus remain untouched and they seem into heavy conversation, simple cruise them periodically to look for signs that they are starting to lose interest in business/cocktail hour behavior and getting interested in food. This could mean a couple of them picking up menus, snatches of conversation about the cuisine, looking around, etc. Many times, business colleagues like to discuss business over cocktails and this is where some important business sometimes gets done,  so it’s not as important to sell apps or script specials. Wait until the time is right.

Hopefully, you got an idea about how they want the pacing of the meal to go when you asked them your initial question. Just remember that you have to be flexible and intuitive. If you notice them shifting from business to hunger, be ready to suggest an appetizer. If they go for it and don’t ask about the specials, the best thing to do is to get an appetizer order, ring it in and then return to the table to talk about the specials. Try not to do it all at once if you can. Reciting the specials gives you the chance to fill some time while you’re waiting for the appetizers to arrive. However, if you tell them about the specials and then ring in the appetizer because they’ve asked about them, you can always fall back on taking the entrée order while you’re waiting.

One optional thing that you can do, which requires an additional step on your part is to suggest that you take the menus away and bring them back after the appetizer. Juggling menus while trying to eat appetizers can be awkward, especially when they’re wearing thousand dollar suits. of course, this holds true for any table, but it’s especially true in this instance.

One key thing to remember is that people talking business can be incredibly focused. We waiters can feel uncomfortable when we are excluded from interacting with the table. Try to repress this by remembering that they don’t need your “entertainment” or “service”. They are focused on themselves. If they spend 20 minutes over drinks, it’s not like a normal table being stuck with drinks for 20 minutes while they’re waiting for you to return to talk about appetizers. However, you do need to continue to monitor them because these sorts of folks can shift quickly from business to dinner.  Just watch for the signs that I mentioned.

You need to give business tables their time and space. If you are in a restaurant where you are concerned about turning tables quickly, you should simply write them off as a candidate for flipping. Normally, business tables spend more money anyway, so don’t begrudge them their time. They usually aren’t concerned with the cost of the meal and some business tables spend a lot of money because a. it’s not their personal money to begin with and b. sometimes they are expected to spend a lot of money to achieve a business goal.

This brings up a good point. Now is not the time to worry about suggesting a big wine or upscale liquors. I wouldn’t pick the most expensive bottle on the list, but I’d definitely start at the upper end. It’s always good to have a go-to pricey wine in the major varietal categories. make it something that you know well and are comfortable in selling, and would be comfortable in buying yourself if money is no object. It’s easier to sell something that you believe in.

Finally, don’t necessarily expect 20% even in the face of flawless service, even if you usually get it. It’s probably not you, it’s probably a company guideline.

In part two, we’ll talk about the large business function (Christmas party, awards dinner, pharmaceutical dinner, etc.).