Every restaurant floor plan has its own unique geography. If you were able to look from above during service, it might resemble watching rats in a maze all trying to get to the cheese.
So it’s important to find your lanes and learn the flow of traffic and the “rules of the road”.
In most restaurants, if there are two swinging doors, you normally use the right one instead of the left one. This is the usual convention and if you defy it, you could cause a catastrophe. Imagine carrying a tray loaded with expensive entrees and having a door that you’re going out suddenly swinging in on you. Or think of a tray of drinks going flying. You could see some serious injuries, not to mention having to redo the drinks, which screws that waiter and his or her guest and causes food costs to rise.
So, one of the first things you should find out and commit to muscle memory is which door is in and which door is out. Even though most restaurants are “right is right”, there are some that might have a different convention, so don’t take anything for granted. It can also be a little weird because department stores and supermarkets often reserve the left door for entrance. So it might take a little getting used to. It’s mission-critical that you do though.
“Right is right” also works for aisles as well. Most restaurants want you to stay right. This means sometimes having to stop and give the right-of-way to a guest who doesn’t follow that convention. What makes this hard sometimes is that servers’ lanes sometimes have to cross this line sometimes. When you’re coming around a corner and going left, you will naturally have to cross the left side of the aisle unless you swing way out. It’s possible to run into someone coming the other direction so you should always be very careful when you’re rounding a corner, especially a blind one. One thing you’ll hear called out is “Corner”. This is a very good habit to get into. The thing is, if you’re out in the restaurant, it can be intrusive to the guest, so, just be really careful when rounding corners because something that’s even more intrusive to the guest is a bowl of hot soup landing on their head. Also, there’s the case of the double swinging doors being in a short hallway that connects two or more aisles. This can mean having to cross others’ lanes. You should be prepared for that. You want to quickly develop a sense of an internal GPS for the whole restaurant.
Avoid turning around quickly and changing directions. This happens a lot (and I’m a serial infractor myself) when you just remember that you forgot something. If you pivot on your foot and turn around, you sould find someone moving quickly in your own lane in imminent danger of trying to occupy the same space at the same time, which is impossible in this dimension. Always check behind you before making this move.
Which brings us to the most important word that you’ll hear in the traffic system that is the restaurant – “Behind you”! You’ll hear it a lot and you’ll use it even more. Anytime you get within 3 feet of someone’s back, you should at least say the word “Behind”. You don’t have to shout it, but you should say it loudly enough for the person to hear.
You should never run, no matter how much in the weeds you are. The fastest you should move is a brisk pace.
Carry any knife either blade backwards if not on a tray. Never turn around with a knife facing forward.
Non-slip shoes are mandatory, whether the restaurant requires them or not. You have to move from many different types of surface – from carpet to wood to concrete to tile. Wet tile, such as you’d find in a kitchen, is deadly for regular shoes. Non-slip shoes are a wonder. You’ll wonder why you ever tried to do without them. I don’t care how comfortable your high-end loafers or tennis shoes are, imagine how uncomfortable a sprained ankle or a busted tailbone is to you and your pocketbook. Many restaurants are now requiring them anyway because of insurance issues. Shoes For Crews is a pretty popular brand and places like WalMart have brands that are even cheaper but obviously made in the same Chinese factories (their house brand is called TredSafe and they are almost identical to Shoes For Crews).
Here’s a little subtle thing that you can do to help your fellow waiter. If you sense someone behind you as you’re coming out of the kitchen, give the door a little bump with your hip or the side of your foot after you’ve initially pushed it open as it starts its swing back. Most restaurant kitchen doors have a hinge that dampens the speed of the swingback, and if you’re able to give it a “double bump”, you’ll keep the next server from having to kick it or push it open. If you time it right, they’ll be able to clear the doorway without ever having to touch the door. At the very least, they won’t have a door swinging back right in their face as they enter the doorway.
If you learn the friction points of the restaurant, those spots where people tend to converge, and you pay closer attention to them as you encounter them, you’ll avoid all sorts of disaster.
Oh yeah, the guest always gets the right-of-way. Always.