So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

Tag Archives: service hints

Interesting cultural notation

From our friends at Waitersfriend (Australian waiter-centric site long on information and short on fluff and frilly stuff):

7.  American Ladies are not comfortable with Madam as it suggests they are female pimps.  Ma’am is suitable.

In case you were wondering what #7 indicates, this is a list of ways that Australian waiters can increase their tips (do’s and don’ts).

Here’s a good example about how cultural differences matter. I never would have thought in a million years that madam would make a difference with an American woman. Of course, we don’t call anyone “madam” these days, but not because of the implication but because it’s a rather archaic term that sounds like something you’d hear in a Sherlock Holmes mystery or a Victorian potboiler. Maybe it makes the woman feel “dowdy”.

I kid at the expense of my Australian brothers, of course, but also want to acknowlege that waiters everywhere should pay attention to what works for them, especially when dealing with foreign cultures. People are different around the globe and we can’t always rely on our “mental rolodex” to supply us with the correct answer when confronting someone from a different culture. (And US travelers shouldn’t be so judgmental when it comes to terms that might be common in other cultures – I’m guessing that Madam isn’t a hidebound term for a lady in parts of the world where they still speak a variation of the Queen’s English – it’s probably quite posh and proper).

Finally, this:

6.  Always check for wedding rings before referring to a man’s company as Mrs……… they may not be married and it is usually a sensitive subject as to why the bloody hell not!

Yes, even older people who might look and act like they’ve been married for years might actually not be married. And they might even be wearing wedding rings – perhaps they’re both widow/ers and have kept their rings as a connection to the departed. Unless you know for sure that the spouse has taken the name of their husband, stay away from caller her Mrs. Whatever. I know women who have kept their last names or have hyphenated theirs with their husbands. You just never know.

And a corollary to this is something that I learned when doing Country Club dining for a short period – always be careful about referring to previous visits by regulars. Sometimes regulars don’t want their dining partners to know that they were in the restaurant last week. This could be for either business or personal reasons. This is where knowing your regulars is important. You have to know how much information you can give. I would say that a “Nice to see you again, Mr. Daltry” poses little risk as opposed to, “Why Mr. Daltry, your charming companion has gone from blonde to redhead – it looks smashing”! Or “Mr. Daltry, how did your lunch with Mr. Page go last week”. You might find out that his business partner, Mr. Townsend, might be surprised to find out that he’s talking to a heated rival.

Here’s the entire post, many of the things listed not being specific to just Australia and sage advice indeed…

Book of the day – Lessons In Service from Charlie Trotter

Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter

by Edmund Lawler

Publisher: Ten Speed Press (November 28, 2001)  

ISBN 10: 1580083153

ISBN 13: 978-1580083157

Value-added service. Attention to detail. anticipating the guests’ needs. Staff support. Intense quality control.

These are the lynchpins of the dinner service that is offered at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago.

This book drills down on these concepts and more as it combines an overview, an inner view and a biographical look at what makes Charlie Trotter’s one of American’s premiere restaurants. After each chapter, there’s a page of “service points” from the preceeding chapter.

Charlie Trotter’s is different from the restaurants that most of us will work in.

There’s an attention to detail that rivals a NASA clean room. If it’s chipped, broken, scuffed, slightly frayed, or otherwise less than perfect, it’s fixed or discarded. Most of us work in restaurants that have budgetary constraints that require management to push back replacement or refurbishment. How many times have we told management about rickety chairs or worn carpet or holes in tiles, only to see it pushed back to the next quarter. That sort of thing doesn’t happen at Trotter’s, at least according to this 2001 book.

Waiters are on a form of salary there. Tips are pooled and doles out as a form of salary. They structured the pool to be close to what servers were making before tips were pooled. This is possible through the high cost of dining at Charlie’s place (in 2001 it averaged about $150 per person). It’s also possible because the staff is highly trained and waits on a limited number of guests per night. there is also intense scrutiny which precludes slackers to be allowed to stick around. This doesn’t mean that everyone makes the same amount of money. They’ve factored in current sales and sales of previous years, experience and customer feedback. A longstanding server might very well make close to double what a new server does. A 401(k) and health plan are standard, at least according to this 2001 book (certainly, all of these are somethings that might have been modified or changed at the time of this review). In fact, when you view the current menus at Charlie Trotter’s website, you’ll see that an 18% mandatory service charge is now being added.

Waiters in more mainstream restaurants might not have the empowerment that are given them at Charlie Trotter’s. They are trained to accomodate the guest as far as possible and to never say no to any request (I’m sure that there are limits to this because, let’s face it, there are some requests that could not be honored, although it’s doubtful that there many patrons of Trotter’s that would push the envelope of what’s acceptable).

Few of us work in restaurants that have breakage costs of $40,000 a year due to the use of fragile Riedel glassware and fine Wedgewood china.

Few of us work in restaurants will work in a restaurant with 2 sommeliers and a massive wine cellar that offers bottles costing thousands.

And few of us will work in a restaurant that doesn’t even have a service manual. All service is taught directly one-on-one and can last for months.  The standards are much more formal than many waiters experience in their careers. No “folks”, it’s always “ladies and gentlemen”. No touching the backs of the chairs or tables. Obviously, no kneeling and not even bending down to hear the guest better. Rather than a short list of “service commandments”, there are a myriad of service points that must be fulfilled at every table and these are addressed through direct management contact and training. Preshifts are more than a perfunctory recitation of the daily specials. Role-playing and wine tasting could be part of the agenda. Suggestions from the staff might be entertained. Past service issues might be dissected and discussed.

Yes, there are many things in the way that Charlie Trotter’s staff choreographs the restaurant experience there are impractical for most waiters and their restaurants, and, as such, a waiter or manager reading this book must be cautioned not to necessarily read it as a “how-to” guide, but there are many principles that waiters can absorb that will raise their game.

It’s not an expensive book and it can be read in a short time. It’s a fascinating “inside look” at one of American’s premiere restaurants, one which undoubtably would sport at least a Michelin star if it weren’t in Chicago (Michelin, which rates the best restaurants from one to three stars, doesn’t go to Chicago). Trotter’s restaurant in Las Vegas received its first star just last year, which sadly won’t be repeated in 2010 because, due to the economy, Michelin won’t be rating restaurants in Las Vegas this year.

I’ve only scratched the surface about what you will learn about the restaurant and its service philosophy of value-added service and the exceeding of expectations. There are quotes from busboys to dining room managers, from Charlie Trotter to Ray Harris, “Wall Street financier who has eaten at Charlie Trotter’s over 300 times”. There are stories of the occasional glitches and the way those glitches were addressed and solved.

Read this book and you can’t help elevate your career, even if you work at the most mainstream strip mall grill and bar. And if you are in any facet of the service industry, you would be well-served to pick up this book.

Photo of Charlie Trotter’s dining rooms taken from official website.

Quick hint

Sometimes we as waiters will pre-print a ticket right around dessert time in order to have the check ready to present to the guest in case they don’t get dessert. This is a way to be efficient, but we have to be careful about getting rid of the ticket should they get dessert or coffee. Otherwise, you could be on the hook for those items ordered after you printed the check. This seems like basic common sense, but it’s easy to forget to reprint the check and get rid of the earlier check, especially if you get busy or are juggling several tables with pre-printed checks. It’s also easy to print the new check but not get rid of the old one and accidentally present the wrong check to the guest.

So, get in the habit of reprinting the check each time that you order something and get rid of the previous check. I’ve had to reprint a check as many as three times and each time, I’ll make sure that I throw away the previous check.

Also, get in the habit of checking the check to make sure that you’ve rung in all coffees, espressos or anything that you don’t get from a chit from the kitchen or the bar, i.e. anything that you or your server assistant prepares yourself.

Quick hint

I’ll be occasionally be posting some quick hit quick hints. Things that you might not think of but can help you solve a problem, streamline service or increase your tips. Some of them might be common sense or obvious for those of us who have been in the business, so, those of you who are more experienced, bear with me.

Today’s quick hint is regarding the problem of the guest taking both copies of the credit card or putting the tip on one copy but taking it and leaving the other copy, which they might have either not signed or put in the tip.

First of all, if you are working in a place where they sign both copies simultaneously (a carbon sits below the original), dog-ear the top copy so that it’s clear that there are two copies. I even used to separate them and put them back together so they weren’t plastered together. To be on the safe side, tell them “Sign here and make sure you leave the bottom copy”.  Yes, some guests will accidentally take both copies, thinking that they only have to sign one copy and that you mysterious will know by incredible mental powers how much they are tipping and that management will also take your word for this. I wouldn’t doubt that there are a very tiny percentage of this already admitedly small percentage of guests who might even do this deliberately in order to get out of paying the tip because they know that without a copy, most restaurants won’t allow anything to be put in for the tip and the waiter gets screwed in the process.

For those of you who get two copies which the guest has to sign, here’s a little trick. When you open your check presenter, put the copy marked merchant copy in the left cover of the book and put the customer copy in the right. Put the check over the customer copy. This forces the guest to deal immediately with the merchant copy, at least at first. You see, it doesn’t matter what he or she does with the guest copy. I’d say about 30% of guests don’t do anything with it at all – they leave it unsigned for you to throw away.

This doesn’t guarantee that they won’t take the merchant copy with them, so you still have to be quick to retrieve you book. All it does, in my experience,  is make it less likely that they will accidentally take your copy, the one with the tip on it. There’s still the danger that they sign it, put the tip on it, put it in their pocket and ignore the one hidden under the check. But if you’ve been having trouble with the guest signing both copies but only putting the tip on one and taking that while leaving the other, try this little tip and see if it doesn’t help.

The ultimate solution to this of course is to retrieve the check before the guest leaves and verify that you have a credit card slip signed and with the tip. Just between you and me, and I’m not saying that you do the same, if the guest hasn’t signed the slip, I don’t go back and have them sign, as long as they’ve put the tip in it and totalled it. I really don’t want to confront them about this at the end of the meal because it’s a slightly negative thing in the sense that you’re asking them to do something that they forgot to do and it could be slightly embarrassing to them in front of fellow diners. Of course, your management might be very strict about signatures, so you might have to have them do it. However, if they’ve left me the blank guest copy instead of the copy that they signed, I absolutely will go back and ask them if they took the wrong copy. This has actually happened to me a couple of time. Hell, it’s my tip at stake!

BTW, some people don’t realize this, but a signature isn’t even absolutely necessary. The money is captured as soon as it’s approved by the credit card company. However, a signature is important should the charge be challenged down the road. Without the signature, there is no evidence that the person who owns the credit card is the one who actually presented it. Frankly, I can really only see this happening in the case of a crooked guest, because who’s going to challenge a charge that they actually made, unless the total is different because the either the tip got changed or they grossly miss-added the total themselves and the waiter corrected it. But this is a topic for another day, a topic that I believe I’ve even addressed in the past.

Damn, that was longer than I expected.