So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

Tag Archives: Service Included

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.

Phoebe Damrosch on service charges vs. tipping in the US

In a little bit of synchronicity, as I was debating the advantages and disadvantages of tipping vs. wages/mandatory service charges, Phoebe Damrosch, noted author of Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, has weighed in on the subject.

Here is the pertinent part of her post that discusses service charges, a post which otherwise discusses the fact that waiters tend to be underappreciated and yet somehow lacking in solid commitment by falling into some stereotypical categories:

Tipping provides American waiters with an incentive to increase their check average by pushing bottled water, extra courses, expensive entrees and pricey wines and by showing guests the door as soon as they stop chewing. The service charge shifts the focus from the money to the experience. Instead of worrying about how much money she will take home that night — and upselling and groveling her way to that goal — a waiter can worry about doing her job well: making people happy at whatever price and pace they prefer.

Lower turnover resulting from a more professional employment package would encourage restaurants to invest time and resources in training. They might offer menu tastings (important with the ever-changing “seasonal” menus fashionable now), wine and spirits education, guest speakers (winemakers, foragers, game hunters), employer-sponsored travel and dining, mentoring programs that connect newcomers to leaders in their field, externships for service staff, and — most important — cross training between the kitchen and the dining room.

I would take issue with some things here. First of all, let’s not forget that Ms. Damrosch spent her time since 2004 waiting tables at Per Se in Manhattan (her bio is a little thin regarding her previous time waiting tables, and I must admit that I haven’t read her book yet – I’m certainly planning to).

Why is this relevant? First of all, Per Se does indeed pay a salary and it’s paid through the 20% service charge that’s folded into the price of the meal, as it’s done in many parts of Europe. But what’s practical for a 12 table restaurant (not counting the newer private dining rooms that have been made available fairly recently) isn’t necessarily practical for most other restaurants, especially restaurants that have to deal with the masses, and especially restaurants outside the very rarified Manhattan dining scene.  Per Se has a highly structured dining flow (two seatings, no dead tables, exact staffing for the business, guests insensitive to price, etc) that can take advantage of a bundled service charge. Charlie Trotter’s does the same thing and can do it for many of the same reasons. Try doing this at a place like Chili’s (yes, the masses also deserve professional, competent waiters as well!) and it just wouldn’t work.  The low wage/tipping scheme allows for the very flexibility in staffing that’s required in most restaurants. And menu prices! I note that the prices at Per Se has risen close to 25% (not counting the added service charge) since they changed from tipping to service charge. This in only 4 years.

I maintain that, in most circumstances, tipping is a win/win/win wage structure. It’s a win for the restaurant because it allows more restaurants to actually get open because of the lower requirement for payroll (it’s hard enough just to get a restaurant open since it’s very hard, if not impossible, to get a conventional business loan). It’s a win for the guest, since it keeps menu prices lower (Per Se is a perfect example of how just adding a 20% service charge doesn’t translate to simply a 20% increase in menu prices), plus, let’s face it, most people actually enjoy the act of tipping for various reasons. And it’s a win for the waiter because, not only does it act as an incentive, it keeps the job flexible in terms of scheduling and obviously allows the waiter to have cash in hand.

Ms. Damrosch talks about upselling. What she fails to acknowledge, probably because she hasn’t really had to work in the sort of restaurants that most waiters work in, is that upselling is a required part of the waiter’s job. It isn’t just a matter of greed, it’s something that waiters must do in the event that they are visited by a secret shopper. Many restaurants employ these services and a waiter can be docked for not mentioning bottled water (my own $75 per head restaurant even requires mentioning the various waters by name). They can be docked for not trying to sell appetizers, deserts, coffees, etc. And, let’s face it, waiting tables is a sales-type job. Most restaurants don’t have prix-fixe menus where there’s actually no “selling” involved.  One of the job of most waiters is to help the guest build their dining experience, and much of this is done through selling certain items that can enhance the dining experience. If it’s done for purely craven, economic reasons, it’s not serving the guest, which is the waiter’s job. That’s why I’ve cautioned in the past that “upselling” be done to enhance the meal, not rob the guest.

Let’s also not forget that Americans often need to be “shown the door as soon as they stop chewing” because of the very impatience that Americans display, especially when it comes to dining. Nobody likes to wait an hour and a half for a table and the only way to do this is by being efficient in service. Most restaurants don’t have the luxury of demanding reservations a month in advance and being able to offer a totally relaxed three hour dining experience. And, let’s face it, most Americans don’t actually like to dine in such a relaxed, long term manner. They have movies to catch, babysitters to get back to, dining companions to ditch, jobs to get back to, etc.

So, we have to move people along. Having said that, the great waiter never moves them along at a pace faster than they should be moved along.  But the waiter is always mindful of the crush of people who also want to dine. Obviously, turning tables is a financial benefit to the waiter. I would agree with Ms. Damrosch that pushing people out the door only for its own sake is undesirable. But she should also remember the dining circumstances of the non-Per Se type restaurant.

I’d also note that I’ve worked in restaurants that do all of the things that she’d like to see restaurants do. Even in the humble P. F. Chang’s, continuing education was done on a daily basis, wines were tasted and discussed, wine reps lectured, every dish was tasted, many “exotic” ingredients were tasted separately as part of the training process, and yes, even the occasional field trip was offered to interested parties. Another American bistro restaurant that I worked in indeed has a seasonal menu with a menu rollout mandatory tasting session for all servers as well as some pretty intensive continuing wine education and constant tastings.

So, the waiting environment isn’t as bleak as she makes it. Could it be better? Sure. Could be get more training? Of course. It can always be more and better. But I’m not sure that a service charge/salary is a magic bullet.

I obviously share some of her concerns. This very blog exists to support and demand professionalism by waiters. I too hate to see lackadasical and mediocre service, which is why I cajole, counsel, needle and talk about the little things that underpin great service. I try to motivate servers to constantly refine their service. But I’m not sure that taking away the motivating aspect of tipping would move us toward the goal of perfect service. While a salary can help give the job a professional air, it can also offer the danger of complacency. If I’m getting my money regardless, am I as motivated to improve, especially in the high volume type service that I have to operate in?  Hard to say. It’s easy to see yourself as a professional when you’re rarely in the weeds from getting double and triple seated.

Don’t let my quibbles blind you to the fact that I agree with the basic tenet that Ms. Damrosch is promoting – that service is the weak link in the dining experience and should be improved. Hopefully my blog is a small part of improving the service level of waiters in every dining experience, from the most humble meat and three to the Per Ses of the world.

Service included