So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

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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.

The other side of the tipping equation – some tips from a former waiter

From “The Mountain Murmur”

This is an article that wisely outlines some dos and don’ts for waiters. I love this part:

It’s not that I’m stiffing good waiters. I always tip good waiters, at the going rate plus. (If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to eat out.) But the grouchy, the indifferent and the glassy-eyed, whom I used to tip because I too was once a waiter — well, they still get tipped. A bit. More leftover coin, less paper.

Also, something that takes new waiters a while to learn:

Another trait of the self-narrating waiter is to ask too many times, “Is everything okay?” Often, an honest response would be, “Everything is okay except for the waiter who keeps interrupting our conversation.” Rather than pester your diners, go Zen. If all your customers are jabbering, eating, laughing and generally having a good night out, you’re golden. Examine faces from a distance. You’ll eventually spot one neck craning. Zoop, you hustle up on her blind side as if by magic: “May I help you?” The mind-reading servant is most treasured.

This is soooooo true. If a table is entertaining themselves, there is no need for you to interfere with that. You should rejoice – they are making your job easier. However, you still have to be observant, especially if the food is taking longer than usual. If they are engrossed in conversation, you’ve just bought more time without having to give them updates. But observe one of them glance at their watch? That’s the time to let them know what’s going on, and not a second before.

I still occasionally find myself interrupting conversation. I used to do it without considering what I was doing. Most of the time now, it’s just because I thought that there was a lull in the conversation and I could break in, only to have the conversation resume at just the wrong time. It’s almost like that moment when you are getting ready to go through the intersection and the light turns yellow at exactly the point where you have no choice but to run a red light.

If you are a newbie, try to be extra careful when you have to interrupt a conversation. You should do it only in the case of a service emergency.

All waiters should read this short primer.

First of the month

As you know, I always have a reminder at the end of each month – check your uniforms!

Well now, I’m going to suggest that you take the first couple of days of the month to decide a focus for improvement for the rest of the month. Take one topic and concentrate on that each day for the rest of the month.

It can be something as broad as increasing your PPA (per-person-average) or something as narrow as learning the different types of vodkas that your bar serves, taking care to learn which vodkas belong in which categories and fine-tuning your descriptions and comparisons between the two.

You generally want to choose topics as specific as possible, but broad strokes can be useful too. The main thing is that you choose topics that you are deficient in or unsure about.

Now’s the time to set personal goals for the month as well. If it happens to be the start of a new quarter, you might set your goals for that quarter as well. The goal can be the usual like “I want to make X dollars” or it can be improving a facet of your game such as “I want to sell more premium brands of liquor”.

When you take the time to focus on the smaller details, the larger picture often comes into focus as well.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to do this – just take a few moments each day to focus on the goal of the month and you’ll see an improvement in your job performance.

On Wine, Pt 4

What are some keys to selling more wine?

First, you must have a basic knowledge of the various wine varietals that your restaurant offers. That’s the best place to start, since most restaurants only offer about 10 different varietals. If you don’t know that Pinot Noir is great with grilled salmon because you’re always heard that only whites go with fish, you’re missing selling opportunities. If you don’t the basic differences between Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons, how can you guide your guests toward the best wine to have with their lamb chops?

So, you need to establish the basic flavor profiles for the various grapes.

Once you do that, then you should focus on a couple of mid-priced offerings in each category and try to discover the actual differences between them. If you can taste them, that’s the best thing. If not, get your manager to get you some tech sheets from the wine reps. These usually have specific statements about body and flavor.

It’s easiest to sell what you like, so if you have some favorites, work on trying to specifically describe them to your guests. Your enthusiasm for the wine can only help you in your selling.

No, you don’t have to know every flavor profile of every bottle on the list, but once you get the general profiles of the various grapes, there are some flavor profiles that crop up repeatedly and you’re usually pretty save employing them. for instance, dark berry fruits are common to Cabernet Sauvignons. Chardonnay often offers apple and mineral flavors. Sauvignon Blancs can have tropical fruit overtones (especially those from New Zealand), or they can have more melon and grassy overtones like those in California.

The more you can quantify the differences, the better you can guide your guest. You don’t want to come off as a professor, but you want to show that you know what you’re talking about by using specific language, such as, “You should try this Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc with your grouper with lemon beurre blanc because it’s a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It’s got a zingy grapefruit flavor that goes well with the lemon and it’s acidic enough to cut through the cream of the sauce”. Or something like that.

Just make sure that you’re not just blatantly making stuff up. Just because some Cabernet Sauvignons have tobacco and cedar overtones doesn’t mean that the one that you’re “randomly” recommending will. You’re probably safe to say something specific-sounding but still generic like “dark berry fruit”.

This is where homework comes in handy. If you’re new to wines in general, starting with only the grapes that your restaurant offers is a good start. Then move to specific wines that you can get specific about. You might also check out some of my previous posts on wine. As I’ve written, there’s only so much you can cover in a blog. Fortunately, there are quite a few very good wine blogs and wine sites. Google is your friend.

I think just concentrating on wine will help you drive your wine sales. There’s no one single category of product that you serve that drives a check average more than wine.

Good luck and happy studying!

Quick tip

Yesterday’s quick tip was about being careful to reprint checks. I can hear some of you newbies ask, “Why would you have to reprint a check up to three times if you print a check right before dessert? Wouldn’t the most you would have to reprint it is one time, assuming that they got dessert”?

Well, a good waiter never assumes that they’re finished. Yeah, yeah, I know that most of the time, you’re hoping that they’re going to leave quickly so that you can get another table. And it’s true, in the middle of the rush, sometimes rather than up-selling, you downplay dessert.

However, there are plenty of times when the “dessert course” can mean a significantly bigger check, especially if you’re in a more upscale establishment (I know that most newbies won’t be in such a place, but you should still understand that there are times when what you sell post-entree can raise your check significantly).

There have been times when I’ve asked before they order dessert whether they want coffee and they say no. Then I bring the dessert and halfway into dessert, they realize that they need coffee. So I ring up coffee (printing the check and discarding the previous check that I’ve already printed) and go get it for them. Then, because I had already previously asked them if they wanted Bailey’s with their coffee or port, one or two of them decides that Bailey’s would be nice when the coffee hits the table. So I bring the Bailey’s, having to reprint the check and discarding the old one while I do it. Then I get back to the table and someone decides that port would be nice. So the reprinting check thing happens again. And, as I think I’m finished for sure, two of them decide to cap off the meal with cognac.

Of course, I don’t mind all of this grand desserting because they’re one of my later tables and the bill has just risen by an extra $60.

When I get a table that starts doing this, I get back into the selling mode, even if it’s in the middle of a rush, depending on how I’ve read the table during the meal. That’s because, in my current restaurant, you never know where it’s going to end. One of my fellow servers thought they were finished with a deuce when the two businessmen decided to have two glasses of Louis XIII, or as we like to call it in the business, Louis Trey. Those two glasses of cognac are $150 a piece. His deuce, an already nice deuce at $300, doubled instantly. And they never would have done it had he not suggested it and sold it as an experience, even though he thought they were through. He just had a feeling about them based on their demeanor and how they had been ordering through the meal and he rolled the dice. He never gave up on them. and he got a great $120 tip instead of a really nice $60 one.

I realize that many of you don’t have those kind of selling opportunities. But most of you can upsell things like Bailey’s and Frangelico with coffee. This should be SOP for you. If a table has been drinking any type of alcohol, you should always solicit at least Bailey’s when you solicit coffee. It can mean an extra $20 on your check if you sell two or three of them. and hell, they’re going to have coffee anyway, right? Might as well  make it a $10 coffee instead of a $3 one.

Obviously, you don’t want to build your check by $20 and lose a turn, because that can cost you another $60 table. So you should be aware when you should and shouldn’t be somewhat aggressive about up-selling the dessert course. Just don’t get in the habit of automatically going into down-selling mode when you pick up the entree plates because you want to get them on their way so that you can get your next table. You just never know. Pick your times and places and then go for it. Don’t forget that a grand dessert finish to a meal will leave the guest with the ultimate dining experience and might very well be reflected in your tip percentage.

Louis XIII

Louis Trey, baby.

A couple of restaurant mnemonics

White is right. No, it’s not some sort of KKK infiltration of the restaurant industry or some white supremacist secret recruitment tool.  The conventional placement of salt and pepper is with the salt shaker on the right as you face the table. There are probably some restaurants that have a different spec, but this is generally the case. So, if you’re new, this can help you remember what the standard is (assuming that your restaurant follows this standard, of course).

Also, another popular mnemonic is regular is right. In the absence of a labeled coffee pot, some restaurants have conformed to the convention that regular is always on the right when there is more than one pot. Once again, this is something that you have to find out for yourself – this is probably less universal than the “white is right” thing. Also, I use this personally when I’m carrying coffee cups or pots. If I have both regular and decaf cups in my hand, I always have the regular cups in my right hand. If I’m “butterflying” two cups in one hand, the regular cup is always the one on the right.

A couple of other principles to keep in mind – seams always go down, whether it’s the seam on your apron, the seam on the napkin that you do a rollup or a table fold with, or the seam on your tablecloth. and speaking of tablecloths – let’s say that you have one of those fancy tables that converts from a 4 top square table to an 8-top round table. When you flip up the four half-moon leaves, make sure you align the middle crease of the tablecloth with the original square. In other words, don’t just throw the tablecloth on the table nilly-willy. Make sure that it’s aligned with the original square so that if you have to pop it down because of a no-show, it’s still lined up with the crease down the center of the square. It will save you a lot of time if you don’t have to re-position the tablecloth.  In other words, place it with all creases parallel to the original four sides of the square.


Tips for free-pouring wine in a large party

First of all, if your host has entrusted you with pouring wine at-will for his or her large party, this is a trust that should not be abused.

Having said that, you want to pour the absolute most wine you can.

So, how do you balance these two imperatives?

Here are a few tips.

Don’t pour more than about 4-5 oz per glass. “Why?”, I can just hear you ask. First of all, it sends the message to the host that you aren’t going to gouge them. But there’s a more insidious purpose. If you pour too much, some people will hoard their wine, just as they would when they dine out.  Old habits die hard. They forget that they aren’t paying, or they are worried about their host thinking that they’re freeloding and being greedheads. So, if you normally pour 6 oz pours in your restaurant, pour 5 oz or less. If you already only pour 5 oz and have those shitty little generic 8oz wine glasses, then pour 4 oz, especially if you’re pouring red wine into such a small glass. What you are trying to do is get some people who are normally fairly fast drinkers to drink down to the bottom quickly. At that point, you can bring them back up to the original level and recharge the other glasses, even if they’ve only drunk an ounce or so. If you wait until someone is almost empty, this gives you license to bring everyone else up as well, unless they wave you off, of course. If you do it this way, and keep your levels at the 4 or 5oz level, you’re almost guaranteed to sell more than if you give everyone a full 6 – 8oz pour up-front. There are few people who really slam their wines, so it will probably be 10-15 minutes before you really have the chance to refill an empty glass. If you pour less, the glass looks emptier quicker. This, of course, means more work and attention, but a little more work can mean that extra 2 or 3 bottles of $75 wine. Who wouldn’t like to build their check by another couple of hundred bucks?

The more small pours you do, the more likely that people will continue to drink rather than hoard. For people drinking white wine, I don’t always wait until the glass is almost empty. I like to give everyone a splash or two when it’s obvious that they’ve drunk some and it’s been a few minutes since you gave them wine. I do this to keep the temperature correct and I tell them that’s why I’m doing it if they seem to need an explanation. But I  am also working my way gradually to another bottle. You never know whether those last two splashes you did 15 minutes ago will be the ones that force you to open another bottle.

The last thing you want to do to a host is to pour so that most people have to leave a half-glass of wine when they leave. Sure, that’s another couple of bottles just in the glass. But you’ve just screwed your host. And, believe me, many of them will take note of this and realize how much wine that they paid for is wasted. This means that they might complain to management and they might not be so trusting the next time they book a party.


…it’s very important that you pretty much stop topping off by the first third of the entree course. Obviously, if someone is almost empty, by all means, pour them some wine. But don’t give them a full pour, and I generally ask them if they’d like more wine before I pour. Let people finish as much of their wine as possible as they finish their entrees. Don’t get greedy. Don’t try to pour more wine so that you have to open another bottle of wine right before dessert. This isn’t really cricket.

Most of the time, there’s going to be a few people who don’t finish their wine. That’s OK. As long as you’ve followed the above guidelines, you’ve done the best you can. What looks bad is when you end up with 20 half-full glasses of wine at the end. You haven’t served the guest very well at all and you’ve left as much as 3 bottles of wine in glasses. 

The position of waiter is one of trust. I guarantee you that you’ll make more money in the long run if you keep the guest’s interest in mind. And never forget the concept of Karma. Karma can be a bitch.

This is a pretty good wine pour for a 22 oz red Bordeaux glass. There’s more there than you think. That’s around 4 – 5 oz.  A 6 oz pour brings the level up to just short of where the glass starts to curve inward for this type of glass. BTW, a 750 ml wine bottle yields four 6 oz pours (give or take a tiny amount).


If you don’t know what 4 or 5 oz looks like in your house glasses, ask the bartender to pour you the amount by measuring it. Throw in a dash of grenadine to give it some color and then practice with a water-filled wine bottle. Get to know what it looks like from the pouring position, which is different than looking at it from the side.

This is a no-no:


Photo courtesy of The Wine Enthusiast. Their website is They are a wine accessory website and catalog store.