So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Shrinking the restaurant

I don’t remember which of my managers over the years made me aware of this phrase, but I think it’s a great one.

I posted last time regaring closing, and the smart closer will try to “shrink the restaurant” as much as possible.

Shrinking the restaurant means reducing the areas that are getting used and getting rid of all of the excess stuff that’s needed when the restaurant is in full swing. Basically, what you want to do is to try to “close down” as much stuff as you can without impacting the guests. For instance, if there are three wait stations for things like glasses, tea, coffee, etc., once the initial sidework is done, you want to start using only one of those side stations as much as possible. I know that this seems like a no-brainer, but non-closers don’t always think about this. Make you co-workers aware that they’ll be redoing the sidework if they mess up the areas that have been cleaned and can be shut down entirely.

Try to think of it as doing a mental shrink wropping over an area. If it’s been cleaned and you don’t need it, don’t use it. Why clean something twice.

I also like to look at it as a big dirty circle. As the night winds down, you erase parts of the schmutz until you have a nice, bright shiny clean circle. In your mind, of course…

I don’t know if that manager invented that phrase, but I think it’s a marvelously evocative phrase.


This is more for newbies than vets. Veterans of waiting tables know all about what I’m going to talk briefly about.

At some point in your career, you will start to be tapped to be a closer. This is a good thing. It means that you are considered competent enough to be trusted to close down the restaurant.

But it takes a little mental adjustment.

The main thing to realize is that you lose a lot of your support systems. You don’t have nearly as many food runners to help you out. You have to become more self-sufficient because the team has scattered to the four winds.

Hand in hand with this is the fact that simple tasks are not so simple anymore. Things don’t always fall to hand as they do during the shift. Glasses, plateware, silverware, etc. are sometimes in the process of getting cleaned and/or not yet restocked. This can be frustrating. The kitchen is breaking down and trying to get out, so sometimes food is already being stashed in reach-ins and walk-ins or off the steam table and under the heat lamps, which means it takes longer for the kitchen to access them. They do this so that they can start draining and cleaning the steam tables. But it means that, like silverware, the food doesn’t fall naturally to the hand of the line cook. This can delay preparation of the food, and you should take that into account.

The kitchen is also in “get out of town” mode, which can cause some focus problems. They are no different than waiters, who can lose focus when they start dreaming of that post-shift drink with the crew. This can mean that entrees and side dishes don’t get coordinated properly. Side dishes might not come up at the same time as entrees, for instance.

Then there’s the whole “check out” thing. Many closers have the responsibility to check out their fellow waiters’ closing sidework. This can distract from the waiter waiting on the tables that he or she is still dealing with. There’s the frustration that closers can feel when a waiter has skated on their sidework and the realization that they are going to have to do that work themselves.

So, it all boils down to a shift in tactics.

Once the close begins (basically when people start getting cut), the closer should start changing the mind set and shift from normal shift strategy to closing strategy. Assume from the start that you’re going to have to plan for extra time in firing food, grabbing silverware, finding condiments. If you do this, you won’t be as frustrated when you discover that you have to beg the dishwasher to run the last load of silverware or when you find that the kitchen has already put the soup up and they’re going to have to heat some up on the stove for you.

You have to be prepared to step away from your tables and check sidework. Eventually you’ll learn who can can trust at their word and who has to be watched and checked. Just remember, if they don’t do their work, you’ll be doing it in addition to your own sidework.

These are all things that waiters pick up over time. By heeding the things that I’ve talked about, you can flatten the learning curve significantly and reduce the number of hair-tearing-out incidents.

Listening to Tom Waits first LP,  as I type this post…

It’s the little things

Managers are funny beasts.

In order to stay sane, they tend to have certain things that they focus on in order to do things like doing the closing or maintaining the operation of the restaurant because you can’t check 100% of everything in the restaurant. I know that I was a bit of a freak when I managed because I looked at some small things or insisted on certain procedures.

My rationale was that it was often the little things that mattered. It’s just impossible to check every little detail, so each manager has their little quirks about what pushes their hot button or gets them looking closer at the waiter’s work.

Closing is a good example. The next to last thing a manager wants to do is do a thorough intense inspection at the end of a hard shift.  The last thing a manager wants to do is sit through a bitch session with his or her general manager or restaurant staff the day after the restaurant has been closed sloppily. So, most managers have things that they focus on from night to night to give them a general indication of the quality of the closing sidework. However, depending on their closing waiter or what they know about certain members of the staff, they will poke around, especially if they don’t have confidence in the work of certain people. You can burn a manager or a closing waiter once or twice, but after that, they will stay on top of you until you regain their confidence. They’ll check your work with a fine-toothed comb.

As a server, there are little things that you can do to keep your manager or closing waiter from picking apart your sidework (especially if you’re the closer) as well as making your own job easier.  When I’m a closer, I use a technique that I call “shrinking the restaurant”, something I did when I was a manager as well. I try to reduce the amount of area getting used to a minimum. At a certain point, you don’t need all three server stations, or you don’t need all of the side items that you normally need when the restaurant is bustling. I try to limit what I use to a minimum. If it’s been cleaned or refilled (such as sugar caddies), I either don’t use it, or I try to keep what I use or touch to a minimum. If I have three wait stations available, and two of them have already been cleaned and I’ve checked out a server on those two stations, I make sure that nobody uses it from that point on unless absolutely necessary. As I check out the various servers, I’m able to reduce what I’m going to have to check at the very end of the night because I’ve gradually “shrunk” the restaurant over the last hour or two. At the very end, I really only have to give a cursory look.

This was my approach as a manager as well. In the last couple of hours, I’d try to be aware of anything that was “out of joint” in the early stages of slowdown and I’d sort of keep my eye on it and see if it were taken care of. Of particular importance was anything that was visible to the guest. This gave me an idea of how well the closing was going. If something didn’t get done right by my walk-through, then I started poking around, and you never want a manager poking around in dark corners at 11:30pm because they will always find things. Suddenly, dust in the corner of drawers becomes important. That little unwiped bit of stainless steel that is barely noticable to man or beast becomes something that has to be corrected NOW.  

The same goes for the closing waiter responsible for checking sidework. If the first thing they check hasn’t been done correctly, then they are more likely to check everything closely.

There is one main thing you can do to keep your manager’s or your closing waiter’s walk-thorough cursory, other than doing your job correctly, of course.

Make sure everthing lines up. In the Army, we called this “dress right dress”. For example, most restaurants have a lot of sugar caddies. If you leave gaps in their arrangement, or leave some crooked here and there, it gives the impression of a job half done. It only takes a second to line everything up. If you’re in a hurry to get to that post-shift drink, it’s easy to do a sloppy job of arranging everything. Just take a half a second and line everything up. Make sure that labels face the same way. Let’s say that you have to restock ketchup and condiment bottles. It’s easy to just stick them on the shelf, but if you take a moment and have the labels facing the same direction, it looks like you’ve done your work correctly. And managers and closing waiters kep a mental inventory of those that leave their work looking good and those who simply do the minimum to barely get things in order.

This is a convoluted and wordy way of telling you that the better the outward appearance of your work is, the easier your job will be. And it doesn’t take all that much longer and can actually save you time when you’re trying to get out for that post-shift get-together with your compatriots. One little trick I used to do (and still do) was to line up my sugar caddies so that the same color sugar packet was in front. It only took me an extra couple of seconds to do this. As a manager, I was always impressed when certain closing waiters did this themselves (yes, I can be easily impressed). I knew that they were looking at the small things and I could pretty much give them the OK without doing an intensive walkthrough. But I had some waiters who didn’t care that much about how things looked in general and I took extra time with those waiters until they got the idea that there were certain things that I might be looking for. It was a Pavlovian response, I guess. Eventually, they’d get the idea that the neater things looked, the less actual work they had to do at the end of the night. And they’d work backwards from there and start insisting that their fellow servers also showed the same sort of eye for detail.

Develop your eye for detail and you’ll find your job getting easier and easier.

Sidework Pt. 2

In part one, we tried to paint sidework with some broad brushes. 

I’m not going to list all possible tasks that you might have to do on a typical shift. Every restaurant has its own unique needs and it would be impossible to list them all. Besides, you’ll find out soon enough what they are. So, why is sidework important? Because it’s so often thought of as an afterthought; it’s thought of as drudgery. Waiters whine about it. Waiters blow it off. Waiters do part of it but don’t finish it. Waiters do a poor job of it. Don’t be one of those waiters. While you can certainly whine about it, do your sidework. Why, you might ask? Why should I do it when I see others getting away with sliding on theirs? After all, you’ll soon identify certain slackers who can’t be relied upon to do their work and they seem to get away with it. Well, all I can say is, don’t be that guy (or gal for that matter).

It’s extremely important that sidework gets done because nothing will put you in the weeds faster than having to break your routine during the rush to go back to the walk-in to grab the half and half that someone else hasn’t bothered to restock as part of their sidework. This is especially grating when you make it easy for them by assuring that they can put their hands on what they need because you did your sidework while you hunt through the restaurant for a single clean glass because they didn’t do theirs. 

Hold your fellow servers accountable for their sidework.

And remember, someday, you will be a closing waiter and you will rely on others to do their work. You already have enough to do without having to do someone else’s job too.

The main thing is for each waiter to pull their weight so that if the waiter gets in the weeds, it’s not because his or her fellow waiter let them down.

It’s hard to do sidework when the rush is on. However, it’s even harder to have to do someone else’s sidework on top of  that. Or suffer the consequences of not being able to put your hands on what you need when you need it.

Sidework is important. Curse it, fear it, hate it, but respect it. Because to respect it is to respect your fellow co-workers.

Sidework Pt. 1

This is mostly for people who are either considering getting into waiting tables or who are new at it (and guests who don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes). 

Sidework is defined as everything you have to do to get the restaurant ready for service; all of the tasks that have to be done during service and all of the duties necessary to present a clean and organized restaurant at close of business.

Oddly enough, the sidework that must be done before you begin service is called “opening sidework”. Weird, eh? If a restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, and yes, pilgrim, there are restaurants that are open only for lunch or dinner, then you might have extra sidework on both ends of the shift. It would be a good idea to figure out which kind of restaurant you work in if you haven’t already, because you’re going to look pretty stupid showing up for lunch only to find the door locked and a bleary-eyed prep cook out back smoking a cigarette of some sort.

Every restaurant has a different laundry list of tasks that must be performed before opening and they usually break it down so that every waiter participates. Usually this is done by section number/letter, so this means, unless you’re in the same section every day, which is unlikely, you’ll be rotated through the tasks. If the restaurant has server assistants (SAs, bus people, back waiters, they’re all pretty much the same thing in most restaurants), they probably have their own opening sidework as well.

Then you have “running sidework”. It’s called that because you’re usually running your ass off while you perform these tasks. These are jobs that have to be done while you’re waiting on tables. Do you think that the ice bin is going to magically refill itself? Is the silverware that comes out of the dishwasher going to polish and sort itself? Who’s going restock all of those wine glasses that you need? Why is it that when you’re the busiest, you can’t find a demitasse spoon for the espresso that your guest just ordered?

And finally, you have “closing sidework”. Once service starts winding down and sections start getting closed, it’s time to put the restaurant back in shape from the total disaster that serving a couple of hundred people has caused. Stainless steel counters have to be wiped. Ice bins have to be emptied. Floors have to be swept, garbage cans emptied, printer paper rolls restocked, etc There are two different types of closing sidework – there’s the closing sidework that you might do at the end of a shift, whether it be lunch or.dinner and there’s the type of closing sidework that you do when the restaurant itself is going to be closed until the next day. In the case of a restaurant open for lunch or dinner, the lunch closing sidework is intended to restock and organize the restaurant so that there’s an orderly transition for dinner. The end of the night closing, or the end of a lunch-only restaurant’s lunch shift concentrates on deep-cleaning and organization so that the restaurant presents a “ready-state” for opening the next days. It’s imperative that cleaning is done thoroughly so that pests can be prevented.

Usually, there’s a closing waiter who is responsible for checking out other waiter’s sidework. At the end of the night, the floor manager will do a “walk-through” with the closing waiter, who has to do any work that the other waiters missed. This can make a closing waiter quite grumpy.

Ironically, the toughest sidework is generally after an exhausting shift, so you have to be prepared to save a little energy for the close. The best idea for waiters is to start their sidework as their final tables are winding down so that they can “shrink the restaurant”. What I mean by this phrase is that there are parts of the restaurant that cease being heavily used once the rush is over and certain tasks can be done at that time as well (things like restocking condiments, polishing most of the silver, etc.) Somehow, it doesn’t seem that bad if you pick at the closing sidework as you’re finishing your last tables. Of course, you might be the type of person who likes to knock everything out at once. More power to you. Whichever methods works best for you, I say “Go for it!” Just be aware that closing sidework is really important to prevent problems the next day as many opening managers look for things that haven’t been done or are out of place and will find out whose responsibility it was to do them. And since the GM is often the opening manager and the less senior managers often are closers, they catch the grief first. That means you now have two people mad at you (three if the management blames the closing waiter for not catching the undone work).

The problem with doing an incomplete job with closing can become an albatross around your neck if you persist in doing it. Most managers or closing waiters understand that we are human and will forgive a transgression or two. But if you make it a habit, well…your ass is on the line.  

To be continued…