So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

Tag Archives: weeds

Holiday season

Even though the holiday season doesn’t “officially” get started until Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, many of you are already starting to feel the rumblings. Every community and restaurant has a different “biorhythm”, but typically, Halloween and cooler weather triggers an uptick in business.

The real fun of course is in December.

This is just my way of reminding you that you have to shake off the shackles of the slow season and get prepared for the crush.

How do you do this?

First off all, make sure that you don’t have any frivolous distractions. Do you have enough pens? Do you have a couple of extra corkscrews, lighters or crumbers? How is your uniform looking? You don’t need to be running to Office Max in a panic because you’ve just realized that you don’t have any working pens. Now’s the time to buy a bunch of pens. I like to keep an extra corkscrew in my car and an extra one at home. I have two spare ties, one in a locker at work and one in my car. When you’re loaded for bear, you eat the bear – the bear doesn’t eat you.

Now’s the time to get your head right. You might have gotten used to a slower pace and getting cut early. If I were you, I’d dispel any such notions from here on out. Just think of that fat wallet and it will be easy.

Stamina is key as well. Now’s not the time to get all run down, which make you susceptible to getting sick during sick season. You are in close contact with a lot of the public so you are already in a vulnerable position. Wash your hands more often then you normally would. I know better than to tell you to stop partying after work, but you might take it a little easier, or cut down on the frequency.

Make sure that you’ve got your A-game mental attitude. Employ all of your wiles to manage the weeds that you know are coming. Efficiency is the key. If you struggle with the weeds, you might go into the archives of this very blog and search for weeds. I’ve got a few posts that deal with specific strategies that you can employ.

Now is the time to salt away some money for the IRS. If you haven’t been “paying as you go” and you normally get a pretty big bill at tax time, now is the time to send them some money for 2010. You can do this by making a quarterly payment. I have a post or two that deals with taxes. do it now while you’re flush with money. Also, you can use a little of the extra money that you will surely make in November and December to pay down your debt and add to your savings. That doesn’t mean that you can’t save up for that big flat-screen TV that you’ve been pining over, but for god’s sake, think about the big financial picture. Did you know that you can reduce a 30 year mortgage by something like 12 years by only make one extra mortgage payment a year? You don’t even have to make a whole payment – anything extra that you pay will reduce the time of your mortgage if you have one. what better time to do it than when you’ve got some extra joss?

For many waiters, holiday money is 40% or more of their income for the entire year. That is crammed into around a 2-3 month period. In order to exploit this, you’ve got to be able to shoot, move and execute. this blog has some of the resources that can help you flourish.

Tell a friend.

Oh yeah, I’ve been pretty busy myself the past month or tow. This is obvious from the lack of posting, a lack that I’ve already warned you about. I haven’t had much time to read other blogs or research the restaurant industry. and I want to apologize to Marta Daniels, whose book, How To Be A Better Restaurant Customer, I promised to review about two months ago. I’m going to try to get around to it shortly. You can find it at


Every waiter who’s been in the biz for any length of time knows what I’m talking about.

It starts like this:

You get double-sat. No big whoop except that one of the tables needs a song-and-dance and some hand-holding. Still, it’s not that big of a problem. But the second table needs hot tea along with the shots of Cuervo, iced tea and 3 sodas. So, you collect the drinks, but when you get to the hot tea pitchers, they haven’t been stocked (or you can’t find underliners for them, or there aren’t any small tea spoons…take your pick…) You finally get it all together and you’re back on track when you get your third table. You’re not technically triple-seated but it’s close enough where you feel like it.

So, after you greet the new table and get a drink order, you’re back to the first two tables, getting the orders and getting them settled in for the ride. Now the new table would like for you to bring crackers in addition to the bread ’cause they have a little one that would like to have something to teeth on. So, off you go to get the crackers, but you find that there aren’t any where you normally keep them. So you go to the Chef to find out if there are any crackers in the house. There are, but they’re in dry storage. So you have to go to dry storage, pull out an unopened box, get out your wine tool and open it up.

Now you’ve got everything settled and you get your 4th table, which now has to get settled in. No problem, except that they want a Midori Sour and when you come back to get it, the bartender informs you that they’ve been out of Midori for a week. So now you have to go back, get a new drink order while informing the guest that you don’t have what they wanted. No problem. You re-ring the new drink and get them to the table. Only now, you have to make sure that the manager takes the drink order off of the bill. So you go chase down the manager, which takes a precious minute or so.

Meanwhile, the third table orders a bottle of wine. You ring it in, you grab it and take it to the table, the year isn’t the same as the one on the menu. So now, you have to take it back, have the bartender go through the stock to see if there are any left from the correct vintage. There aren’t any, so the guest wants to order a different bottle. No problem, except now you have to chase down the manager again to take off the original bottle.

And so it goes, the whole night…

Every time you have to grab for something, it’s not there and you have to chase it down. Or it’s the wrong thing. Or the guest thinks the food sucks/has taken too long/the soup’s cold, etc. The kitchen is getting slammed so your timing is off by about 10 minutes on everything. Every minute wasted compounds the amount of time that you’re behind by two minutes. Just as you think that you’re getting caught up, something else out of the ordinary pops up, and it keeps you about a step and a half behind. You’re in the weeds, but it’s a smothering sort of weeds, not an over-your-head panicked weeds. It’s not panic that you’re feeling; it’s rage and frustration every time you reach for a demitasse spoon and it ain’t there.

It’s like you’re stuck inexorably in quicksand. The natives’ spears are landing all around you, there’s an arrow through your pith helmet and your chimpanzee companion is not as bright as Cheetah, because he keeps trying to hand you a banana instead of a long stick.

I guess that you’re waiting for me to teach you how to deal with it.  Well, since I was stuck in just that situation last night for about 3 hours, I’m sorry but it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I’ve got all of the answers. I might propose some things later that you can do to help keep your pith helmet above the sand, but frankly, there was nothing I could do last night to wiggle out.

Just be aware that you can be in the business for almost 2 decades and you can get caught in such a mess that the only way out is for the shift to finally end.

I’m just sayin’…

Managing the weeds

I’ve discussed this before, but you should have a personal plan for managing the weeds in the back of your mind – a sort of fallback, mindless set of priorities unique to your own restaurant. By mindless, I don’t mean that the priorities are mindless, but that you don’t have to think very hard about them when the weeds come. They should be almost an automatic reaction to the weeds. You shouldn’t have to think very hard about them. They should come naturally.

I can’t list priorities for you because restaurants and even waiter personalities are different. What might work for me might send you further into the weeds. But here’s what I’m thinking when the weeds start climbing.

My first strategy is to start thinking of my section as one big table. I start jettisoning the “unique approach” that I try to give each table. This doesn’t mean that I’m compromising my service, just that I’m not so concerned about giving a unique spiel to each table. I go slightly into “robot mode” without sounding “robotic”. IOW, if each table could hear me at every other table, they might think that I was being ‘canned” with my spiel, but when they hear it only at their table, it still sounds like I’m engaged with them, if this makes any sense. I don’t need to be spending a lot of mental energy tailoring my speech patterns and rhythms to each table. I also have a special that I usually tell my guests, something that the kitchen can always do that’s not on the menu. Nobody else incorporates this in their spiel, but I do it because it’s a $16 side dish where our most expensive side dish is around $11 and most of them are around $8-9. I usually sell between 2 and 5 of them a shift. If I sell one at lunch, it’s almost like adding a cover to my count. One lunch, I sold 5 of them! That’s like an extra 4 top. But that’s the first thing that gets jettisoned when I go in the weeds. It saves me about 30 seconds of verbiage and there’s nothing really lost as far as the guest is concerned.

My next priority is making sure that if I’m seated during this period, that I at least swing by and say, “good evening, I’ll be with you in just a minute”. Normally I do this when I present the menus, but I’m usually scurrying around doing things for other tables and don’t have time to make a trip to grab menus. This accomplishes two things – first, it counts as a greet within the required time limit (we have 1 minute to greet a table). Second, it lets the guest know that they have been noticed and that it will take a minute to return with the menus. If the guest tries to order a drink on the spot, I do everything I can to prevent taking their order. I usually tell them that I’ll be right back with their menus. If they seem annoyed by that, obviously I’ll take their order on the spot. But I won’t bring menus until I bring their drinks. They can wait since apparently they know better than I how to do my job.

We’re discouraged from collecting plates from multiple tables (most restaurants don’t have a problem with that though).  I do sometimes make stops at other tables even if I have a handful of plates, especially if they try to catch my eye. I’ll do this especially if I have a quality check to make (for civilians, a quality check is the 2 minute check back after a dish is delivered). The more that I consolidate tasks within the parameters that my restaurant allows, the more efficient I can be and the more time I’ll have with each table. When the weeds are high, every second is important.

When I’m really weeded, I’m not all that interested in selling dessert. Dessert could mean the difference between getting a turn or not getting a turn. While I am tasked with selling dessert because it’s considered an “upsell”, even the management would rather have that table back than lose it for another 20 minutes for an extra $15. But I don’t not mention dessert. I might ask a loaded question like, “Anyone still have room for dessert”? In a restaurant like mine, one that serves large portions, phrasing it that way has a slightly negative connotation (negative for dessert, that is).

Also, when I’m weeded, I try to “slow time down”. I do this by trying to take an extra couple of seconds when ringing food in. I know that this contradicts my other point about every second being important, but it’s more important to keep a clear head and also to avoid miss-rings and mistakes. Standing at the terminal is the one place where I can get re-centered and catch my breath. Of course, I have to be cognizant of others needing to use the terminal. Sometimes, if I’m the waitee, I’ll use that time to review what I’m going to enter or I’ll try to organize my thoughts while I wait.

These are some strategies that I employ in my restaurant. Feel free to add any that are relevant to your own situation.

Muscle memory

Muscle memory is a big deal in sports. Muscle memory allows you to play relatively unconsciously, which frees you from making mental errors or second-guessing yourself. It is only attained through repetition and practice.

You can apply the same concept to waiting tables, except you should think about developing the biggest “muscle” of all – the brain.

I recently wrote about focus and consistency.  That’s what the corollary of muscle memory is all about.

The quicker you can achieve almost a Zen state when you get busy, the quicker you’ll be able to deal with the weeds and not be thrown into panic.

If you can do many of your tasks almost automatically and with little thought, you’ll be surprised how easily you’ll get through the rush. But this is almost a contradictory thing – a Zen puzzle, if you will. Aren’t you supposed to be super focused? Aren’t you supposed to be constantly evaluating, balancing, prioritizing? How can you do this if the advice is to not think – simply to do, to be?

The key is honing your skills during slower times so that you eliminate distractions. Get your abbreviations rock-solid consistent. Get your notational skill fixed so that you always write things in the same order and in the same way every time. Start seeing the section as a whole (start with two tables and work your way up from there). Work on speeding up ringing orders without compromising accuracy. Work on consolidating tasks so that you reduce your trips by half and then by thirds. Learn to glance at a table and see the table as it should be, not as it is. Should there be a little flash of pink on the table? Nope – that’s a Sweet ‘n Low packet that needs to be removed. Should there be a third glass in front of position 3, especially since the third glass is finally empty (they had wanted to nurse their previous cocktail while they enjoyed their new one, but now it’s empty).

As you develop these skills, you’ll find that you’re thinking less and less about them and doing them almost unconsciously. Hopefully, you’ll get to the point where you’ll be able to scan a 4 table section while getting double-seated at 8pm on the night where there’s an hour wait for tables and you’ll be able to see the whole picture. You’ll know where your other two tables are in a glance and automatically be able to prioritize your service in a flash – almost in a no-brain mode. You’ll glide through the next two hours instead of stumble. And you’ll appear to be totally controlled instead of two steps behind.

That’s because you’ve developed “muscle memory” in your brain. You’ll be relaxed and focused at the same time.

And that’s the sound of one hand clapping.

Picture courtesy of DogsLoL