So You Want To Be A Waiter

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

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The book that you have been waiting for is finally out!

No, not my book.

Sorry to get you all excited.

No, it’s Tips²: Tips For Improving Your Tips by David Hayden of the Hospitality Formula Network.

Let me be blunt – if you are a waiter/server/bartender and you don’t buy this book, then you really don’t care about how much money you make. This book is a multiplier of skills and bank. It’s written in a clear, concise yet comprehensive style. It’s laid out logically and covers just about every topic that a waiter needs to know in terms of maximizing his or her earning potential.

The book is broken down into 10 sections and 41 chapters. With sections like Before Your Shift, Starting Your Shift, Interacting with Your Guests, and The Mechanics of Serving, the book puts lie to Hayden’s statement that “This book is NOT a training manual. Due to the fact that you picked up this book, it is assumed you know how to wait tables”. Those preliminary sections cover much of what the rank amateur waiter needs to know to make his or her descent into the maelstrom of waiting tables a smooth and unbumpy one. This book should be part of the training package of every restaurant who hires people who have never been waiters.

But it doesn’t stop there – with subsequent sections like Selling and Serving Wine, The Pitch, The Key Times, Selling as a Server, Special Guests, and The Intangibles, the main intent of the book becomes clear – waiter make money, guest get good experience, manager get smooth shift – everybody happy.

My blog covers many of the same points. In fact, you’ll get a sense of déjà vu when you read Mr. Hayden’s book if you’ve spent any time with my posts. The main difference is the clarity of vision and training. I tend to ramble, go off-the-cuff, go off on tangents, and generally get parenthetical (sometimes). You’ll find little of that in this book. What you’ll find is  a book full of practical hints, tips and directives that aren’t just theoretical abstracts; they can be applied on a daily basis.

Do I think it’s complete? Hell no! There are valid points that this very blog have made that are left out. Anyone who has waited tables for a long time has had situations that have given them insight that could be valuable to the waiter-at-large. But, all in all, the book is probably the most practical and valuable resource that a waiter could find on any bookshelf (either real or virtual) in North America. I say North America because other restaurant cultures have different standards and practices that might be at odds with the North American restaurant culture.

In a perfect world, this book would be the core of the book that I had intended when I first considered starting a blog on the subject of waiting tables. I wanted a book that was lavishly illustrated with photographs, filled with sidebars of interesting factoids and footnotes, brimming with information about everything from rapini to Calvados. I envisioned parts of the book that would be considered reference material for the ages – a book with the heft of a wine atlas, the look, feel and knowledge of a Thomas Keller book, the practical and accessible wisdom of a “…for Dummies” book. This book would be part of the curriculum at Cornell, would sit on every restaurant book shelf, would grace the coffee tables of the rich and poor alike, and my name would be whispered with a measured awe in the break rooms of restaurants for years to come.

Well, sorry. The bones are there; the framework sitting in the archives of this very blog. Until the storied day when a literary agent looks at my concept, knows just the perfect graphic designer to create the cheap equivalent of the Nathan Myhrvold “Modern Cuisine” $625 cookbook, my dream of the ultimate book on waiting tables is just that – a dream.

Until then, this book by David Hayden does what I hoped to do – make it possible for a newly-minted waiter to avoid the usual pitfalls of “learning on the job”. This is a dual goal; not only does it mean that waiters can share the knowledge necessary to maximize earnings, it means that fewer restaurant guests will have to suffer the fumbling of such “on-the-fly training”.

It’s lean, it’s mean – it’s the opposite of what I intended. And just what the world needs.


Buy my book or I'll make you look like a fool in front of your date.

“Don’t be scared of the sommelier”

A nice article about how to take advantage of the sommelier, written by Nashville’s only sommelier (as far as I know, she’s the only one).

Statistically speaking, most restaurant guests will never interact with a sommelier. There can’t be more than 1% of all restaurants in America that employ the services of a sommelier, and I think that 1% is probably being generous. And most people won’t dine at a French Laundry or Aureole.  Nashville is lucky to have a pair of restaurants that are moderately priced and still have a sommelier (F. Scott’s and Table 3). This is only possible because Loehr is a co-owner of those restaurants and happens to be an über wine geek who has received her Advanced Certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers, which puts her one step away from getting her Master Sommelier Certificate (there are only 120 people in the US who have received that certification). 

I place so much emphasis on wine knowledge because, in most restaurants, waiters must take on the role of the sommelier. Even if you work at Applebee’s and only need a limited wine knowledge, you won’t always work at Applebee’s if you intend on staying in the business. So you should start learning as much about wine as you possibly can. You will never know everything about wine even if you’re waiting tables for 40 years. It’s a matter of constant attention and there’s always more to learn. Every vintage, every blend, every vineyard, every region is different. In fact, there are infinite variations in each individual region. There are new processes, new trends, new vintners. This requires staying as on top of the wine world as you can.

Waiters will never have the resources that true sommeliers have. Sommeliers taste every wine that they serve. They do comparative tastings with other like wines. They meet with wine representatives almost daily. They are fed huge amounts of information about currently produced wines. Waiters only get a sprinkling of this massive amounts of information. So it’s extremely important to take advantage of the information that trickles through the sommelier or person responsible for the wine program, whether it be tear sheets about specific wines, tastings or staff meetings with wine reps. And, there’s an additional burden on waiters to maintain an independent study program.

You can’t be a great waiter without this knowledge. You can’t be expected to know everything, but you should be able to advise  and educate your guests, without being a Wine Nazi, in choosing the perfect wine from your list with the food that they will be eating. I hope that you use this blog to help in this process. I have written about wine on occasion and, even though the amount of coverage that I can give wine is limited, I think that some of my thumbnail sketches can help distill knowledge from the wide world of wine. Just search for wine and you’ll find a dozen or more articles about commonly available wines. I hope to continue this series as I go forward. What I try to do is give practical information and be as complete as I can in this format. I can’t really cover the subject like a dedicated wine website or book, but I can try to give the information that helps when trying to guide a guest in their dining experience. I try not to clutter my articles with so much information that it becomes unwieldy. I try to simplify as much as possible while still imparting the essence of the subject.

Elise Loehr

Serving the business dinner pt. 1

I’ve discussed this before, but it seems appropriate to delve into it again.

There are a couple of variations on the business dinner.

The first is the small non-business business dinner. This would be your standard table of business types (up to about 6 – 8 people). This is a gathering of people with shared business dinners just getting together for a social dinner. There will be some business discussed, but mostly in the context of work-related conversation, much like we as waiters do when we gather for post-shift drinks. Lots of shop talk, but little actual business done.

This table is treated just like any other table. while they might all be dressed in Armani suits, they aren’t needing any special consideration. However, it can be helpful to identify the “host” or the alpha male/female. They might be the one to either order the wine or identify the person who’s considered the “wine geek” of the table. However, you shouldn’t play to this person to the exclusion of the others because you’d be surprised how many times someone who you didn’t expect actually pays the check.

This brings up an important point about every table. You should give everyone equal attention. You never know if someone who you don’t suspect ends up paying the check after all. I can’t tell you how many times it’s an administrative assistant or other diner who ends up paying because they have the corporate card and perform the task of paying the bill in lieu of “The Boss”. It’s almost like “The Boss” isn’t bothered with such mundane things like paying the bill.

How do you find out if the event is a social one? Simple. You ask up front. If it appears to be business-related, you ask someone who appears to be in control if it’s a business dinner and if you need to serve them in a particular way. If they say, “We’re just getting together; we don’t have any special needs”,  then it’s full speed ahead with the normal service steps. If they say, “We’re going to discuss some business, so we’re not in any big hurry”, or “Yes, we’re going to need some time before/after the entrée to discuss some things”, then you proceed to:

The small business dinner.

This requires restraint on your part. Interrupting conversations to inquire how everything is is not a good thing. You almost have to throw out the service steps book and rewrite it. the main thing is to make sure that they get cocktails/drinks quickly. Once you do that, take a step back and observe them. If the menus remain untouched and they seem into heavy conversation, simple cruise them periodically to look for signs that they are starting to lose interest in business/cocktail hour behavior and getting interested in food. This could mean a couple of them picking up menus, snatches of conversation about the cuisine, looking around, etc. Many times, business colleagues like to discuss business over cocktails and this is where some important business sometimes gets done,  so it’s not as important to sell apps or script specials. Wait until the time is right.

Hopefully, you got an idea about how they want the pacing of the meal to go when you asked them your initial question. Just remember that you have to be flexible and intuitive. If you notice them shifting from business to hunger, be ready to suggest an appetizer. If they go for it and don’t ask about the specials, the best thing to do is to get an appetizer order, ring it in and then return to the table to talk about the specials. Try not to do it all at once if you can. Reciting the specials gives you the chance to fill some time while you’re waiting for the appetizers to arrive. However, if you tell them about the specials and then ring in the appetizer because they’ve asked about them, you can always fall back on taking the entrée order while you’re waiting.

One optional thing that you can do, which requires an additional step on your part is to suggest that you take the menus away and bring them back after the appetizer. Juggling menus while trying to eat appetizers can be awkward, especially when they’re wearing thousand dollar suits. of course, this holds true for any table, but it’s especially true in this instance.

One key thing to remember is that people talking business can be incredibly focused. We waiters can feel uncomfortable when we are excluded from interacting with the table. Try to repress this by remembering that they don’t need your “entertainment” or “service”. They are focused on themselves. If they spend 20 minutes over drinks, it’s not like a normal table being stuck with drinks for 20 minutes while they’re waiting for you to return to talk about appetizers. However, you do need to continue to monitor them because these sorts of folks can shift quickly from business to dinner.  Just watch for the signs that I mentioned.

You need to give business tables their time and space. If you are in a restaurant where you are concerned about turning tables quickly, you should simply write them off as a candidate for flipping. Normally, business tables spend more money anyway, so don’t begrudge them their time. They usually aren’t concerned with the cost of the meal and some business tables spend a lot of money because a. it’s not their personal money to begin with and b. sometimes they are expected to spend a lot of money to achieve a business goal.

This brings up a good point. Now is not the time to worry about suggesting a big wine or upscale liquors. I wouldn’t pick the most expensive bottle on the list, but I’d definitely start at the upper end. It’s always good to have a go-to pricey wine in the major varietal categories. make it something that you know well and are comfortable in selling, and would be comfortable in buying yourself if money is no object. It’s easier to sell something that you believe in.

Finally, don’t necessarily expect 20% even in the face of flawless service, even if you usually get it. It’s probably not you, it’s probably a company guideline.

In part two, we’ll talk about the large business function (Christmas party, awards dinner, pharmaceutical dinner, etc.).

Wine of the day – Shiraz

Shiraz – named after a city in Iran of all places. It’s also known as Syrah, which is the name of the grape. The name Shiraz is courtesy of our Australian friends and it used to be that they were about the only ones who used the term. But American vintners have seemed to have started riding the Australian coattails because they have been really successful in calling it Shiraz and we Americans certainly will ride any successful marketing coattails. So now you’re seeing such wineries as Beringer, Francis Coppola and Geyser Peak marketing their Syrahs as Shirazes. I predict that the trend will continue to accelerate. In fact, I think that Syrah will eventually be the rarity. The French refuse to budge though because they are known as the premiere bottler of Syrah in their Rhône region (named after the great river which runs through it). No new world marketing trend will change that fact.

The Aussies also pronounce Shiraz a little differently than the rest of the world. They pronounce it Shir- AZZ, whereas we pronounce it Shir-OZ. The latter is the more “correct” pronunciation, if you are trying to pronounce the name of the city. The latter is what you will hear mostly in the US unlike you’re like me, who likes to pronounce an Australian Shiraz the way the vintners pronounce it. I use the American pronunciation for Shiraz produced anywhere else. But that’s just me.

So, what is Syrah/Shiraz?

The grape comes from hardy rootstock which is late budding but doesn’t ripen too late.  According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, it is “conveniently late-budding and not too late ripening”. According to the same reference, “Its deep, dark, dense qualities are much reduced once the yield is allowed to rise and it has a tendency to lose aroma and acidity rapidly if left too long on the vine”. This explains the wide price variation between, say, Penfold’s Grange (at hundreds of dollars a bottle) and their Thomas Hyland Vineyard wine (which only costs tens of dollars). Another good example is Hermitage (please pronounce it air-ma-TAHZE, as the French do). This is one of the most expensive bottlings of the great Rhône region. It’s only a 311 acres region in the Northern Rhône and there are a handful of producers who produce it. However, Syrah is the predominate grape in all Rhône regions, from Côtes-du Rhône to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. You will also obviously find it in the famous “Rhône Rangers” of the West Coast, like Tablas Creek of the Central Coast.

So how would you describe Syrah/Shiraz? Well, to me, it’s similar to Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of body. Full-bodied and dark, it’s more fruit forward” and juicy. It’s usually firm and well-structured and not quite as tannic as Cab Sauv. It’s got lots of dark fruit, especially fruits like blackberry, plum and black cherry, and they tend to be fairly spicy. They can be peppery or chocolatey or both; they can have clove, licorice and vanilla. Leathery notes aren’t uncommon.

Cool climate Syrahs tend to be more “elegant” with a richer flavor profile (read Northern Rhone,  coastal and higher altitude California and the extremely rare Australian boutiquey vintner), while warmer climate-grown Syrahs are generally “bigger”, “jammier” with some “lighter” fruit flavors like blueberries and raspberries. This is the predominate style of Australian producers due to the fact that their growing regions tend to be hotter. 

West Coast producers have generally followed the australian model, since they are the most familiar to the US consumer, but there is an increasing trend to go after the Northern Rhône style. Since California has both types of climates available to it, the vintners there can produce according to their geographic and topographic constraints. Syrah works in both warm and cool environments, and each offers advantages that should be factored into the production. Cool climate Syrahs have been more of a challenge because US consumers have been conditioned by the success of the Aussies as well as the fact that more people can afford to drink wines from the southern Rhône and are more familiar with the style.

Australians probably grow the highest percentage of Shiraz to the rest of their output. It’s ubiquitous. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because there is plenty to choose from. It’s bad because yields are often too high and the varietal loses some of its character and it can be flabby, “underspiced”, overcooked in hot years, etc. Look first to established producers like Penfolds, Wolf Blass and D’Arenberg. This isn’t to say that others aren’t good, but these producers tend to be pretty consistent within their various niches. However, if you want to hit a home run virtually every time, look to Mollydooker (usually one word but even the winemakers make it two words on occasion). The name is Aussie slang for a left hander (and can be used to describe a “left hook”) and that’s what the wine will give you. Big, juicy, spicy and never “flabby” or tired, the various bottlings have never failed to satisfy. They are certainly “in-your-face” but never in a bad way. The winemakers, Sarah and Sparky Phillips, they first became well-known outside of their home country with the famed brand,  Marquis Phillips. The Phillipses are clever marketers, creating memorable names for each of their specific blends, and they tie a cartoon version of the name on the label. Some of their most famous offerings are “The Blue-eyed Boy”, “The Boxer” (there’s that left hook thing working for them), “Two left Feet”, “The Maitre D’ “, and “Carnival of Love”. If you’d like more info on this up-and-comer, here’s their website where you can click on each of their offerings and the labels and bottles.

They have various blends of Shirazes and Cabernets, so you might need to google the specific wine that interests you, since it’s hard to find specifics on some of the wines at the Mollydooker site itself.

So, what should we pair Shiraz/Syrah with?

Think Cabernet Sauvignon. You want to pair the average Shiraz or Syrah with fatty meats, stews, lamb, game, etc. Obviously, if you know your various styles, you can fine tune it even further. For instance, you might not want to pair a big jammy Australian Shiraz with a rare tuna steak, while you might handily recommend an Hermitage or Cornas (a region close to hermitage in the northern Rhône) because the jamminess won’t overwhelm the flavor of the tuna. I’m not saying that you can’t pair a warm climate Syrah with tuna. For instance,  Côtes-du Rhône is blended with at least 40% Grenache, which tends to soften and reduce the body of the wine.  Therefore, it can pair nicely with something like tuna or salmon.

But, in general, you should recommend Syrah/Shiraz as you would for any other full-bodied red. Believe it or not, it’s great “picnic wine”, especially if you’re eating BBQ, ribeyes or juicy burgers. Fat and Syrahs work well in concert with each other.

So go forth and sell Syrah/Shiraz with confidence. I’ve only scratched the surface, but I hope that I’ve given you the right thumbnail sketch to help you when someone is looking for a good red wine to go with their prime rib.

On wine glasses

Wine glasses are an important component in the enjoyment of wine. Unfortunately, most restaurants must take the lowest road when it comes to wine glasses. This is due to the fact that the best wine glasses are crystal, which is delicate, easily broken and expensive. Why use nice crystal (even budget crystal) when cheap Libby glasses will suffice? These sturdy glasses rarely break and are dishwasher safe. Libby actually has some “decent” glasses to choose from; unfortunately, some restaurants don’t choose anything other than these little 10 oz “all purpose” thimbles:

These glasses are virtually useless for the enjoyment of wine. Not only are they way too small, they are heavy and clunky.

If your restaurant uses these glasses, you should lobby for something like these:

Libbey 077561 20 Ounce Perception Wine Glass.

Yeah, they are double the price, so it might be a hard sell. But you might try telling your management that the 10 oz glasses do nothing to encourage the purchase of wine, while these 20 oz glasses will send a better message to your guests who might be more wine savvy than your management gives them credit for. Perhaps your managers don’t want to encourage wine. After all, draft beer has such a high margin. But let’s not forget that wine can also push higher priced food.

Nothing discourages a wine drinker more than getting a 5 or 6 oz pour in a 10 oz. glass. There are even places that have the nerve to use 8 oz glasses. I think that managers think that it looks like the consumer is getting a “full glass”. But that is absurd.

Crystal glasses like Riedel, Stötze and Spiegelau don’t make sense for “budget” restaurants. But that doesn’t mean that you have to settle for ill-designed glasses. You wouldn’t serve beer in ice tea glasses, would you?

In a future post, we’ll cover higher-end glasses. But for now, let’s get rid of these tiny glasses, shall we?

Cutting corners

As waiters, we sometimes have to cut corners.

But last night, I was reminded that you have to be careful about cutting corners.

A table ordered  two bottles of the same wine (a fairly recent Cabernet Sauvignon from a prominent California winery). Sin ce we had at least 7 or 8 people drinking, I poured the first bottle and decanted the remainder and opened the second bottle. I was going to pour the second bottle to the remaining guests, but I had about a fifth of the first bottle in the decanter. Instead of getting a second decanter, I started to pour the second bottle into the decanter, when the guy who ordered the wine stopped me and said, “Are you mixing bottles in the same decanter? You never do that”.

Technically he was right. Most people don’t mind unless it’s a wine that can be pretty variable such as a French Burgundy. In fact, I had the same mindset when I stopped pouring the first bottle and decanted the second because I was indending to keep from mixing the last of the first bottle in the next round of glasses. I sort of defaulted to the normal “I don’t care if you mix bottles” mindset.

While he wasn’t pleased, fortunately, he didn’t hold it against me and I apologized once more as I presented the check. He still tipped 20% on the wine (which was rung up on a separate check).

So, before you cut a corner, sometimes it’s good to ask the guest first.

Just sayin’…

Tipping on wine

It seems to be fashionable these days to allow the non-tipping or severe discounting on expensive bottles of wine. This is a dangerous trend because it’s even been extended to say that tipping should only be done on food and not alcoholic beverages.

What’s next – only tip on main courses – you shouldn’t tip on appetizers?

C’mon people, let’s get real.

The main reason for these new pockets of “wisdom” is the escalation of price on wines.  As more restaurants offer better and more expensive bottles of wine, the “average American” sees this as a justification for the reduction of the tip. When wine was usually $4 – 6/glass and $30 a bottle, it didn’t seem important. But as the average price of wine is $8 – 15/glass and bottles average more like $40 – 70 these days, people are finding “justifications” for not including this new cost of dining into the tipping equation.

Frankly, this is just bullshit.

Here’s an example of how convoluted people are trying to make this. From’s section on restaurant tipping:

The Tip calculation should be based on the PRE-TAX ammount (sic). Also, tips involving liquor should follow the following guidelines:

  • If one bottle of wine was ordered, then it is usually okay to include it’s (sic) cost into the tip calculation.
  • If there is a lot of wine ordered or if the price of a single wine bottle is above $10, I think it’s (sic) cost should NOT be included in the final tip calculation.


Frankly, when was the last time you saw a $10 bottle of wine on a wine list? I’ve been in the biz for over 15 years straight now and the cheapest bottle that I ever saw was $18 for a bottle of Beringer White Zinfandel and this was in the last millennium. That same bottle costs upwards of $30 in most restaurants now.

So, basically the last part of this advice cancels out the first part.

And it’s quite disappointing to see that some young people are “learning” that you “don’t tip on alcohol”. I have no idea where that came from.

Here’s the deal – wine has always been tipped on – in the old days, you tipped the wine steward/sommelier. The function of the sommelier has been taken over by the waiter. I would never argue that we waiters have the same level of expertise, since not only does the sommelier train far more extensively for wine service, they have actually tasted every wine on their list and every wine that darkens their door. A waiter can never do that. A waiter can’t even usually taste change of vintages either. But a waiter needs to have enough information to guide the guest. A sommelier only does wine. They don’t have to take food orders, deliver food, manicure tables, etc. So, people should consider the added burden on the waiter when the waiter is also responsible for the wine service. We waiters have to spend a lot of our free time staying current about wine, especially those of us who work in restaurants with expensive bottles of wine. For those of us who work in such a restaurant, wine is a very large portion of our sales.

“But…but…what if I don’t need “wine service” per se. I know about wine and I can pick out my own wine”, I heard the tightwad sputter. “why should I have to tip on wine. All the waiter does is bring the bottle, open it and pour it”. Well, my friend, all I do is take your order for food and bring it to your table, right? Look, the wine service is part and parcel of your dining experience, just as the “food service” is. Plus, in some restaurants, that nice crystal glass that you’re drinking from has to be hand-washed. It certainly has to be hand polished. I remember nights hand-washing and hand-polishing dozens of glasses in a shift (my current restaurant has nice crystal but it’s machine-washable – although every glass on my tables has to be hand-polished, so I don’t avoid that particular task).

“But…but…wine prices are insane! Why should I tip you on a $150 bottle of wine? It takes the same effort to pour that bottle as it does a bottle of White Zinfandel”. Hey buddy, you’re sputtering again. Well, first of all, I didn’t twist your arm to order that $200 bottle of wine. It’s not my fault that it costs more than your food. It’s not me trying to impress your date or help you close an important business deal or reward a successful colleague. You want to play, you gotta pay. If you had wanted, I could have brought you a perfectly fine $40 bottle of Cabernet instead of the Opus One. Are you going to now argue that you should tip less on the $60 dry-aged filet because, hell, it’s over twice the cost of the $25 sirloin? Obviously it’s no more work for me to bring one over the other.

People who can afford to buy a $100 bottle of wine can afford the tip. They shouldn’t be chiseling the bill down on the back of the waiter and his or her support staff.

I’m willing to cut a patron a bit of a break if their wine bill is very high. If you were going to tip me 20% for my excellent service on a $1000 bill ($500 of it just on wine), I’d be happy with $170 and I’d understand. However, if you thought my service was excellent and you would have tipped me $200 if not for the wine and you leave me $100 – $150, I’m going to think that you’re a fucked-up tipper on the low-end or just an OK tipper on the high-end, especially if you praise me for my service. Why should you care what I think? Well, you probably shouldn’t, although many people who complain about having to tip seem to think it’s important.

So here’s the deal. Wine is part of the meal. It’s tipped on, just like the rest of the meal. If the amount is way out of balance to the food, by all means, adjust down. But you should always tip at least 16% on the whole meal if you thought the service was great. If you are the type that never tips more than 15% regardless, then do what you must. But keep in mind that this will label you as a mediocre to lousy tipper (of course, you probably don’t care, since you don’t reward great service in the first place).

And, just so you know, most serious wine collectors and wine mavens tip on the full value of the wine. They even usually tip close to the full value of a wine that they bring in themselves. Not only do they pay a corkage fee, which covers the loss of sales to the restaurant, they usually will tip the waiter as if they had bought the bottle from the restaurant to compensate the waiter for the loss of sales. This has been my experience with some fairly important players in the wine community in my city, a city that has a pretty strong wine community. having said that, a dismaying number of “average people” who bring in a bottle and pay the corkage fee don’t tip on the lost sales. They should stop that. I guess they think that the $3 I get from their 20% tip on the $15 corkage fee makes up for the lost $10 tip on that bottle that would have been $50. I just hope they don’t get the idea to bring their own steak in for cooking  to save money on the bill and the tip.

Cartoon from

Note to my double birthday couple

I knew I was screwed when you were sat in my station at around 6:15 last night.

The bottle of wine that you brought in, a bottle that would cost around $300 on our wine list if we offered that year of that vintner, was the first tip off.

The second was your first comment to me – “We are going to be here for a long time” was the second.

The third was your demeanor. I think the word would be “dour”.

Now, how could a couple celebrating their shared birthday be so sullen? I really don’t know. However, I shifted into a mindset that refused to share this sullenness and gave in to the idea that they didn’t want to be rushed. I probably heard it three times that “We’re in no hurry”.

So I played to that. I asked them when I should bring their appetizer. They told me, “In around 10 minutes. She wants to finish her sherry first”. Cool. So that’s what I did. I didn’t even take the rest of their order until after their appetizer was finished (dismembering each of the 4 shrimp took her about 5 minutes – I didn’t know you could cut them into such small bites).

When I took their entree order, I asked them, “Should I wait to bring their salads”? they said, “You can bring them whenever you want; we’re in no hurry”. “Does that mean that you want me to wait a few minutes”? “No, you can bring them now if you want”.

So that’s what I did.

Of course, it took them around 20 minutes to eat their salads. That was fine – I was resigned to dragging this sad excuse for “celebration” out. I didn’t have anything else really going on anyway.

I carefully metered their wine from the decanter that I had provided for them, making sure that they didn’t run out early. This meant watching the levels in their glasses so that I only poured a tiny bit of wine just before they were finished. this was the only way I could make the wine stretch for almost 3 hours.

When I cleared their salads, I told them, “Once I call for your entrees, it will take about 5 minutes. Would you like me to wait”? “No, you can bring them out”.

So I called for the entrees and sure enough, about 5 minutes later, I brought their perfectly cooked steaks out for them. “That was fast”. I let that little bit of passive-aggressive slip go right by.

When I cleared their entrees, I asked them if they wanted to see the dessert menu (I already suspected the answer, because this was a ploy for me to surprise them with a free birthday dessert). “No,” he said, “we’re full”.

So, around 10 minutes later, I brought out the free dessert, complete with candle.

She ate most of it and then asked me to box up the miniscule portion left.

No problem; that’s exactly what I did. It was now around 9:15.

When I presented the bill, he pulled out a free entree coupon.


Their bill was $160 after taking off the dessert and the entree. The original amount would have been around $220, not counting the free dessert, which I wrote on the bill and the credit card slips.

Why was I not surprised then when I got to close out the credit card transaction for a $25 tip?

I checked the percentage and it was 16% of the pre-tax total on the new amount.

They probably thought that this was an appropriate tip for outstanding and patient service for their 3 1/2 hour meal (they left at 9:45).

So, thanks a lot.

Now, why wasn’t this an appropriate tip? Let’s look more closely at this.

They took up my table for almost 4 hours.

They brought their own expensive wine, which I carefully decanted and served, paying particular attention to always having just the right amount of wine in the glass.

They got a free entree and a free appetizer.

These are all things that a reasonable person would compensate for. Hell, at least leave 20% on the pre-tax total to send the message that service was top-notch.

But even that mediocre response to being catered to hand-and-foot would have been somewhat of an insult.

Here’s the deal – if you get a free entree or complimentary food, service isn’t included, so you should tip on that unpaid amount. If you bring in a bottle of wine, you should, at the bare minimum, up your tip. Real wine people, the kind that buy bottles of boutique California cabernets with 9 years of age, tip on the amount that it would have cost them had they ordered it off of the menu. I know, because I’ve served most of the serious wine collectors and drinkers in this town. But I would appreciate just an extra $10 tip for the service for that $300 bottle. That’s the least that they could do.

These folks will be back, of that I am sure (they are in our reservation system as being semi-regulars).

I have their name and should I wait on them again, they are going to get the type of service that they pay for. No caring about the pacing of their meal. I won’t be asking them how they want to be served. I will provide the kind of service that will be robot-like and just speedy enough for them not to be able to accuse me of “rushing them”. I know exactly how to serve them so that they are a minimum distraction to me or my other guests. In other words, I will revert to being an order taker for them.

They are, what’s called in the retail business, a loss leader.


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!

On Wine Pt. 3

In the final part of this discussion on wine service, let’s discuss pouring.

When pouring wine, it’s important not to pour the whole bottle, even if you’re pouring 6 glasses. You always want to leave a little in the bottle, so you need to get an idea of how much to pour depending on how many glasses you have to pour on the first round. You’re trying to send the signal to the guests that you aren’t trying to force another bottle on them.

A standard sized bottle will yield four 6 oz glasses. Once you learn how much 6 oz is in your house glasses, you’ll be able to calibrate your pours better. If you have 4 glasses to pour, then you should only pour around 4 oz in each glass. If you have 6 glasses, then you should shoot for around 3 oz. If you have more than 6 glasses, you should recommend to the host that you bring a second bottle. If you bring the second bottle, ask the host if they’d like for you to let them test the bottle. Most will say “Just pour it”, but technically each bottle should be tested. In the case of two bottles, I like  to try to pour equal glasses until the bottle runs out and then start with the next bottle. I try not to mix bottles in a single glass. In the case of bringing a second bottle later, I don’t worry about it and I’ll pour into a glass holding wine from the first bottle. Every so often, you’ll get a guest who insists on a fresh glass when a new bottle of the same wine is brought. Obviously, you’ll comply.

One complication is that you don’t always know how many people will be drinking wine, so you should always pour as if everyone is drinking. The worst thing that you can do is run out of wine before everyone is served. You don’t want the host to feel that he or she is being forced to buy a second bottle, so, if you have to only pour 2 oz in each glass, so be it. If the host didn’t want you to bring a second bottle, it’s on them if their guests only get 2 oz of wine.

When free pouring wine for a party, try not to pour a full 6 oz pour. I shoot for around 4 to 5 oz. Believe it or not, you’ll end up pouring more wine that way because people will need their glasses refilled more often. Some people tend to nurse their wine out of habit, even when they’re not paying for it. It’s better to let them need more wine sooner by not pouring as much initially. And, of course, the more wine you pour, the more wine you sell (unless the number of bottles has been limited). It means more work to keep refilling, but it also means a larger check and presumably a larger tip.

One thing you don’t want though is a lot of half-full glasses on the table at the end of the meal. The host will feel like you’ve deliberately overpoured in order to stick them with a higher bill. So, once the entree is served, you should stop automatically refilling glasses unless they are very low. By the middle of the entree, only pour if a glass is empty or if someone requests it. The idea is to sell the absolute most wine you can but also the exact amount of wine that the party needs. It’s not a big deal if a couple of glasses are half full, but if most of the glasses are left half-full at the end of the meal, you’re sending the message to the host that you’re trying to gouge them.  Let’s say you have a party of 45 people and there are 24 glasses that are half full at the end. That’s the equivalent of 3 full bottles of wine that the host paid for but wasn’t drunk. When a guest can trust that they won’t be paying for things that they don’t consume, they will be loyal customers, and that repeat business is what you are shooting for.

Finally, as always, house policies trump any advice that I give here.

In the next installment, we’ll talk about selling wine.