Sunday, April 11, 2010

Server Lessons

Now that I'm writing about it, I realize that I can teach you all you'd ever need to know about waiting tables in New York City. Read my advice, take it to heart, and you'll be qualified to work in any restaurant in the city. One of the strange things about New York City restaurants is that they require you to have New York experience. If you waited tables in Chicago for ten years, it doesn't matter to the managers of New York. For some reason, they think restaurants here are somehow different from those any place else. That they're somehow special. I don't know what it is, but I think if you read my advice, you'll be well qualified to lie on your resume and be able to pull it off.

First, the basics.

Just because you've been waited on in the past, and it looks easy, doesn't mean you know how to wait on tables. There is a lot of specialized knowledge you have to learn that has nothing to do with the cuisine you're serving or the wine you're pouring. It's a way of thinking.

Learn to carry a tray. Nothing tells everyone in the restaurant, by which I mean the staff, that you have no clue what you're doing faster than not being able to carry a tray. Or a plate. Or a glass. I've had girls swear up-and-down to me that they've worked in Friday's and the Olive Garden, but they couldn't carry a tray if you put a gun to their head. One girl cradled it like a baby. Another one kept putting her finger prints all over the martini glasses.

What's the big deal? If you can't do something simple like carry a tray, chances are you've never worked in a restaurant. You have no idea what you're doing; so how can you be expected to accomplish the more difficult tasks in a restaurant?

Learn to multitask. While serving one table is pretty easy, it's when you multiply the number of tables that you multiply the difficulty. And let's face it, waiting tables is easy. All you've got to do is take an order, input it into a computer, and collect the money. You have to run your drinks to the table, but most places use food-runners so you rarely have to carry a plate. You spend about five minutes at any table. However, each meal has several distinct phases, of which you must keep track. The more tables you have, the more phases you have to keep track of.

There's: the greet (saying hello), the drinks (getting the drink order), reading specials, taking the order, appetizers, firing the main course, checking on the customer (do they like their food?), dessert and coffee, dropping the check, cashing out, and throughout this asking if they want more drinks. That's a lot of little stuff to manage.

So it's easiest if you know how to multitask. I've seen servers who treat each table individually, and this never works. Take the drink order from table 10, then take the food order from table 11 (if they're ready); this way, when you go to the computer, you're inputting two orders for one trip. If you're running a credit card for table 10 and the bartender puts your drinks on the bar for table 11, take both the credit card slip and the drinks at the same time. Any way you can combine two trips into one is going to save your ass when the dining room gets slammed.

However, a rookie mistake is to go to several tables in succession and take their food orders; taking the dinner order for tables, 10, 11, and 12, for example. You don't want to do that. First, you're more likely to confuse the orders, even if you wrote them down. Second, you've just pissed off the kitchen, who must now cook all that food just for you. Third, you've now just created a huge lump of work for yourself, because now all three tables will want dessert and checks at the same time. You end up waiting on all three tables in a block. Not good. You want to know when to multitask, and when not to.

Read the table top. I've had steady regular customers that I've served for years. I know what they like to drink and how much pepper they like on their food. But I have no idea what they look like or what their names are. If I ran into them on the subway, I'd be hard-pressed to place them. This is because when I'm on the floor, I'm not looking at your face. I'm looking at your table top. I'm doing this for a particular reason, because the table top tells me all I need to know about your dining experience.

Let me put it this way. If I see you've eaten half your salad, I have a pretty good idea that you'll want your main course soon; so I've got to keep in mind that I'll have to fire your table in the next five minutes. ("Fire" means to tell the chef to start cooking your food). If I see your wine glass is almost empty, then I know you'll want another glass, especially if you haven't had your main course yet. By watching the speed at which you eat, I can tell if you're in a rush to get someplace, and I'll have the check ready as soon as you order your coffee (so you don't have to ask). Looking at the table top helps you anticipiate your customer's needs.

Learn to read the dining room. This is a lot like reading the table top, but you're doing it for the entire place. You're trying to keep track of when you should speed up your service, or slow it down. The last place I worked had a real problem with this.

When it's busy, you want to speed up your service, because it's about table turnover. The faster you turn over your tables, the more tables you can wait on, and the more money you can make. That means subtle tricks, like firing your table's main course while they still have half their appetizers. This means that as soon as they're finished with one course, the next one comes out without a moment's hesitation; they're not sitting there for ten minutes waiting for their food. As soon as they finish their main course, you print out their check and ask them if they want dessert. This way, when they say "no" you can slap the check on the table immediately and get them out the door; if they say "yes" you just throw away the printed check and order them dessert (and make sure to print a new check for when they finish dessert). You want as much air out of the dinner as possbiel.

When it's slow, however, you want to slow down your service. First, because this is more relaxed for your guests, and for you. It's a more pleasant dining experience. Second, when people look at restaurants, they look in the window to see if there's anyone inside; if they see an empty dining room, they assume the restaurant must be bad and keep walking. So you use your tables on a slow night as bait to catch more customers. After all, you don't need table turnover. The longer your customers sit (within reason) the more likely others will come in. Let them linger over coffee....

As I said, my last place was horrible for this. On a slow Tuesday night, the food runner is rushing bread and water to the table before the customer has even taken off his coat. He's whisking away appetizer plates and hurrying out food. He's bringing the dessert tray over to tables that still haven't finished their after dinner drinks. In short, he's rushing them out the door like it's a Saturday night. And you know what happened? We sat in an empty restaurant all night long. So know when to be fast and when to be slow.

Next time, I'll teach you the psychology of selling.

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