How to be a Great Server - A Food Critic's Guide

Grant ChenMarch 27th, 2013
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As food critics for Chef Seattle, it's our job to dine at every restaurant possible, from the mom-and-pop sandwich shop to the trendy downtown establishments. Over the course of our reviews, we've been in the position to experience the good, the bad and the ugly of restaurant service. This guide for servers contains some key tips on how to stand out from the crowd in the competitive food industry.

1. You represent the restaurant

You might not own the restaurant or cook the food, but for better or for worse, patrons will always view you as "the restaurant". As such, you're in the lucky position of getting all the praise when the customer is happy, but also being at the end of the stick when they're not, even if it's due to something out of your control.

As the representative, when a customer is happy, let them know that you appreciate their business and look forward to having them back. When they're unhappy, find out why and what you can do to make it better.

Part of the playing the role of a good server is letting the customers feel like you're in charge. A lot of this can be done simply with how you phrase yourself. For example, phrases that make you sound in charge begin with:

  • I can ..
  • I will ..
  • I have ..

On the other hand, you won't impress your customers as much with phrases like these:

  • Hang on ..
  • Let me check ..
  • I don't know ..

Using positive, take-charge phrases will help you gain your customer's respect, which in turn improves your image in their eyes. If a customer thinks of you as just someone that takes their order or a runner/busser, it's going to be harder to break out of the standard 15% tip mold.

2. Your opinion does matter

The one thing that we absolutely hate to hear from our server when we ask for recommendations is, "Everything is good."

Now while you might think to yourself that someone should really be able to figure out what they want from a menu, many diners need a little prodding or just want to know what's good from the expert (you). So when you say that everything is good, this unfortunate is heard as "I don't know", "I can't be bothered" or "I'm scared of recommending a meal that you won't like." Remember, you are the restaurant's representative and it doesn't look good if you don't know your own products.

We want to hear what you like. Most likely, your own passion and enthusiasm will rub off on us. Of course, you don't want to build up expectations unreasonably high (e.g., "This is the best duck confit you'll ever have!"), but we do appreciate that you know your dishes. If you must play it safe, you can always point out dishes that are popular with other patrons. You also stand a good chance of up-selling appetizers or desserts if your customers think you know your stuff.

However, don't take it personally if you recommend something that a customer doesn't enjoy. The number of customers that enjoy your recommendation will probably exceed the few customers that don't. And hey, they asked for your opinion after all!

Customers also like to hear that they made a good choice after placing their orders. Your affirmation (e.g., "Great choice, the veal is wonderful!") is like a compliment, which makes the customer feel like they did the right thing. If the customer enjoys the meal, you can simply reiterate that it was a good choice after all to leave a positive impression.

3. Attitude is everything

After reviewing hundreds of restaurants, the ones that stood out for service weren't necessarily those with staff that crumbed our table, folded our napkins or had an army of bussers with water jugs. The restaurants with notable service were those with enthusiastic servers who showed real personality.

In fact, we had a server at one restaurant who had forgotten a drink, mixed up an entree order and ran out of cloth napkins. But the server was an example of superior service because of how professionally he dealt with the situation: he admitted his mistake quickly, sincerely apologized and comped the table. In return, we rewarded the server with a generous tip and the restaurant with a solid review.

We know that being a server is a stressful job, especially on those chaotic Friday nights. Smiling while you're trying to juggle six to eight tables of hungry diners is never easy. However, just remember that your demeanor should be pleasant and you should be relaxed when you're on the floor, even while away from the customers. Your customers are there for a pleasant experience and if they see you having a bad day (yes, they will notice), it will rub them the wrong way and lead to a downward spiral of a bad day and bad tips.

By smiling and thanking your customers, you'll find that you'll reap the rewards of this small token of appreciation many times over in the long run. Also, remember that a proper smile involves your whole face, not just your mouth. So practice that smile and use it often! (PS: It's no coincidence many a Hollywood star worked in the food service industry.)

4. Learn your wines

Depending on your restaurant, you may or may not have a dedicated sommelier who can guide customers through that daunting 20-page wine list. Most likely, your wine list is far smaller and you won't have a sommelier on hand. However, don't be scared, because knowing your wines and appropriate pairings is a fantastic opportunity for you to look knowledgeable, impress your customers and boost your tips.

Surprisingly, our servers have often been reluctant to recommend any specific wine or even a type of wine and instead showed us what is generally popular. We're not asking you to know your entire wine selection or educate us on the merits of the '95 Brunello versus the '08 Columbia Crest, but we would like you to know enough about your wine selection to make some specific recommendations. It will help you considerably in the long run.

The best part of learning your wines is that your education will go wherever you go. Although the wine list will change, you will always have the understanding of the various types of varieties.

5. Be proactive with your tables

Each server knows that the people at some tables are amazingly easy to handle while other people at other tables can be impossibly difficult. While luck deals the cards, there are things that you can do to make things go as smoothly as possible when you do get a high maintenance group.

After entrees have been served to one of your tables, instead of asking whether they need anything in general, ask about specific items such as condiments, utensils or refills. By specifically calling out items, you'll avoid being called over a few minutes later for a bottle of ketchup or an extra spoon because the customer forgot it the first time around. Also, you'll appear as detail-oriented and genuinely caring of their comfort.

In addition, this goes without saying, but refilling drinks before they are empty is always a sign of good service and really shows that you are paying attention.

6. Practice good timing

Good timing serves a number of purposes: it reduces the number of trips to each table and makes you look more attentive. The most crucial element of timing takes place immediately after a party has been seated. This is when you'll be making introductions, mentioning specials, taking drink orders, and most importantly, making your first impression.

As a server, it's your responsibility to keep things going. Groups that take a long time to settle down and order are not good to either yourself or the restaurant.

One thing that happens to us often at Chef Seattle is being seated, then immediately asked if we would like to get started on any drinks. This is normally a good thing, because this gives the customer an immediate item and gives you time to put the order in while they look over the menu.

However, one thing that I don't like (and I admit this may be personal), is when a server asks if I specifically would like a wine (or cocktail)... before seeing the actual drink menu. I realize some customers are regulars and will sit down and order from memory, while others might always order a merlot before dinner, but I don't like the act of being forced to say "No, but I would like a... " or "Let me see the wine menu first". It just feels a bit pushy.

While you want to both meet the needs of your customer and also sell a drink, you also need to leave room for the customer to look over the menu. "Here are your wine and cocktail menus, but would you like to start with any drinks now?" sends the message that they can take their time with the menu, and also addresses the frequent customers who always order the same drink.

After the drinks, outline the daily specials and then inform the table that you'll be back with drinks and to take orders. Customers appreciate hearing the specials early, because it gets our appetites rolling and also helps them decide what to order. If you mention the specials after you come back, then the customers are forced to decide on the spot if they prefer the special, often delaying the ordering process.

The last note about good timing is when to deliver the bill. This is usually self-evident as the people will be finished with eating and you'll have already asked them if they want dessert. Don't miss your upsell by delivering a bill before you have asked if they want dessert; and obviously never while your patrons are still eating because it's seen as wanting them to leave.

With thinner margins, many restaurants these days tend to drop the tab a bit earlier, but it's hopefully left with a smile and a note that it's there just for our convenience along with a "Please take your time" or "No rush at all". After a good service, the last thing you want to do is mess up at the end.

Lastly, never forget to thank your customers! As rule #1 stated, you are the restaurant, so every paying customer is your livelihood at the end of the day. A customer that feels appreciated will come back and also tip more if they feel that the restaurant values their business.

6. Understand your customers

Some customers simply want their server to be an unobtrusive background experience. Other diners prefer interaction and conversation. As any good salesperson knows, it's important to identify what type of customer you have and to modulate your own personality accordingly to build rapport.

An experienced salesperson, for example, will often match your energy level and rate of speech because it makes you feel more comfortable. Knowing how to interact with each group will improve your experience as well as theirs.

In fact, one study in a mid-west diner showed that servers who were purposefully enthusiastic received less than average tips compared to servers that simply did their job. This doesn't mean that you should act like a robot, but it does goes to show that some customers are interested in interacting with you, while others just want you to be a transparent part of their meal.

7. Learning to handle the negatives

Many front-line customer service jobs have the motto, "The job would be great if not for the customers." It's true that one bad apple can ruin an otherwise great day, so the key is to find ways of dealing with those bad apples so that you can continue doing your job and making your other customers happy.

First, if a customer is unhappy, find out if they have a legitimate complaint (food prepared wrong, lengthy delays, unruly neighbors), and if so, deal with it appropriately.

Sometimes a quick resolution will patch things over, but the customer may still be upset regardless. Anger is usually a by-product of feeling helpless, which means angry customers want to have some say over the situation. This can mean talking to the manager, making threats or leaving a bad tip.

To diffuse a simmering customer, try asking, "What can I do right now to make you happy?" It's a great customer service line that puts the ball in the customer's court and forces them to vocalize their needs. More often than not, it will snap them out of their bad attitude when they realize that they have no more excuses to remain sour.

In the event that you snag a customer who is just irreparably negative, you should just tell yourself that some people in the world are simply not happy, no matter what you do. Try not to take it personally, because unfortunately they enjoy being miserable.

8. Smile!

We've mentioned it many times already, but we have to list it again as our last point. It's a fact: happiness is contagious. If you smile at someone, chances are they'll smile back. Science also shows that even if you're not happy, acting happy will actually make you feel better. We're not saying you should carry a smile the whole night (it may even be creepy), but a few strategic smiles will go a long way.

Waitress at a restaurant
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