Tips for Servers

Yesterday, I wrote a post about how to treat your server that a lot of people complained was one-sided.

Well, yeah, it was supposed to be! The piece was about how to treat your server, not how to be a good server, and the main emphasis was being friendly and polite, and a lot of people seemed to take issue with that. Why anyone would disagree with keeping the attitude at home and being nice to your server is beyond me, but OK.

So, a lot of those same people were saying I should write a post on how to be a good server. I had debated whether or not I should. I didn’t think it would be that interesting — after all, how many servers are reading this blog that want my advice on how to do their job well? But, you guys are interested and I am here to please YOU, my dear readers, so here we go.

Being a server, to me, is not really a difficult job. It’s hard work, and you have to be able to handle a lot of pressure, as well as incredibly fast-paced work, but if you can do that, you should be able to be a good server.

I was lucky. The first restaurant I ever served at, Sneakers Sports Grille, had the best training program I’ve ever had — whether it was in a restaurant or outside of it.

Sneakers prized itself on giving their customers the best possible customer service there was. The training program was rigorous. Servers were in training for near a month before we were allowed to go loose on the floor. There was “in-class” training, with tests you had to pass and leaflets to read, and then there was floor training, with another server working and you “shadowing”. Instilling that kind of service and work ethic in a new server worked incredibly well; it sticks with you forever. I still use the things I was taught there, even though I’m not a server anymore. It was at Sneakers that I was promoted to a trainer and shift leader for the first time, although it wasn’t the only time.

So with all that said, there are some definite Dos and Don’ts for servers.

  • Use the thirty-second rule.
    As I said in the last post, I always, always, always went by the thirty-second rule. Within thirty seconds of your table being seated, you need to greet that table. It’s preferable to actually start with the drink orders and everything right then and there, but hostesses don’t wait to make sure the timing is perfect before they seat you. You might be carrying food out, or in the middle of getting drinks for another table. So even if you can’t actually stop, introduce yourself, and get the drink orders, you still need to acknowledge them.
  • A minute doesn’t feel like a minute for a table waiting to see their server. The time they’re sitting around waiting for you to get over there and greet them drags on, and if you haven’t made an appearance, your table will be pissed, no matter how busy the restaurant is. Sticking to the thirty-second rule is vital. You gotta keep your eyes open and be constantly aware of what’s going on, but it does pay off.

  • Keep a good attitude.
    As noted in the last post, people are not always nice to you. You can be the friendliest, perkiest, most attentive server in the world, and you will still get tables that treat you like dog shit. You can’t let it get to you. You have to approach your tables with a good attitude and keep it, no matter how rude or unresponsive they are. Being a server means having to grow a thick skin. It doesn’t matter how good you are; people are always going to find faults with you eventually. You’re going to make mistakes and it’s inevitable that someone will complain about you. You have to be able to take the criticism, grow from it, and then let it go. Be friendly, even if you think it will kill you. If you have to fake it, then fake it, because it’s better than walking over to your tables with a shitty attitude.
  • Be informed and make recommendations.
    It annoys the crap out of me when I go to restaurants and the server doesn’t know anything about the menu or the specials for the night. It really does, because there’s simply no excuse for that. Just about every restaurant, no matter how strict or lax the training is, will require you to pass a menu test before you can hit the floor. While the menu test is a one-time thing, you need to keep yourself informed about everything. Servers should know the menu backwards and forwards, they should know what the specials are, they should know what kind of beer and wine is served and what kinds of liquor brands are carried. If you have to, keep a cheatsheet on the inside of your book, but you need to know these things.
  • You also need to make recommendations. When you greet your table, mention the an appetizer or a drink special you’ve got going on. If your restaurant is featuring a specific dish, mention it. If you don’t want to mention that kind of stuff, at least give your table the option: “Would you like to hear about our specials today?”. It’s better to say something about what is being featured than nothing at all. There are such things as secret shoppers, and if you don’t say anything at all, you’ll get marked off (that’s a big one).

  • Upsell, upsell, upsell.
    Most people do not realize how important sales is to good serving. A server is who doesn’t sell is basically a glorified food runner; you have to be willing and able to sell to your tables as well. If you ask your table if they’d like to hear about appetizers and they say yes, don’t just mention three or four at random. Pick one of your favorites, and tell them about it in mouth-watering detail.
  • Let’s use the bar as an example. If a customer orders a margarita, ask them if they’d like it top shelf. If they order a rum and coke, offer them a premium brand rum like Captain Morgan rather than just going for the well. Not only does this boost your sales, it gives them a better drink. Doesn’t a premium vodka like Grey Goose taste so much better than a cheap, well vodka?

    Don’t be afraid to sell to your customers. The worst they can say is no. If they order a steak, ask them if they’d like sauteed onions and/or mushrooms. After dinner, recommend a dessert. Most of the time, people will turn you down, but sometimes they’ll say yes. You’ll come across as knowledgeable and your overall sales will rise.

  • Check back at least once between taking the order and delivering the food.
    A good server should be checking on their tables regularly. After you’ve taken the food order, you should check in with them at least once before they get their food, more often if their order will take a while. They might need drink refills, they might need to adjust their order (its annoying, but it happens) — you never know what it is they might need. It’s better to be there too much than not enough.
  • Keep an eye on your tables.
    If you aren’t checking on them, keep an eye on them. Don’t wait for them to ask for a drink refill; if you see that their drink is getting low, get your lazy butt over there and ask if they’d like a refill. If you’re in one of those restaurants that offers free bread, ask them if they’d like more if they run out. If you see them doing the swivel head, they’re obviously looking for you, so run over there and see what’s up. You need to be completely attentive to all of your tables simultaneously — not an easy feat, but one that can be done, and needs to be done. So keep your eyes peeled and make sure you know what’s going on with your tables at all times.
  • Pre-bus.
    Whether your restaurant has bussers or not, pre-bussing is one of the most important things a server can do. It’s called the “hands in-hands out” rule — if you bring something to the table, take something away as well. If you bring a new glass out for a drink refill, take away the old one. If you bring out the entrees, ask if you can take the appetizer plates away. If you have bussers, then pre-bussing will make them like you more and they’ll bus your tables faster. If you don’t, then it makes your clean-up go by faster. Most importantly, your tables will like it. I personally hate it when my server doesn’t pre-bus and I’m sitting there cramped with dirty dishes everywhere. It’s the easiest part of your job, and it needs to be done.
  • Don’t neglect your sidework or your station.
    Being a server is more than just waiting on your customers. There’s also sidework that needs to be done. As shift leader, my job was to assign and oversee everyone’s sidework. It could be the drink station, for example. So keep it stocked with ice and cups. Taste each of the sodas throughout the night to make sure they haven’t run out of syrup; if they have, go replace it. Also, keep up with cleaning your station throughout the night. Sweep the floors even if it isn’t closing time yet; no customers wants to see food splattered all over the floor. Keep your salt and pepper shakers full, and maintain the sugars as well. It cuts down on the amount of time you have to clean later in the night, and makes things run more smoothly, therefore giving the customer a better overall experience.
  • Go by the “two bite” rule.
    You’ve served the food to your table. Their drinks are full. What now?
  • Always abide by the “two bite” rule. After approximately two bites, come and check on the food. No, do not hover nearby the table in a stalker-esque fashion to make sure you check back in exactly two bites. The point is to let your customers taste everything before you come and make sure its OK.

    Some customers say this is annoying, but it needs to be done. These same customers would be absolutely livid if there was a problem and the server wasn’t there. If there is a problem with the food, you need to be there as soon as possible to remedy it. So, go by the “two bite” rule. Give them time to eat everything, but check back early in the meal to make sure there are no problems. Then back off for a while and let them enjoy their meal free of interruption.

  • Clear off the table of all dishes before offering dessert.
    This is a little psychological trick. Taking away all the dishes helps people to sort of “forget” how much they’ve just eaten, and they are therefore more likely to order dessert. It isn’t a must, but it’s a handy little industry trick. And even if dessert is not ordered, no customer is going to complain about clearing away emptied dishes just sitting there uselessly, taking up space. But obviously, make sure they’re finished before you take them away!
  • Ask before you leave the bill.
    Not much will annoy a customer more than dropping off the bill when they don’t want it yet. Ask if they’re ready for it after you’ve cleared away the dishes and offered dessert and coffee. Don’t just drop it off and walk away; it seems like you’re trying to get rid of them.
  • Thank the customer.
    After they’ve paid, thank them very much for coming in. Leave them a comment card if your restaurant has them; I would attach to each and every check I left with a pen. Even if it’s negative, feedback is always good to have. Leave mints or candy if your restaurant has them. Ask them to come again, and ask them to ask for you. Don’t go overboard with it, and make sure to be sincere and genuine. It seems obvious, but a lot of people don’t do it. Your customers will appreciate hearing it — everyone wants to know that their patronage is appreciated, so let them know!
  • Continue to wait on them, even if they’ve paid.
    This one was a point of contention with a lot of you. I still stand by a firm no-parking rule. But for servers, this one is beyond their control. And even if that person is, in effect, screwing you out of making more money off another table, you need to screw a damn smile on your face and keep on serving them. If their drinks get low, refill them. They’ll remember it.
  • Clean the table immediately after they leave.
    Don’t wait around until you see more people come in, and don’t rely on bussers to do it for you. After your table has left, start clearing away dishes (which, if you’ve done your pre-bussing, should be non-existent). Wipe off the table, and refill the sugars if needed. That way, you’re ready for a new table almost automatically, and turning over tables quickly is the best way to make a lot of money as a server.
  • Make nice with the cooks.
    One of the most important things a server could possibly do is to be friendly with the cooks. A lot of servers have a tendency to ignore them or treat them like their slaves, but this does you no good. Actually talk to the cooks; ask them how they’re doing, joke with them. If you need a favor, ask nicely and say thank you. If you have to return food, apologize. Don’t be rude to them if the customers complain about the food. Just make sure you remember not to look right through them as if they don’t matter. Having the cooks on your side will go a long, long way to a better working environment.
  • There’s a lot than servers can do to be a decent server, but going from average to extraordinary takes more than a little extra effort. These are some good guidelines to follow, but being a truly great server is in more than just following the rules. You either have it in you, or you don’t After all, not everyone’s meant for the restaurant industry. But if you’re thinking of trying it out, or if you want to get better tips each night, following the above might be a good jumping off point to bridge the gap between good and great.

    Getting The Most From Your Service Job