Service of Wait Staff

March 25th, 2010

Categories: Accommodation, Customer Service, Food, Restaurant, Timing

waiter

People who wait tables in the U.S. don’t get the recognition they deserve. Theirs is an honorable profession in countries like France, where food, its preparation and service are admired and people are trained to do it right and are respected, promoted and remunerated accordingly.

Here, for many, this job is a way to pay the bills between acting gigs, during high school and college or until a “real job” comes along.

Being a great waiter or waitress takes a combination of instinct, practice and talent and is most often rewarded by grateful customers.

waiter2Those who hover and interrupt a million times to see if everything is alright may think they are doing a great job. Their boss should let them be a guest for a meal in the restaurant. Maybe they’d understand how their incessant intrusion ruins the momentum of the ask in a business lunch or dinner or the effect of a joke or the impact of a story’s punch line, making the restaurant an inhospitable place in which to entertain customers and friends.

Waiters who observe that everyone is eating contentedly, that wine, water or soda glasses and bread baskets are full, who come promptly when someone calls or gestures to them, don’t need to pester. Such ineptness reminds me of the PR newbie who calls a reporter or blogger just to see if their press materials have arrived-never enough reason to disturb anyone.

timingTiming and pace of food delivery is critical. I don’t know what the waiter does when the kitchen moves the main course out while his customers are still enjoying their appetizers. But if I am sipping soup and the main course comes, I don’t finish the soup and am annoyed.

There’s such an easy solution: Ask guests if they are going to a concert, event or meeting after lunch or dinner or if they are pressed for time for any reason. This helps determine the appropriate speed. We go to a Mexican restaurant in Tivoli, N.Y. where the youthful staff is great at this.

If the restaurant owner doesn’t care about guests and is focused on turnover, there’s no hope for timing. In this case, the owner should either raise prices to discourage the stress of a crowd waiting for tables, or be prepared to lose steady customers who dislike being rushed. If not, a good waiter shouldn’t–uh, wait–to go elsewhere.

Do you have ideas of how to upgrade the role of waiters and waitresses in today’s job landscape? Are there things that annoy you when you eat at a restaurant that can easily be fixed? What are some of the things your favorite waiters do that make you want to return to a restaurant?

fancyfood

11 Responses to “Service of Wait Staff”

  1. Kathleen Fredrick Said:

    Last week and this week were Restaurant Weeks in the Lower Hudson Valley.

    Last Friday we took advantage of this and had lunch at X/O Xavier’s right on the Yonkers waterfront.

    Raves on all levels — striking decor, excellent food and food choices, breathtaking views and a waitstaff and desk staff that were outstanding.

    The main reason for liking the help was that they smiled, were friendly but not overbearing and actually conveyed the feeling that they were glad we were there. It doesn’t cost anything but can reap great rewards, i.e., return visits, recommendations to friends, etc.

  2. David Reich Said:

    Good food at fair prices can be ruined by poor service. There are many places that have good food at fair prices, so service is the factor that can make the difference in whether or not you return.

    A wait staff with friendly smiles and genuine concern for your dining experience is the ideal. Not overbearing, but certainly attentive. Bread basket is empty? Replace it with a full one. Coffee cup is empty? Ask if you want a refill. And knowledge and enthusiasm about the food on the menu is always a plus.

    Yes, service can make the difference in the restaurant business.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Kathleen,

    Smiles are as important as the food!

    I hear that X/O Xavier’s is expensive, reservations are hard to come by and that it has a great reputation. So glad that it stands up and more.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    David,

    Had breakfast in NY at a landmark where prices are skyscraper-high. My host asked for some hot coffee noting that the coffee in the thermos on our table was not. In came a pot of more luke warm swill. Very annoying. In that case, smiles did not help.

  5. Nancy Farrell Said:

    My pet peeve: Managers who do not bother to train their staff and do not bother to notice what’s going on in their own restaurant.

    If restaurants are going to hire people who have never been in the work force before the managers cannot assume these people were born knowing how to do their jobs. I’ve had to stand and wait for a table because the hostess liked the music and wanted to do a little dance before she seated me. Another time at this same place I was expected to wait 20 minutes all the while staring at an empty section of the restaurant all because they were understaffed. How about letting me sit in the unoccupied section while the host waited tables and the manager helped out in the kitchen? I left. This restaurant had good food and good prices and an unbeatable location. Notice the past tense. They’re closed.

    Another pet peeve: Managers who harp on the staff to the point where the dining experience is ruined for me and no one is getting anything done because they’re worrying about trivial matters. I do not want to hear someone being admonished, put down, yelled at, or humiliated. If I wanted that, I’d apply for the job myself and get paid to hear it.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    You made me giggle, Nancy, thank you! I see a reality show in your comment.

    No business is enhanced by the sounds of yelling. I had a friend who worked for a PR agency where the boss would scream at her colleague and she’d sit frozen to her chair. She said he’d not yelled at her yet but she would become physically upset and paralyzed in anticipation.

    As for training the staff–what drives me nuts is a wine glass filled to the brim with red wine. Apart from the possibility of spilling, there’s not a centimeter of room for the poor liquid to breath. If a restaurant wants to give me the impression that they offer a generous amount of wine, then give me a tiny carafe in which to put the rest of what they want to be my portion. It will bring me back to Brighams in Boston where the ice cream parlor would give me a large, incredible coffee or strawberry milk shake in a giant glass with another huge amount of the ambrosia in the metal container in which the shake was made. Yum.

  7. Jonathan Sinclair Said:

    Jeanne,

    Training goes only so far. I’ve had great service in hash houses and lousy service in multi-starred famous restaurants. It’s a question of attitude and culture as you pointed out.

    If the people owning the place genuinely want you to enjoy your meal, and not just pay for it, then usually the people serving you will be a delight to have around you – whatever their culture.

    For me, the worst restaurants are almost always the pretentions ones pretending to be better than they really are. Either they tend to be overpriced with pompous, arrogant service, or they offer “bargain” prices that come with dimwitted service. The help’s wages are so low that nobody stays around long enough to know what they are doing.

    A tip to people who enjoy eating: If you find a place you like, go back often. The better the people there know you, the better your food and your service is going to be. I like experimenting, but I like eating well, and happily, better.

    Another tip: Some restaurants don’t want people eating in them who don’t fit the demographic that is suited to the image they are trying to present. They’ll let you know subtily, usually through how you are served. If you run across one of these, leave as soon as possible, don’t tip, don’t come back, and do warn your friends.

    Jonathan

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Jonathan,

    Your tips are spot-on. I don’t like going anywhere I don’t feel welcome. Here’s an extreme case. We liked the food in this NYC restaurant–it was exotic and a type we didn’t make at home. We’d visited many times because it was near my office and I was working very late. We’d go several times a month in fact–for years.

    Something happened one night: Our dinner never came while those around us, who shared the same ethnicity as the food, were all served. We were surprised so we probably stayed around longer than we might have normally. Eventually, we paid for our drinks and left. I don’t work in that neighborhood anymore, but next time I’m there, I should look to see if it is still in business. Theirs is not a great model for a place like New York, or anyplace, for that matter.

  9. Martha Takayama Said:

    Management must set the tone for the behavior of their wait staff. Most important is that the job is recognized, from the top down , as the rendering of service itself.

    Excessive familiarity such as “I am Jim, and I will be your waiter tonight,” does not make for good service. Nor does unctuous behavior.

    The opposite extreme of obviously vetting customers on the phone, the door, or the table, and affectation and airs of superiority or condescension are even more unpleasant. Reviewing basic etiquette with staff, in particular, with respect to not removing dishes until all present at a table have finished with a course, would make for more pleasant dining.

    Lastly perhaps the custom that prevails in other countries of including a fixed gratuity in all charges might make things smoother.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Restaurants already affix the gratuity to groups larger than six or eight because they have found that guests often undertip in such circumstances.

    I imagine that there are no true surveys of tip averages, because of tax [evasion] reasons, and wonder whether in the end waiters would make more or less with a fixed gratuity. Results of a survey of wait staff would be interesting. I bet, because of taxes, the idea would be voted down.

  11. Martha Takayama Said:

    I think that actually the base pay for wait staff should be something more than indentured servitude and that the concept of the fixed gratuity (service compris) should reenforce the concept of the waiter or waitress actually performing a task which has value.

    If I understand correctly, it has always been thoughtful to leave something above the fixed gratuity, but at least some further income is available. Also, I think that in other countries waiters and waitresses consider their job a profession. They are not preoccupied with clarifying that they are on equal or superior social status to the customer, as so often happens here.

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