I paid off all my student loans and saved a down-payment for a house while waiting tables during college. I taught myself how to be the best restaurant server.
There are many pluses and many drawbacks to waiting tables. Let’s start with the positive reasons to wait tables:
- Paid immediately – you work a shift, get paid in tips, and take home money afterward
- Not a desk job – I like being on my feet and getting exercise
- Meet tremendous people – over time you will form friendships with regular customers
- Control your destiny – the harder and smarter you work, the more you will make
The drawbacks of being a server at a restaurant:
- Work hours are not ideal – you will likely have to work evenings, weekends, and holidays. Most restaurants are open 365 days a year.
- Meet some unpleasant diners – some diners will push your limits and patience.
How to Wait Tables
If you are brand new to waiting tables, watch this quick introduction.
25 Ways on How to Be a Great Server
I learned waiting tables etiquette. It proved consistently successful for me every night I worked and at every restaurant to be a great server.
1. Tips are Unpredictable
Do not judge and guess your tip when a party sits at your table. There were many times I thought someone was going to leave me a very high or very low tip and I was shocked. Always treat everyone as your guest and you will likely win more than you lose.
2. Find the Weakest Link at the Table
Having a large party in your section is a mixed blessing. On one hand, your tables are full and you’re likely to have a decent check. On the other hand, parties tend to be slow to order and linger. The toughest part is getting them to place their order so you can get the process of serving food moving along.
My trick is to find the weakest link at the table. There tend to be 2-3 different conversations going on and someone is always trapped in the middle of both or neither conversation. Go up to that person and take their order first. Don’t ask, “Are you ready to order?” Instead say, “What would you like to order tonight?” They are happy to speak with you and place their order since they are looking for a conversation at dinner. Then, everyone else starts grabbing their menu and the dominos fall in place.
3. Turning Tables is from Beginning to End
I am always shocked and aggravated on how long it takes for a server to give me my check and process my credit card for my meal. Service speed and efficiency are from beginning to end.
A good server will immediately greet and take your order but many are bad at collecting the payment. The more often you turn your table, the more money you make. Don’t let collecting the payment slow you turning your tables.
4. Make Connections, Share Stories, Conversation Starters
Get to know your diners and try making a small bond with each. If they have kids, mention you have kids too. If they are catching a movie, tell them what movie you recently saw and make a recommendation. If they’re wearing a college jersey, talk sports or something related.
You may see them once or they may become regular diners. You may both realize you have something in common.
While waiting tables I met a President of a non-profit who ultimately sent me grant money every year while I went to college. I met another gentleman who made an introductory for my first corporate job when I graduated from college.
5. Efficiency Doesn’t Mean Rushed
There is a clear difference between being an efficient server with the process of serving a table and rushing the guest out.
Efficiency means greeting them immediately, getting their drinks immediately, answer questions and take their order when they are ready, taking a dessert order when their entrees are done, and collecting their payment after their meal is complete. Do not stack courses and plates on their table. If they have not finished their salad or appetizer, then don’t bring their entrée and cram more plates on the table. It’s tacky and frustrates diners unless they specifically tell you they are in a hurry.
I do understand timing the kitchen can sometimes be tricky. On slow nights the food can come flying out the kitchen window and on busy weekends the food can take a long time. Learn how to be the best restaurant server by learning from experience.
6. Punctuality Pays
If you show up on time for your shift, show up with a pressed and clean uniform, and don’t miss shifts, you will be one of the managements top employees. I always showed up 15-20 minutes early, always took my shirt to the cleaners and had it nicely pressed, and never missed a shift. In return, I always got the best shifts, the best sections, and actually got a higher base salary per hour.
Also, don’t be one of those people who shows up every year an hour late after daylight savings time. It’s funny, those same people don’t show up an hour early when the clock goes back.
7. All Employees are Equal
Every staff member contributes to your success. The host and hostess decide who sits in your section of tables. For example, a party of 10 is on the books and the hostess decides who gets that big party. They can make or break you on a slow night.
The cooks are always under-appreciated and are probably the hardest working people in the restaurant and make less than most staff members. Treat them with respect! When you make a mistake or have a difficult custom made order, the cook is your best friend. They can be the difference between a customer waiting for food and getting a poor tip.
The manager makes the schedule and determines who works the best sections on the busiest nights.
8. Remember the Past Customers
Repeat customers are the lifeline of most restaurants. The best servers will get to know regular customers names and faces. I use to have a tremendous amount of regular customers. When I would see them pull up on the street, I would run to the kitchen and make them their “usual” drinks and have them waiting on the table when they walked in.
People love being recognized and remembered. It felt like the show Cheers to them and they ate it up. I guarantee my tips were always higher because I made them feel special and recognized as a person.
9. Be Honest, Very Honest…Just Don’t Let the Chef Hear You
My wife knows I cringe when a server tells me “everything is great on the menu.” As good as every restaurant and chef may be, not every item is a 10. There have to be some “okay” dishes. Tell that to customers!
There was always 1 or 2 specials that were fair and I told that to diners. They truly appreciated the heads up. The diner would tell me they appreciated my honesty.
Why wouldn’t I want them to enjoy the best items on the menu? If they order a great meal, then I likely get a better tip, and hopefully, they come back again. It’s a win-win!
1o. Knowledge Builds Respect
Know the menu. Especially nowadays, understand ingredients and allergies. Know what dishes have peanuts, sesame, shellfish, dairy, and more. Don’t guess, know.
Also, no one wants to hear your personal food preferences or dietary habits. For example, if someone asks you what’s good on the menu, don’t say, “I don’t eat meat …I don’t like fish …and don’t like this type of food.” You immediately lose credibility and the diner wishes they had a different server.
I would want a different and better server who knows the menu and enjoys the cuisine of their employer.
11. Don’t Disappear
Don’t be out of sight for long durations of time. Always be nearby and check with your tables at natural points.
Before the entrée come out, check and see if they need a refill on drinks? After the meal is served, see if everything tastes good and if they need anything, like condiments. Once dessert is done, bring the check and collect payment promptly.
When most people are done with their meal, they are ready to go immediately. Don’t slow them down so you can turn your tables. A great server will be able to gauge the right service tempo for each table.
12. Never Be Empty Handed
I learned early that you should never go to and from the kitchen empty handed. I guarantee there is always an empty dish or glass you can remove from a table.
I also guarantee you should never come back to your tables without a pitcher of water or something your tables need. The best restaurant servers will save time and reduce steps around the floor. By bringing and removing items from tables, you will increase customer satisfaction.
13. Set Goals
Everyone has to start somewhere. Slowly set monetary goals and how you’re going to accomplish that. When you start at each restaurant, you will shadow other servers. Pay close attention to the top servers and what sets them apart from the mediocre.
It’s not rocket science but it’s a process on how to be the best restaurant server.
14. Don’t Hustle the Expensive Items to Make Money
Don’t be the server who only recommends the most expensive items on the list. It’s so transparent and annoying. Instead of just selling the lobster and steaks, point out the best item from each section of the menu.
You will gain a lot more respect and land up having happy customers and better tips.
15. Ask Manager to Treat Regular Customers
You need to recognize regular customers now and then. Show your appreciation. Ask your manager if you can buy them a second round of drinks? Bring them a free dessert? Most good restaurant managers know how to treat regular customers and will agree with your suggestion.
In the end, it keeps the regular customers coming back, recommending more friends to the restaurant, and helps your tips.
16. Don’t Say, No, If You Can Say, Yes
This suggestion is easier said than done.
I once took my kids to a casual restaurant known for grilled pork chop sandwiches and burgers. We brought our young kids and they didn’t have a “kids menu.” We asked them to make a grilled cheese. The server said, “we don’t have that on the menu.” I asked, “do you have buns for the burgers? Do you have cheese? Can you put those together for a grilled cheese?”
Though he was still perplexed, someone else in the back, kind of, figured it out. If you have the ingredients, try to accommodate the customer’s wishes.
17. All Servers That Need Staff Must Ask For Help
Wine can be tricky. If a diner asks for what wine goes well with a particular meal and you don’t know, then ask. Ask another server. As your restaurant manager? Ask the owner or chef.
If a guest is knowledgeable enough to ask, then they will know if you steer them wrong. I’ve had a multitude of wine training over the years and I’m still far from “an expert.” It’s not about ego, it’s about guest satisfaction.
18. Full Plate is No Good
You are a server and not a robot. If you are passing by and see someone is not eating their meal, ask them if it’s good or if someone is wrong. I am shocked how many bad servers pick up a full plate of untouched food and don’t say anything after everyone else cleaned their plate.
You may not like the answer or the reason they don’t like the dish, but listen and fix it. No one wins if you don’t fix the meal and experience immediately. The restaurant customer likely won’t come back and you will likely get a lesser tip due to lack of satisfaction.
19. Stop the Blame Game
The common excuse for when something goes wrong is blaming the “kitchen.” Experienced customers are smarter than that. Most people have eaten out enough times and heard that excuse. Customers can usually gauge where the blame lies.
In the end, it doesn’t matter, your tip is on the line. Stop blaming other people and fix the problem immediately. A good server will try to prevent the problems happening before they actually happen.
20. Be Aware of Guests Timing
Let the customer set the pace, within reason. There are many customers who like to dine at a faster speed. Some diners want to move faster because they are catching a movie, heading somewhere else, or dining with kids and limited on time. Be aware and ask if necessary.
If they want to speed up the service, it’s good for both of you. The faster you turn the table, the more times you can turn your tables and make more money.
21. Write Down the Order
You’d be shocked on how many people I’ve worked with that don’t write down the customers order. I’ve literally seen waiters take a 2-3 course meal for a party of 8-10 people without writing down a single order. What are the odds the waiter will perfectly remember all 16 to 30 combinations? Slim to none.
Bad servers think they are impressing the guests by not writing down the orders. It is especially dumb when 99% of the time the orders come out wrong. The guests then get particularly upset given it could have been avoided.
22. Repeat the Customers Order Back
It seems basic, but you should repeat (or parrot) the customers food and drink order back to the guest. This reduces the chance you misunderstood the order. It also makes the guest more confident in you and receiving exactly what they ordered.
23. Place the Check in the Middle of the Table
I have seen too many servers place the check in front of only the husband. Then the spouse gets upset because she intended to pay. It’s the 21st century, and men and women pay the bill equally. Some thoughts:
- The spouse is treating for their birthday dinner
- Maybe one person does all the finances
- Maybe someone forgot their wallet
- It’s a first date and they are splitting the check
There are many reasons not to assume one person or another is paying the bill. You want to end strong and don’t insult anyone at the tables when it comes time to pay and leave you a tip.
Place the check in a neutral area.
24. Smile and Speak with Enthusiasm
According to Forbes Magazine, you have “7 seconds to make a first impression.” You don’t want to be perceived as boring, lackluster, or disinterested from the start.
Greet your table with a smile and a warm and enthusiastic greeting. Of course, don’t overdo it or come across as fake.
25. How to be a Good Waitress When Busy
Ask another server or your manager for help if you are too busy. The host and hostesses sometimes seat several people in your second at the same time…they don’t get it. You then have to greet three tables at the same time and take three drink orders …at the same time. Nearly impossible to do it without making the last table upset about the long wait to be greeted.
Great servers that need staff for help will ask. The other staff completely understands because its happened to everyone. In the restaurant business, they call it “being in the weeds.” Get out of the weeds quickly and ask for help before the diners get upset.
It’s not a sign of weakness asking for help if you ultimately want your diners to have a terrific experience.
Mistakes I’ve Seen Other Good Servers Make
- Pop champagne and letting it run on the floor
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