The Complete Guide to Succeeding as a Waiter
Some people may think of a waitstaff job as simply taking orders and carrying plates from the kitchen to the table. But there’s a world of difference between a mediocre server and a fantastic one, and it actually takes a lot of finesse, interpersonal skill, and hard work to be a truly top-notch waiter or waitress.
Though your employer undoubtedly has some guidelines, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula to being a great server. That said, here are a few pointers that will help you ace your new role.
Embrace your training
Like it or not, you’re the newbie. Even if you’ve worked in the restaurant industry before, each establishment does things a little differently, and the experience will be much more pleasant for everyone (and foster a better workplace environment down the line) if you approach training with an open and willing attitude.
Be clear on the rules and guidelines of your particular employer — nerdy as it seems, it’s a good idea to take a look at the employee handbook. Ask for feedback, and actually listen and use it to improve. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Perhaps most of all, accept grunt work. Groan inwardly all you like, but everyone has to go through this terrain of dishes, cleaning, fetching things, organizing, and the like. You won’t be a newbie forever, and you’ll be more highly regarded as a respectful, diligent worker by your co-workers. Before you know it, you’ll be training the next batch of new hires.
Establish clear communication with your supervisors from the beginning
This isn’t so much about your job performance as it is your workplace relationships. Though you’re the new employee, you have a voice. While it’s a fine line between respect for authority and self-advocacy, no business operates well without open communication.
Be clear about your wages, benefits, rights, and the company rules from day one. You have a right to know, and it will help avoid potential hassle and tense conversations for everyone later on.
Likewise, speak up about the schedule that works for you — that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get exactly what you want, of course, but your supervisor will thank you for being honest up front rather than scrambling to switch things around to find coverage or worse, not showing up at the last minute.
Know the menu
People will ask you which entrée is your favorite, or which dish of two is better. And they can read the menu themselves, so repeating the item description doesn’t cut it. Familiarize yourself with the menu, ask co-workers about the dishes, and try as many items as you can.
Know the answers to basic questions such as spice level, whether sauces can be served on the side, if substitutions can be made, if dishes contain nuts, and so on. You should be able to make recommendations as well as take orders. Along with this, if you don’t know the answer to a question, find out (this goes for any seniority level) but the point is: provide answers, and never make them up.
Think about your outfit
Both your employer and your feet will thank you. Most restaurants have a uniform of some sort, and it goes without saying that you should follow these guidelines. That being said, think about your own comfort as well. You’ll be moving around, on your feet, for hours.
Wear comfortable shoes. Don’t wear clothing that needs to be constantly readjusted or is in danger of falling off/apart. Dress for the temperature of the restaurant. You’ll look much more professional, and you won’t lose your mind after several hours battling an uncomfortable outfit.
Learn to multitask
As a waiter or waitress, you have to balance a lot — tables, guests, requests, plates, etc. You’ll have your hands full, literally and figuratively. For your workplace performance and your sanity, get in the habit of multitasking and prioritizing. This doesn’t mean that you have to be able to do everything all at once, perfectly, from day one.
You should, however, start practicing determining which tasks are most urgent/important, holding multiple thoughts (and plates) at once, coming up with strategies for keeping track of tasks, and getting accustomed to working calmly and efficiently in a busy environment. It takes a bit of practice, but you’ll figure out what works for you and be a much better server for it.
Cultivate good relationships with your coworkers
A restaurant is its own little ecosystem. Everyone has their roles and domains, but everyone has to work together in order for the entire system to function. In other words, you’ll be working closely with many different people, so treat your coworkers with respect, and try to get to know them a bit.
Don’t gossip or whine about other staff at work (especially to your customers). You don’t have to be best friends with, or even like, everyone, but work will be much more enjoyable and successful if you’re on good terms with your colleagues.
Be friendly and courteous
“Put on a happy face” might seem a bit trite, but in this case it’s the way the game works. Always smile and be cordial to patrons, no matter what’s going on in the kitchen or at home. Find the balance of interaction that works for you — everyone appreciates a personable server, but you don’t need to chat anyone’s ear off or recite a peppy monologue.
You’ll learn to gauge the mood of the table: if the group seems in a hurry or about to eat the napkins, make it polite and efficient; if they’re chatty, engage in pleasant small talk. In either case, always make sure to check in periodically to see if they need anything. That being said, hovering and badgering throughout the meal are no-nos.
A happy medium is to check in after the food is delivered, then discreetly keep an eye on the table to see if glasses are low, plates are empty, or diners are looking around for assistance.
Write down orders
This isn’t the time to show off your memory skills. Even if you have a flawless memory, write down orders. Your main goal is to give the diners the meal they want, not look clever. Never assume you’ll magically remember everything.
In the same vein, don’t be afraid to clarify if you didn’t hear someone or are unsure about a request. It’s much easier and less painful to repeat an order than to have a dissatisfied diner send a plate back to the kitchen because it didn’t arrive the way they wanted it.
There are three main parts to this one, and they’re pretty simple. They can also make the difference between a smooth, pleasant dining experience and a stressful, irritating one.
First of all, hand out water and menus immediately. This shows consideration to patrons and allows them to set their own dining pace.
After that, let people order on their own time. This doesn’t mean you should desert your customers — keep an eye on the table, and make sure you’re available for questions and for when everyone is ready to order.
However, no one likes to be badgered. That leads us to another point: don’t take away anyone’s main plate until everyone is finished. Many servers do this to help clear the table, but it’s not proper dining etiquette. Everyone eats at their own pace, and clearing the table in order of completion is a surefire way to make someone feel rushed and/or embarrassed.
Bottom line: diners should feel cared for yet in control of their own dining experience.
Learn to deal with complaints and difficult customers
It’s an inevitable fact of the hospitality industry: you will have to face unhappy clients. Whether you or the restaurant made a mistake or if someone is having a bad day, there will be complaints and sour attitudes to soothe. Remember that your number one jobs is to please the customer.
You’ve probably heard the old adage, the customer is always right”. It’s a cliché for a reason. This isn’t to say that you should stand by and let a patron cause a scene or damage the restaurant. However, you should remain calm and polite, no matter what. Learn to smile, get to the root of the problem as quickly as possible, and do your best to fix it. Then move on — don’t take it personally. There will be far more pleasant diners than nightmare ones.
Above all, keep in mind a few key skills: courtesy, efficiency, and patience. Those are your bread and butter (pun intended) as a restaurant employee. Your job is to create a pleasant dining experience for your customers and get their food to them quickly and smoothly (think the enchanted dinnerware of Beauty and the Beast).
These pointers may seem like a lot to remember, and you won’t master them overnight. But with enough practice, you’ll eventually get the hang of it. Once you start putting them to use, you will delight your customers and make better tips!