Build a Winning Restaurant Serving Staff: Part 2

restaurant-serving-2This is part two of a five part look at creating a top-notch restaurant serving staff. In part one we laid out the basics, the importance of menu knowledge and essential tools of the serving trade.

Now, let’s take a look at what really sets the best servers apart from the pack. The ability to effectively read a table and anticipate guest needs.

Reading a Table

The ability to read the makeup of a table, anticipate what that table will likely need, and how they’ll prefer their visit to proceed is crucial to mastering the restaurant service game.

We’re talking about being able to channel one’s inner Sherlock and be keenly observant. Front-of-house staff work with the public all day, coming into contact with every personality type under the sun. The ability to pick up on a variety of non-verbal cues will set the best servers apart from the pack.

Servers need to think of their guests not as a “two top” or “four top” but as “family of four”, “business people meeting”, “couple out on a date”, etc. These groups all require different approaches. It’s important to have steps of service, but allow your staff some wiggle room depending on a table’s makeup.

The most important aspect of reading your guests is sensing how welcome you are at the table. That may sound a bit harsh, but no two tables are alike. Some guests like to chat it up, others prefer their server to be relatively unobtrusive. These people aren’t rude, and it’s likely not personal. Some guests simply prefer not to engage much with their server. Respect these preferences.

A business group likely wants straight-forward, almost invisible service. They may be on the clock, don’t take them away from what could be important discussion. The table of young singles may be open to witty banter so charm away. Your style can’t be the same with every group.

Your steps of service should vary with group makeup as well. Do the kids at a table of four seem a tad unruly? Maybe slip the dessert menu to one of the parents nice and quietly rather than get the little ones excited by suggesting desserts out loud. Save Mom having to say no a million times and win her heart in the process.

Of course it won’t always be about simply reading group makeups; individual styles matter. Guests actively asking for a drink menu, or smiling and making good eye contact, are more likely open to conversation and hearing several of your suggestions. Conversely, guests more on the shy and quiet side may be more comfortable with a polite, quick greeting.

And speaking of individuals, look for signs that signal which member of a group (particularly when it’s a large one) is the ringleader or host. Introduce yourself to them first. They’ll often help set the tone for the meal, so remember them when it comes time to try some of your upselling/suggestive selling techniques.

One extra tip here: If your table does appear open to banter, try not to engage in it immediately after dropping off a course. The food is good and hot at that point, let them get started. There’ll be time for your piercing wit to shine through a bit later.

There’s no training manual for this, servers will simply have to pay attention and adjust to each individual. It’s your job to adapt, not the guest’s.

Spotting Trouble

Reading a table also means sensing when something is amiss. Far too many diners don’t speak up when a meal or experience isn’t satisfactory. A mostly untouched dish should be addressed. It could be that the guest is simply not very hungry, but there’s a good chance that something’s amiss. Perhaps you spot people removing items from a dish, maybe there’s been a mistake made somewhere. Don’t let them get to the end of a meal before inquiring.

How about the guest still wearing a heavy jacket? Or worse yet, several guests. It could be a good idea to look at the dining room’s temperature at that point.


Properly reading a table means you’ll be able to anticipate a guest’s needs. Asking a few important questions can save you several trips to a table, greatly improving your efficiency and enhancing the guest experience.

Maybe they ordered no tomato on their Club Sandwich but added a side salad which includes diced tomatoes. Ask if those tomatoes need to be nixed as well. If they ordered the gluten-free bun, make sure to confirm they’d also like to lose the croutons from their salad. These extra questions will save you from running back and forth to the kitchen looking for fixes.

If a guest seems to be overwhelmed by the menu’s options, ask a few questions to narrow down their search.

So the entrees have been served and everything is as requested. Now, instead of simply asking if there’s “anything else”, get specific. Are there any popular condiments you could ask about? How about extra napkins, utensils, or refills? Now is the time to ask. By getting specific you’ll avoid being flagged down later. It’s a win-win scenario; less trips for you, and a happier customer.

People appreciate when you’re able to anticipate these requests; they’ll recognize that you’re genuinely invested in the guest experience. This will almost certainly lead to better tips, good reviews, and repeat business.

Next up in part three of our restaurant serving series, we’ll look at some of the mechanics of serving. Stay tuned to this space!

Looking to improve on food and labor costs? Maybe you can pull some ideas from our free book below. 

Restaurant Cost-Saving Practices


This post originally appeared on’s Restaurant Strategy Blog.



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