Build a Winning Restaurant Serving Staff: Part 3

Waiter taking orders from young woman customerThis is part three of a five part look at creating a top-notch restaurant serving staff. In part one we laid out the basics, menu knowledge and the essential tools of the trade. Part two touched on the importance of developing the ability to effectively read tables and anticipate guest needs.

In this installment, we’ll focus more on the mechanics of serving as well as the “politics” of the job for lack of a better term.

(Note: While the post is written as if addressing servers directly, we think managers and owners can get plenty from it as well.)

Timing is Everything

Much like good comedy, the key to great serving is timing. The best servers pay strict attention to the timing of everything. Master the fine art of timing every step of your table’s experience and watch many potential problems disappear.

This involves knowing the average time it takes to prepare a meal, from apps right down to desserts. It means effectively judging how fast the kitchen is currently moving, how fast the bartenders are getting to their drink tickets, how fast guests are finishing each course, and more.

Learning how to time means you won’t be that server immediately going to the bar to wait for the drink you just rang in ten seconds ago, annoying the bartenders in the process. You’ll know how much time you have to let the bar do their thing while you take care of other chores. Improved timing makes life easier for you and your co-workers.

If you offer free soda refills, get that next round on the table before glasses are empty. Everyone loves seeing that fresh glass of cola dropped in front of them just as their current beverage is about to run dry.

Another thing to remember is that good timing also means occasionally communicating to guests how their orders may affect the rhythm of things. The easiest example of this would be politely noting that a well-done steak may take a bit longer to prepare.

Bonus tip: Are you close to a theater, stadium or other notable entertainment venue? It may be worth keeping tabs on what’s happening in town that night, and ask if your guests need to be out the door by a certain time. Pace their experience accordingly.

No Wasted Motion 

You know what they say about idle hands. There is always something a server could be doing to keep service moving efficiently. “Full Hands in, Full Hands Out” is a common philosophy in the restaurant business, and if it’s not part of yours, it should be.

Dropping off food? Clear empty plates and glasses. Bringing dirty plates to the dish pit? Wash those hands, grab clean dishes, and drop them off for the cooks. Bringing glassware to the bar? Ask your bartenders if any drinks need to be run. Spare moment? Grab a colleague’s order and run it out to the dining room (though check with the kitchen to be sure the order is complete).

Make a trip through your entire section and see what every table needs, then drop it all off in one trip. There’s no need for running back and forth for one item.

Keeping up with your table maintenance and it will take less time to clean and reset your tables for the next round. This means quicker turnaround and more money. You like money, right?

Writing it Down vs. Memorization

To write orders down or try to commit them to memory, that is the question. Some servers can remember every order for a table of ten – good for them! Others may need to take a few notes.

The Waitress Confessions blog has a terrific post on this subject outlining the pros and cons of memorization. So rather than dive too deep into it here, we’ll recommend you go check it out (after you’ve finished this post of course) before deciding on what approach to go with. If you do feel the need to write out orders, we strongly recommend developing some type of shorthand.

The Politics of Serving

It sometimes feels like the front-of-house and back-of-house are like two opposing sports teams, constantly bickering with each other. We’re not suggesting that one side is always right; sometimes the kitchen made a mistake, other times the server is at fault.

Here’s the thing though, a smart server picks their battles. The time will come when you need something on the fly, and if you’re the server constantly berating the kitchen for every perceived slight, you’ll become their last priority.

Ask yourself, are you doing anything to make the kitchen’s job easier? Could you use a spare moment to fetch clean plates or pans from the dish pit? Maybe they could use a glass of water or soda; pour one for them. It gets hot back there working around those ovens and stove tops.

Be the server that’s making their life easier and handling disputes diplomatically and you’ll find kitchen staff rushing to fix your mistakes when needed. Managers: One of the most important things to keep an eye on during service is how waitstaff treats the kitchen, and vice versa.

While we’re on this topic, it’s worth noting that these same rules apply to dealing with your fellow front-of-house mates. As noted above, help run food, ask if they need anything, see if the bartenders need supplies, etc. It’s a team effort, don’t be that server standing around looking useless. We can assure you, every other server on the floor can easily pinpoint your team’s weak link.

As always, if we’ve missed anything here be sure to let us know in the comments. In part four of this serving series, we’ll look at upselling. Stay tuned for more.

While we’re on the topic of efficiency in the restaurant, be sure to check out our free ebook, Improving Your Restaurant’s Ordering Practices, at the button below. 


This post originally appeared on’s Restaurant Strategy Blog.


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