Build a Winning Restaurant Serving Staff: Part 4

restaurant_serving_upsellingThis is part four 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 dealt with reading tables and anticipation, and part three focused on the mechanics and politics of the job.

Next up, it’s time to talk about selling. Because let’s face it, both restaurant owners and their servers want to make more money.

The Server as Consultant

We’ve likely all heard a server say “everything is good” when asked for recommendations. Don’t do that. Seriously, just don’t. This is where that extensive knowledge of the menu you’ve developed comes into play. It often only takes a couple of questions to help determine which dishes to recommend. “Do you like seafood?”, or “any dietary restrictions?” for example. You’re not strictly a salesperson when you serve tables, you’re a consultant.

There’s going to be those high-performing dishes you’ll want to guide customers towards when possible, but when asked about favorites just be honest with people. Best to deliver something a guest will enjoy versus simply pushing the items with the biggest profit margins.

You’re the expert in the room, so act like it. New serving staff that have yet to try much of the menu can always fall back on dishes that are known to be popular with other guests.

Keeping with the idea of timing – which we discussed in a previous post – be certain to outline the day’s specials right away in order to get people thinking about them. If you only mention those specials when you return with drinks, then your guests may feel a little pressured to decide on the spot if they’d like to try the special or not. This could lead to them needing even more time to decide, slowing down turnover.

On top of knowing the day’s specials, servers need to be to be up-to-date on dishes/drinks that have been 86’d for that shift. Restaurants should have some type of whiteboard or other means of letting front-of-house staff know that certain items are unavailable. Servers should make that one of their first stops before taking the first order of the day.

If popular dishes are unavailable for some reason, start thinking about your second and third go-to recommendations. Grab the menu and quickly reacquaint yourself with their descriptions in order to tighten up your tableside pitch.

Setting yourself up in the role of consultant helps a guest see you as more than someone who simply jots down an order and drops off a few plates. You’re increasing the likelihood of a good tip, and using all that knowledge you’ve gleaned from learning your menu inside and out to enhance the guest experience.

The Upsell

So with all of the above out of the way, let’s talk about selling.

Knowing your product is crucial for being able to effectively upsell, so if you’re still not a product expert go grab your menu and start studying. Knowledge breeds confidence, and that confidence will be evident with your guests.

Of course there’s a difference between offering helpful suggestions and being pushy and annoying. It’s a delicate balancing act, but servers that have mastered the art of reading their tables should have little trouble spotting appropriate upselling opportunities.

A few ideas to consider:

– Make it a point to recognize the host/ringleader of any large groups. They’ll often help set the tone for the table. If they order an appetizer or alcoholic beverage, others are very likely to follow suit. Seriously, if you can convince the host to try that awesome new draft beer, you’re increasing the likelihood of the whole table indulging.

– Vary your speech a bit. Don’t ask the exact same questions and use the same descriptions at every table. Guests can hear your interactions at the tables around them so try not to sound overly scripted. People hear a script and they’re likely to push back. Think of how often you’ve done just that with telemarketers trying to hard sell you.

– If a guest is ordering something that takes a bit of time to prepare – a well-done steak perhaps – suggest a starter salad or soup.

– Guests splitting an entree between two people? Suggest a second side dish as an add-on.

– Never miss a chance to upsell the little things such as sauces, gravy, toppings for a baked potato (who doesn’t love a twice baked?), chicken as an add-on for salads, etc. If you’re not asking about a side of fried onions and mushrooms with a steak, you’re doing it wrong.

– Alcohol offers several possibilities. Know your wine pairings and make suggestions accordingly. Wine offers the textbook example of a server acting as consultant rather than salesperson.

If you’re carrying a visually enticing drink, be sure the rest of your section gets a good look at it. Take the long way to your table if you have to and let everyone develop a little drink envy.

If management allows it, bring them a small sample of that brand new beer you’ve got on tap. Getting that tiniest of sips could be the difference in a beer sale or fetching a water with lemon.

Know your premium brands and offer the guest options beyond the well brand for their Screwdriver or Gin and Tonic. When you’ve got a moment, pick your bartender’s brains regarding which brands to suggest.

– Don’t blow an upsell opportunity by delivering a bill before you’ve asked about desserts. Profit margins are often high for your dessert offerings, so discuss them with guests as much as possible. Again, make specific suggestions, singling out popular desserts by name whenever possible. If they seem enticed but hesitant, mention the possibility of boxing up a slice of that delicious Carrot Cake to go. And remember that special occasions like birthdays or Mother’s Day are golden opportunities to tout your desserts.

– The role managers play in the upselling process cannot be overlooked. One sure-fire way to get waitstaff selling is to instill in them a sense of pride in both your product and their role. Empower them with proper training, incentivize them with contests and rewards for top sellers, and make sure the product leaving the kitchen is always of top quality so they can proudly stand behind it. Note: We’ve made these points before as it relates to reducing restaurant staff turnover.

Any upselling tactics we’ve left out of this discussion? Share yours in the comments. And be sure to check back for part five of this serving series as we look at dealing with difficult guests and the use, (or rather misuse) of social media.

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This post originally appeared on’s Restaurant Strategy Blog.


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