When I was twenty, jobless and broke, I walked into an upscale, locally-own restaurant and begged for a job. Literally. I’d been there several times before, but with no experience, I was always quickly turned away. In a moment of disgust, I stomped back into the foyer, looked the manager in the eye, and said, "You’re making a mistake." And he asked me why. So I stated my case.
"Every time I come in here, you won’t give me the time of day. You say I need experience. Well, here I am, eager to learn. Just how do you expect me to get experience when no one will give me a chance?"
He was irritated, I could tell, and I stomped back out the door. But a loud, "Get back here!" made me backpedal my way back in. He directed me to a booth and told me to wait for him.
Several minutes later, the manager sat across from me, and flung a menu across the table.
"You take that home and come back tomorrow. I will test you and if you fail one question, no job."
Menu in tow, I returned home and spent the evening perusing all the fare-what was included, available sides, the price-I studied for hours and learned about every dish and beverage. Heck, I even memorized the wine and beer list.
The next day, the manager grilled me for twenty minutes. Then he put me in training. For two weeks I shadowed a veteran waitress. I watched how she greeted each guest differently and rattled off specials in varying orders, depending on the clientele seated at each table. During off-time they trained me on carrying trays-large oval ones loaded with iron skillets!
By week three I was given two tables during lunch. After two months I was granted an entire section.
I soon learned how to tailor my personality and interactions to each customer. I was calm and overly polite to the older women who came in for the lunch specials and always ordered water to drink. I was more upbeat with younger couples, and always humorous with the business men who’d sit in the back, order steaks and beer for long meetings. And I was tipped accordingly.
While I didn’t love my job, I did feel accomplished. In little time I was making as much as, and sometimes more, than the seasoned wait staff. And the customers seemed to appreciate my ability to communicate on all levels.
It is then that I realized that waiting on people wasn’t about taking an order and delivering food. It was about the overall experience. It was also about treating each person as an individual. If I knew I gave excellent service and the patrons were appreciative, I never auto-added tips. I usually wound up getting a much higher percentage. Sure, there were some of those whom would leave pitiful tips and always complained, but that’s just part of the business. On average, I fared more than 15% gratuity (and this was in the early ’90s).
I did, however, realize that long-term waitressing wasn’t for me. It is grueling work, and requires complete, undivided attention. The attitude of a waiter or waitress can have a great impact on a customer’s day-that alone is a difficult task when you have people, food and drinks coming at you from every direction.
The experience gave me a new appreciation for dining out, but it also set my expectations high. As a diner, I expect the following, regardless of the tye of restaurant. If these expectations aren’t met, not only does it affect the tip, but also my overall impression of the establishment.
- They MUST know the menu. No staff should be tending tables if he/she doesn’t know the menu. That includes what comes in each dish, acceptable substitutions and available side items.
- They MUST be understanding. They need to listen to my concerns and address them.
- They MUST check food before ever leaving the kitchen. The most common issue I have is improperly prepared dishes, and most of the time it is visibily apparent as soon as I look at the plate. They blame the chef, but they’re just as much to blame by not double-checking.
- They MUST be consistent. Each restaurant has a certain series of events when you walk in as a diner (they seat you, bring you water, maybe bread, take your drink order, explain specials, etc.). Skip a step and irritation grows.
- The MUST be able to communicate. Wait staff should be pleasant and personable. They should be able to convey information in a way anyone can understand.
- They MUST use tact and professionalism. I’ve been told some of the most inappropriate things by waiters and waitresses, including hearing complaints about their job. This is simply bad business.
- They MUST know when to bring the check. Unless I’m in a fast-turn place, I don’t want the check the minute the meal is delivered. I also don’t want to be sitting at a table for twenty minutes waiting for it to arrive.
- They MUST keep it clean. This means pre-busing, and crumbing when necessary.
I may sound picky, but these are the exact things that affect every restaurant. No patron should ever know it’s someone’s first day.
A great deal boils down to personality. A cocktail waitress might not be suited for fine dining, or even a pizza place. The clientele decides who fits the bill and who doesn’t.
On a side note, some years ago, my father and I hit a diner in Texas. The waitress actually took a chair at the table to take our order. She was a perky, Southern gal, and her means of communication seemed a little out there, but it worked! The service was great, the food was splendid and we left in much better moods than when we had arrived. She got a nice hefty tip, too! Sure, she wouldn’t be a fit just anywhere, but it just goes to show that there is a place for everyone; there’s a reason this diner was packed and people always asked for her station.