March 10, 2008

Waiting for Service – 10 Things I Want From Restaurant Waiters

Posted in Customer Lack of Service, Life in Los Angeles at 4:03 pm by loolar

My wife and I recently vacationed for a week in Seattle and the San Juan islands, and had the opportunity to eat at a number of restaurants, from greasy spoons to fancy high-end joints. I’m a serviceable cook, so when I go out to eat, I like to try things that are beyond my ability to make, and I like to enjoy good service. Unfortunately, the second thing is vanishing.

It seems that people in the service industry are more and more clueless about the experience they are creating, and nowhere has this become more apparent in the last decade than in the restaurant business. So my wife and I collected some of our biggest pet peeves so we could share them with you, my two readers. Somehow it makes me feel better.

Servers put up with terrible behavior out of misguided “brotherhood” loyalty, and so frequently forgive, and therefore, forget, some cardinal sins when it’s their turn to sling the plates. One of my dearest friends has worked in the restaurant and bar industry for over ten years, and so puts up with – and apologizes for – a pretty high level of unacceptable service out of a sense of forbearance for their suffering. Hey, servers, if they don’t like the service industry, don’t take it out on me – in the words of Quentin Tarantino as performed by Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink, “I got two words for that: learn to fuckin’ type.”

And so, presented in the order of the meal you’re likely to encounter them, the tips for professional waitstaff and servers:

****

1. For Bartenders – I don’t want a glass full of ice, and please learn to pour.
Whether it’s water or soda, most bartenders will scoop a glass through the ice bin, then fill it. It’s fast, it’s easy, and then they don’t have to sit there with the soda gun forever because the ice makes it fill up faster. Unfortunately, this is not customer focused, this is server focused, and the result is that I get three sips and then an iceberg slides out of the glass and punches me in the face.

Bartenders may say, “hey, fine, we’ll slow down the entire process to fill your soda, pansy-pants, but don’t come crying to us when your drink order takes 30 minutes.” This is the wrong attitude. This would be a problem, certainly, but this solution only takes care of half the issue. Drinks are timely, yes, but they’re not good drinks – which is really the most important part, isn’t it? If this is such a crippler, put a soda gun where servers and bus staff can get at them. Either way, stop doing it.

As for beer – stop pouring it before it spills all over the glass. I guess they figure I can’t complain that they didn’t fill it up all the way. Unfortunately, this leaves me with a wet, slimy, sticky mess. I don’t want to feel the beer; I want to drink it. Learn to pour, or at least wipe the glass off before you hand it to me.

2. At least pretend to write down my order.
I don’t care how clever you think you are; invariably, I get an order screwed up by a waiter who insisted on taking it verbally. I want enough things “my way” – whether on the side, extra crispy, extra tomatoes, whatever – that there are plenty of chances to screw it up.

Even if you do this all the time, without error, ever – the bottom line is this: when you don’t write down my order, you cause me to stress that it’s going to be wrong, and that directly detracts from the reason I’m there in the first place – to enjoy myself. I know some people think this makes the experience “more magical;” well, it never impresses me, but always causes me anxiety, thereby lessening my experience. And make no mistake – I’m only there for the experience. I can cook most of these dishes myself.

3. Don’t put the gigantic dollop of butter on my pancakes.
This is the fault of the kitchen, but a smart waiter would always tell them to keep the glob on the side. This was underscored when we visited a greasy spoon for brunch that didn’t do it – the butter was served separately in a small dish. Wonderful, and reminded us how much we hate this when they don’t. Admittedly esoteric list item, but with a baby, going out to breakfast has become one of our rare eating-out indulgences nowadays – and you’d be surprised how many “high end” places do this.

4. Remember “the customer is always right”?
In Montreal last fall, for Rob Sama’s bachelor party, at a $50-70 a cut steak house, I had my order screwed up – the waiter brought me a cut I did not order. The waiter reviewed his pad, confirmed he had written down the cut I did not order, and so concluded that it was I who was mistaken. Are you kidding me?

Never mind the fact that, when I ordered, he didn’t hear me the first time, so I not only repeated it, I pointed to it on the menu (this must be the source of the error, obviously). But I pointed to it on the menu. The other 8 guys at the table saw me do that. And yet he insisted I was mistaken because of his written “evidence.” I don’t care if I ordered a bowl of froot loops and then asked where my steak was when you brought it – the customer is always right. Make me feel good, make me feel happy, bring me what I ask for, even if it’s my fault. When it’s your fault, you sure as hell better not argue with me about it.

5. Let me actually taste it before you ask if it’s okay.
Eager to ignore customers until it’s time for the bill, the food is delivered along with a cheery, “how is everything?” I don’t know yet. I’m still picking up the fork. And considering stabbing you in the eye with it. You may want to ask, “do you need anything else?”

6. Stop overfilling the pepper.
More for management than waitstaff, except that I see the servers usually doing this job. What is it with pepper shakers? You shake and shake and nothing comes out; you unscrew the top only to be blasted with a volcanic eruption of ash from all the pepper jammed into the damn shaker. Leave some room in there, or it won’t come out.

7. Stop interrupting me.
Unless you’re Jack Nicholson in AS GOOD AS IT GETS, you go to a restaurant with someone. And unless you’re socially maladjusted, you talk while you eat. Unfortunately, it seems that most servers have begun to mistake good service for rude and inconsiderate interruptions. Excellent waiters have the instincts to know when you want something; more importantly, they never interrupt a conversation in progress to ask something as inane as, “everything okay?” And how is it they have the uncanny ability to interrupt the story right at the punchline / surprising twist / heartbreaking moment?

In an Italian restaurant in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island (one of the most expensive places in town, by the way), we were interrupted, mid-conversation, by three different servers. Our drinks were full, we were eating and talking – what the hell did you think we needed? Again, good service isn’t about pestering, it’s about being aware of the needs of your customer, and being available if they want you. Walk by, hover for a moment, let me see you – and when I don’t ask for anything, be on your way. If you’re worried that I’ll be too much of a wuss to “bother you,” then tell me you’ll do this up front, and let me know you won’t interrupt me, but when you are nearby, I can call you over. And don’t ask me anything when you can see my mouth is full.

8. Don’t make me wait for the easy stuff.
This is the most irritating thing; being constantly interrupted, and yet paying no attention to easily satisfied needs. You don’t need to interrupt me, you don’t need to ask – just keep my water glass full. Nothing brings a nice dining experience to a screeching halt like trying to survey the restaurant for your server as if you’re playing Where’s Waldo, and all you want is more water.

9. Don’t clear my plate while I’m still eating.
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But I’ve literally had to slap the plate back down because my mouth was too full to say anything. If I’m still chewing, there’s a good chance I might want another bite.

10. Please box up my leftovers for me.
This one blows my mind when I’m at a nicer place, but it’s becoming more and more widespread. When they ask to clear the plate (excellent – see #9), and I ask to have my leftovers boxed, more and more often, they leave and bring back a box. Never mind that my table is cluttered with glasses, uncleared dishes, and other people’s elbows, or that you have much more space in the back – how is this service? It isn’t, and it leaves a real sour taste at the end of the meal.

BONUS #11 (Because this list goes to eleven)

11. Give the original receipt back with my credit card slip.
Too many servers mysteriously steal the original check when they return with your credit card and a bill slip. I don’t know about you, but I’m not great at math, and I typically use the tax to figure the tip (in most states, doubling the tax is about right). It’s not on the credit card slip. Also, by the time I put out my credit card, I’m ready to go soon; I want that decision to be mine, not the server’s – so I want to review the receipts after I get my card back. I can always have them run it again.

****

Well, there you have it… now I pray to the gods of viral internet sharing that this actually makes it to a waiter or waitress.

So why does any of this matter? Well, think of this… for two decades, as American industry moved offshore to preserve the illusion that we have no inflation (because prices are still low, right?), it has been touted that we are moving toward a “service economy,” although perhaps only to keep us from throwing crooks out of Congress. Well, if this is a service economy, then why is it that more and more businesses are derided for their lack of service? This is just one example; but in terms of America “staying competitive,” it’s not a long shot before we lose our service industry overseas as well, merely because it’s not hard to figure out how to be polite and customer-focused.

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11 Comments »

  1. Dewey said,

    Being in Friday Harbor (isn’t Google Blog search great…) have informed the owner about your comments. Being in the tourism business – and referring hundreds of people every summer to the various restaurants on the island – am very aware it reflects upon the referrer not on the restaurant. As such I have dinner at each place to see how I’m served, the quality, quantity, ambiance, noise, selections and the price in order to be able to recommend (or not.) When traveling I do the same, comparing off-island establishments to ours. Your points are well spoken – and should be learned by most. Everything any establishment needs to remember is that the second visit is where money is being made. If it’s good enough they will be back!
    Cheers!

  2. […] 10 things we all want from restaurant wait staff. […]

  3. Wesley said,

    Excellent list. Training and retraining is the answer. And of course having someone who knows how to teach the training. Thanks for the fun read. As for the viral stuff I link to it from our San Juan Islands page http://www.desticam.com/rss-sanjuan_news_blog_san_juan_islands.shtml

    Wes

  4. Joe said,

    As a long time professional server, in some of the finest restaurants in the region, I fully agree with most of your views. However, one thing I would like to comment upon, interuptions of your conversations.
    True, a good server would not ask the same “How is everything”, time and time again. But, I cannot remember how many times I have gone to greet a new table, offer a choice of water (bottled, flat, tap, etc.) and a cocktail, and have been completely ignored as I stand at the table. If it is more than 30 seconds or so, another guest in my section will surely need something, so I must leave to accomodate their needs.
    I return again, I am ignored again. After several attempts to at least say hello, and let you know that when you are ready, just let me know, I am still persona non grata.
    Now, twenty minutes after being seated, with no water, no beverage and no greeting, it is inevitable that one member of your party will ask to see a manager as to why you have been ignored for (in your internal clock) an hour.
    Finally, with you and your guests upset at this imagined slight, I am able to fill your water glasses and perhaps get a cocktail in front of you. Now, we have some features not listed on the menu, fresh catch, game plate, etc. that I would love to tell you about. Perhaps answer any questions you may have about an admittedly complex menu, again, I have become invisible, or worse, as I finally get your attention and begin to quide your through our available selections, you and your guests renew your conversation as if I am not standing there. At some point it will be necessary for us to speak with one another, I prefer to get it out of the way so that you can enjoy the meal with your friends.

  5. Jeff Herrold said,

    Joe, I appreciate your comments. However, I invite you to re-read what I said about interruptions:

    “Walk by, hover for a moment, let me see you – and when I don’t ask for anything, be on your way. If you’re worried that I’ll be too much of a wuss to “bother you,” then tell me you’ll do this up front, and let me know you won’t interrupt me, but when you are nearby, I can call you over. And don’t ask me anything when you can see my mouth is full.”

    Note I understand that some people might ignore the server and then blame the server – so that’s why I said to get it out of the way upfront. Additionally, I said don’t KEEP interrupting me. The initial contact is rarely an issue.

    My issue is with interruptions when drinks are full, people are eating and talking – what might they need? Hover nearby and let them call you over; if you’re worried they may not, change your process to let the customer know this is the way you’ll do it to keep the service focused on them, not you.

  6. Andi said,

    “Whether it’s water or soda, most bartenders will scoop a glass through the ice bin, then fill it.”

    In restaurant terms, this is illegal. The potential for broken glass in an ice bin is very high when you scoop the glass rather than using a proper ice scoop. Refuse the drink and rethink patronizing the bar.

    As for a glass full of ice, this is a no brainer. More ice means less product served. Ask for your rocks on the side.

    “At least pretend to write down my order.”

    Sorry, you’re in the minority on this one. As a whole, customers
    l o v e when a waiter can remember their order without writing it down. It adds to the flow of service and creates a greater sense of connection between server and client. Waiters who are proficient in this skill have one up on those who don’t. But for you, be brave, next time speak up … let your waiter know what y o u prefer.

    “Don’t put the gigantic dollop of butter on my pancakes.”

    Since you are aware of your preference, it’s up to you to ask for your butter on the side. In 20 years of experience in restaurant service, I have never once had a customer show issue with butter and pancakes or where the butter should be . . .

    “Remember ‘the customer is always right.’ … I don’t care if I ordered a bowl of Fruit Loops and then asked where my steak was when you brought it – the customer is always right.”

    The biggest misnomer ever created. The customer is NOT always right. It should be changed to “Let the customer always think they’re right.” And even then, there are h u g e exceptions to the rule.

    The other night I had a guy complaining – more like whining actually – that I hadn’t brought hot mustard to his table. When I reminded him that he hadn’t ask for hot mustard, he shut up.

    However, when ‘just’ issues do arrive, call upon management. Preferably away from your table. You will be better received. One should never stand for bad service, however arguing with a waiter is always a waste of time.

    “Let me actually taste it before you ask if it’s okay.”

    Agreed, 1000 percent.

    ‘Stop overfilling the pepper.”

    Agreed.

    “Stop interrupting me.”

    Agreed.

    “Don’t make me wait for the easy stuff.”

    No one m a k e s you wait for anything. Rarely to never is a waiter unoccupied and ignoring you. If he is, he won’t keep his job for long. If you’ve waited inordinately long for such a simple thing, there are several people – host, manager, busperson, another waiter -in any restaurant that will assist you immediately.

    Your complaint speaks to the biggest problem that customers have in this industry. YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY PERSON IN THE RESTAURANT THAT NEEDS ATTENTION. I’m assuming that you didn’t just drag your ass in form the Gobi Desert. If you’re so desperate for that 4th glass of water and there’s no one around to help you, walk over to the water pitcher and pour it yourself. I assure you, you’ll have more attention & apologies then you’ve ever needed in an instant AND you’ll have your water …….

    “Don’t clear my plate while I’m still eating.”

    Totally.

    “Please box up my leftovers for me.”

    There’s been a shift in the industry lately. More and more customers would rather box their own leftovers, rather than allowing their plate to return to the kitchen where it is out of sight. Again, you need only ask.

    “Give the original receipt back with my credit card slip.”

    This is a policy decision. The waiter has nothing to do with how management wants a check presented.

    Service is a give and take. Like it or not, being a good customer is as important as being a good waiter. Besides, it is more in the interest of a restaurant o w n e r to keep his clientele happy. These days, a waiter will easily walk away from a tip rather than deal with an overly difficult client.

    – Andi

  7. Alfredo said,

    Hi there: it seems like your are one of those non desired guest…I do agreed on most of your points, however there is many thing you should know too concerning some of your comments and personal experiences.

    1. When you dining out! is “Dining Out” and you should make that a priority and pay attention to service staff. If you want just to talk to your friend you should go to a nice park on a nice bench, finish you conversation and when you get hungry then go to the restaurant

    2. If you as a guest make an order error…you must wait, banck in the kitchen the cooks are following orders by timing…of course if you make a mistake ordering the wrong intem, you will have priority…Yet you must wait specially if is a welldone filet or ny…”Who eats welldone meat anyway?” get a piece of jerky “Don’t waste that piece of meat”

    3. If your meat is delivered and looks little charred outside and you have asked for rare or medium rare…Cut the center to see how is cooked! Don’t just cut the corner and send it back.

    4. spliting checks is the most anoying in the service industry…is not only you there is other guest waiting for sevice…get togheter with your cheap friends and agreed to who’s to pay or how you will pay….or better just go drive thru. Don’t waste my time or my table

    5. When you order champagne!!! Don’t taste!! and don’t look for “legs” that only applies to red wine..Ha and don’t ask to decant a 2-3 year old wine

    6. Double the tax for tip? how cheap you can get? a good service is always 20-25% if you are in some pop’s and mom’s restaurant with amateur “servers” who are ther just for a quick dollar? is just ok to double the tax…but if you go to Newport Beach or Laguna Beach in California..you better tip good . in most nice places we are professionals and we know our stuff..making 100 to 120k a year it is a profession..make no mistake my friend.

  8. Stevie said,

    I am so happy to see these problems addressed. My friends and I are increasingly astonished at the familiarity, slovenly habits, and downright rudeness/cluelessness of wait staff. We frequently complain that when we go to a restaurant to visit each other and enjoy a nice meal (eating out is a great joy to us, and we love trying new, fine restaurants) how many times the wait person will come up barking and squaking whilst one of us is right in the middle of a sentence. And it is ALWAYS something absurd, like “is everything alright?” What on earth?? All this superfluous conversation is unbearable. Announcing that, “Here’s your dinner, here’s your drink; here’s your check.” Really? Thank you. I had no idea what these things were; thank you.

    My friends and I often think to ourselves, “What if I’m in the middle of telling someone I have brain cancer, or that my husband is leaving me, or that I just lost my job?” This barking must end. It’s far too annoying; additionally, don’t sit down with us/lean and squat at our table. I was in New York City resently and ate at Angelo’s in Little Italy. When I got back home, I couldn’t wait to tell my friends that I had enjoyed a beautiful meal, was attended to by no less than 3 waiters and a manager, and NOT ONCE were my dining companion and I interrupted by barking and squaking. Yet somehow we were able to get through our dinner (pretty quickly, I might add), and enjoy every bite AND every word of our conversation. I was so impressed, I left a FIFTY percent tip. Don’t worry; I’ll deduct it from the tip of the next rude idiot who interrupts me while I’m enjoying my meal. And finally, many of the wait people who are commenting here seem to be forgetting something: I’M NOT IN THE RESTAURANT FOR YOU. I’m here to enjoy a nice meal and a conversation with my dining companion. Perhaps they will begin to get the message when we promptly refuse to leave a tip and explain to the manager the reason why.

  9. teleburst said,

    No on doubling the tax. Tax can be anywhere between 6 and 9 percent depending on where you are. It’s pretty easy to figure out the tip. If you want to tip 15%, take the figure, half it and add them together and don’t worry about hitting right on the head.. This isn’t as difficult as it seems. 15% on an odd figure like $56 is about $8. If you were in a state that had a 6% tax rate, you’d only be tipping about $6. Not good. 20% is even easier. Just double and move thedecimal place. If you want to leave something in the middle like 18% just take 20% and drop the tip a little. For instance – a $325 bill. 20% is $65. 18% would be in the neighborhood of $58. (yes, I did that in my head. I was .50 off).

    Better to do it the right way – 15% for average no-fault but diffident service. More for better service and less for worse. If the server makes a positive impression on you, and gives the impression that they care about your dining up the tip. Great service should be 20% or more.

    Here are few things I want from guests:

    Stop saying, the customer is always right. Sorry, but this isn’t true. Lying about the food, being rude or sexist to the waitstaff, demanding discounts, pretending to be a friend of the owner, expecting the improbable (like a well-done 16 oz filet in 10 minutes), trying to bully the server into taking a long-expired coupon…these are things that come to mind. Don’t be an entitled asshole. It doesn’t hurt to ask if an old coupon can be honored – just don’t demand it or throw a hissy-fit and demand to speak to the manager. At least be polite about it.
    BTW, I was in the exact opposite situation as you. I wrote down the order, repeated it back to the guest and they insisted that they ordered something else. They even got their neighbor in on the delusion (and yes, I always repeat the order back – and yes, I’ve screwed up before and written the wrong thing down or misread my order, but I definitely didn’t that time).

    Leave your cell phone in your pocket until I leave the table, especially when you sit down. I’m fine with you talking on the phone once I tell you the specials. I’ll just leave you alone until you finish.

    Make eye contact.

    Don’t wave me over or snap your fingers. It’s rude. Catch my eye. Just as you expect me to do when you’re sitting there engrossed in your conversation and don’t want to be disturbed.

    Don’t grab me when I’m at another table. Yes, it happens.

    If you are going to a show or the theater – TELL ME. I’m not a mindreader. Believe me, I’ll do my best to streamline your meal so that you get out on time and I’ll do it without making you feel rushed (if possible). Don’t tell me at the last minute that you’re running late and you need your check immediately. that’s information that I needed earlier.

    Separate checks are fine if you tell me up front. The easiest way is to split the bill down the middle but I understand if you need separate bills for business or if the bills would be quite a bit different. If it’s within a few bucks, don’t be cheap. Just be a mensch and split the bill. If there are separate checks, don’t be the one person who tries to skim on the tip because they’re “lost in the crowd”. When there are more than 4 -6 separate checks, there’s always ONE goober.

    Never try to take something off of a tray. You’re asking for a disaster.

    If you want to pour your own wine, simply tell me while you move the bottle away from my end of the table. I’m happy to let you meter your own wine. In the absence of instructions, I’m going to pour the wine when glasses start getting low.

    Don’t bitch about the liquor pour. I didn’t suck out half of the liquor before I served you.

    If something isn’t right – tell me. don’t sulk. Don’t eat 90% of it and then complain that it was under/over/mis-cooked. When I ask you if everything is cooked the way you like it, I’m not just asking you a meaningless question like “How are you?” I really want to know so that if it’s screwed up, I can get it fixed at the earliest possible moment.

    Once you get the check back, write in the tip and give it back to me. Don’t hide it away and make me wait for it, especially if you’re one of the last tables. I could at least be doing my end of shift report while you fritter away the time. Stay if you must, but at least have some consideration. Also, once I deliver the check, make it clear that you’ve put payment in the book. I don’t have X-ray vision. Stick the credit card or cash out so it can be seen. Otherwise, you’re going to be waiting longer than necessary. Also, if you don’t need change, tell me so there’s no confusion.

    Add up your tip and total correctly please. This will save misunderstandings later.

    Tip on liquor, to include wine. You wouldn’t stiff your bartender, would you? I’m having to tip them out as well, you know. If you order a $500 bottle of wine, I’ll cut you SOME slack, but you should still tip on it. You don’t get a tip break for ordering lobster instead of hamburger. And it’s YOUR choice to spend a lot of money on a bottle of wine. If you want to play, you gotta play. and speaking of wine, I understand if you have a special bottle that’s not on the wine list. But bringing a bottle that’s on the list is bad form. It’s cheap. Are you going to start bringing your raw steak in for us to cook next? And, here’s a hint, tipping on what you would have paid for the bottle that you brought in, minus any corkage fee, marks you as a “professional diner”.

    Don’t put a stopwatch on the meal. If something is delayed a long time, of course you should be concerned. But the usual time between courses is 5 – 15 minutes. Don’t be grousing at the 7 minute mark.

    these are some things that you can do for me. I’m here to make your experience the best I can. I try to communicate a real concern for your meal. You help me out and I’ll help you out. the diners that get the best service are the ones that are relaxed and glad to be dining out. Just as you expect me to leave my problems at home, please don’t use me in place of kicking the dog or slapping the spouse.

  10. Sigh said,

    My main concern is the sqwaking. I go out to eat at a lovely restaurant. The food is delicious. The price is just right. The staff brings bread and drinks over quietly and efficiently.

    I have rewarded this restaurant with my repeat business. However, my enjoying is greatly reduced by a waitress who jumps over to my table several times during a meal to bark at me, “Is everything all right.” “Can I get you anything?” “You enjoying your meal.” Of course, she asks when I have a mouth full of food and then just stands there, staring at me, waiting for a response.

    As others have said, if we need you, we will ask for you. Have the common sense to wait for us to swallow before asking…or better yet, don’t ask. It’s annoying…and not to be rude, but we are not there for you…We are there to enjoy a meal out.

    I am thinking of not returning based upon the uncomfortable feelign I am left with after being sqwaked at during my entire meal. Just stop! Shut up and serve. The best meals are seamless and in which the servers are unintrusive.

  11. Rohit said,

    Hi All – a really old post, for me to revive discussions and connect with anyone, but nevertheless a very very interesting read. Personally, I have hated the idea of service, when it comes to waiting for the servers. I was at a large resort when I was traveling with my wife and young niece. My niece needed water, and there was just no one, to attend to. As far as liquor was concerned, there were plenty of hands charging up and down, waiting to fill our stems! Water was free. But, I would not blame the servers at all. They are running back to the service station, putting things on a large tray, and running back again, to get something that they missed out on. I feel in these large places there should little changes. In a sea-facing resort, I was just trying to relax, where I could have used my tablet to order everything! Let the servers, just schedule, deliver food, and lets not fill their heads with our preferences, when they have 10 guests to satisfy every minute.


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