Serving up a plate of beans.
December 2, 2012 3:14 AM   Subscribe

My second day of "real" waitressing, I have a couple questions.

Today I had my second day of waitressing at a "big" restaurant. (I've waited tables before, but in a smallish cafe, where the biggest groups I ever served were about six people). I've run into a few difficulties during my first week and I was hoping to get some advice for now until I'm back at work.

1) I'm naturally sort of shy and can be a bit awkward; sometimes I feel uncomfortable and make other people uncomfortable because of it (usually in extreme 'duress,' like the first time I took a dance lesson, when I felt awkward inside my own skin, or when meeting a big group of people). I'm not exceptionally personable, but I'm friendly and I've had a lot of jobs working with people. So far in all the service jobs I've had (waiting tables, barista, library, tellering) this hasn't given me much trouble and it simply means that I'm more a low-key presence than a really perky one. The only job I've ever had where things were too high-volume and social for me was bartending, where after two days I felt too overextended and decided to quit. As of right now, waiting tables in a "real" restaurant feels like it lies somewhere in between-- I think I pay attention to my tables and chat when they're chatty, but sometimes I feel like I'm slightly blank-minded or like I say something odd? Not rude or inappropriate, but like maybe I seem disingenuous or didn't say the thing that would make them most feel taken care of. Is this a normal experience at first? Is it a normal experience in general? Most of the girls I work with have had years of experience in waitressing so they have a really good flow, mine feels functional but like it needs some practice. I feel insecure, like my personality might not be quite right for the job, but I also know people in restaurants have a wide range of preferences and pet peeves, and customer service is a skill.

2) Waiting on large parties. Tonight I had a very embarrassing incident where my entire table (seating >15 people) had to be comped because I was running behind, mixing up tabs, and generally made a mess of the orders. I'm very efficient and competent (and experienced) with smaller tables so I felt confident about taking a larger one, and got disorganized, and it snowballed from there. (It was extra-confusing because tabs from the bar were being transferred to the table, new people kept showing up and seating themselves at the table, &c.) How do you wait on a large table without getting confused? How do you take down orders? How do you keep track of split checks? I've asked around at work for advice, but I'm interested in hearing more.

3) The comping incident was really embarrassing and pretty humbling and I plan on taking it slow and building my way up until I'm better at keeping things straight and dealing with surprises. But now it's worrying me that they might think of me as a bad fit and let me go-- I feel if I ran a restaurant, I would not feel I could afford this kind of mistake, and it would be a big black mark against the employee. What kind of thing usually constitutes a firing offense in a restaurant? The managers are relatively easy-going; they were all kind and understanding with me and gave me guidelines about asking for help in the future so that I wouldn't get overwhelmed. However, it's a new restaurant, and I know they've probably over-hired so they could keep an eye on who wasn't gelling. This was my second day on the job so they treated it as a training snafu, thankfully. But I'm a bit worried.

Thanks, everyone! You can probably tell I've had some social anxiety/general anxiety issues in the past, but I've improved a lot since treating it and want to keep pushing my boundaries. Restaurant work is new to me and so far I enjoy the fast-paced, on-your-feet nature of the job, and I want to do well at it.
posted by stoneandstar to Human Relations (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
With the big table and confusing tabs, my solution was to sometimes print the whole tab and have them sort it out. This worked with the table that started as a 2 top and by the end of my shift on $.99 margarita night turned into a party of 14. I just gave them the receipt and said here, you divvy it up. They knew that the size and change of their party made it extremely confusing and they were very understanding.

Again, this was margarita Monday so ymmv
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 3:24 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1) Think of waitressing as a stage job. You are acting the part. I had a completely different 'persona' out on the floor than I did in the back of house. What your natural inclination is doesn't matter one bit- you get to pretend to be witty and charming and professional. Those experienced servers have a flow because they've been using variations on the same 'patter' for years. You'll get a bit of a script going and work from there.

2) If you've only been at this restaurant a few shifts, then they were a bit silly to throw you a 15 top to work by yourself. Next time you must ask for help the MOMENT you start to feel overwhelmed. With that many people I ALWAYS asked if the checks were all together right at the beginning - of course that depends on how casual your restaurant is. You have to find a way of writing tickets that allows you to notate everything. Ask a more experienced server how they do it. I numbered seats and wrote things like "1.lady w/big earrings- 2.guy w/gray curls" then left tons of space on my pad (I used mini legals only for big parties) to put down everything they ordered.

3) It sounds like you've already talked with your managers, but at the start of each shift check in with them again. Be a little self-depreciating, use a little humor - "Well, lets not do that again" and move on. If you are having another hard shift, approach them immediately for help. Good shift or bad, at the end of the night, tell them how you thought you did ("whew, so glad tonight went better! Betty's advice on ticket writing really helped") and then ask them what they thought. A server who cares about improving and making their managers happy is a FAR more valuable employee than one who is mediocre and doesn't care at all.

Waiting tables is hard work and changing restaurants sucks because everyone expects you to know the job. Problem is that the job is different at every restaurant! Hang in there, communicate and don't give up. The good thing is that this place is new so EVERYBODY is experiencing the chaos and learning curve.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 4:17 AM on December 2, 2012 [8 favorites]

I'm hoping that your first experience with a larger party was just a case of it being the worst kind of larger party (people joining in, tabs being transferred, etc.). So you may find comfort in chalking it up to that.

From my 15 years in food service: at the end of the day, leave whatever shit happened during the shift there. Agonizing over it and a whole ton of self-evaluation are going to leave you feeling the way you are now.

Do better tomorrow!
posted by kuanes at 4:21 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't feel too pressured to be chatty with your customers. Many restaurant customers prefer for their server to be much lower-profile than the standard "restaurant schtick" would suggest. My script always went something like this:

"Welcome to ABC Restaurant. What can I get for you?"

If I said my name at all, it would be at the end of taking the order, in the context of letting them know to ask if they needed anything.

With regards to large tables, I'd take a sheet of notepaper and map out the seats as A, B, C, etc. Do this starting with the seat closest to you and go around the table clockwise, leaving space between the letters in case you need to add seats (if you do, add them as a lower case a, lower case b, etc., fitting them into the appropriate spots). Write down everything -- food and drinks -- and when it's time to enter the orders and total the checks you'll be way more organized.

Try not to stress too much about being fired over the large party situation. Restaurants can be kind of a revolving door (meaning managers don't always have a lot of allegiance toward servers) and I tend to think if you were going to be fired, it would have happened that day/night. The fact that you're so concerned makes you more conscientious than most servers, and I imagine your managers see that.
posted by justonegirl at 4:31 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I find that forced gregariousness does come off as disingenuous. As an introverted, kind of shy person, trying to turn on the charm and extroversion never worked for me a server. It felt unnatural and made my interactions more forced and superficial than they needed to be.

What did work was working within my own personality. It's okay if people see that you're a little shy or nervous, it makes you human and relatable. I was never going to be engaged in boisterous banter, but could inject understated humour and genuine warmth into my interactions that people appreciated. I also wanted my customers to feel pampered and listened to, so if someone was clearly starving I would get them a little sip of soup from the kitchen to tide them over, or appear with extra butter as soon as I saw it getting low, etc. Sometimes if I was feeling particularly antisocial I would pretend that I was hired help from the Victorian era, making sure everything was perfect but just kind of floating in and out almost unseen.
posted by whalebreath at 4:35 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was in your exact position when I started. As others above have mentioned, most customers won't expect you to be chatty, even when it seems like they're trying to start conversations and engage you. Just make sure you're friendly and doing your job taking orders and delivering the right thing to the right people. The rest you can just smile and laugh when appropriate. If you're one server to a large table, they will understand that you're busy and can't stop to chat. Just make sure you don't snub them and mess up their orders and they won't have a reason to feel like they're not being taken care of.

As for not getting the orders confused, this can take a bit of practice so don't worry if you messed up once. I understand that it's totally embarassing and when it happened to me, I didn't really even know how to properly handle the situation. I just felt incredibly awkward, guilty and apologetic. What I ended up doing is making a grid of the table by dividing up a sheet of paper into the amount of guests before even approaching the table. Then when you go to take the orders, start with the person at the top left of your grid and go around the table clockwise, writing each order in the square on your sheet that corresponds to where they're sitting. I found this technique works very well, and it's even clear for other servers in case someone flags someone else down and orders something from them... they can add it in on the sheet for you, or you can add it in yourself. I like this technique because your sheet visually represents your table, so you can tell just by looking at you sheet who ordered what. In my experience, unless they specify that it will be one bill, big groups really don't appreciate being given one bill and forced to figure it out themselves. Then of course, if something doesn't make sense to you when it comes to making their bills, there's nothing wrong with going to ask them to clarify.

One last thing is that when you're on the shy awkward side like we are, there will probably be lots of times when waitressing can be totally overwhelming and tiring! Sometimes in really uncomfortable moments, it helps to just scoot into the storage room pretending you need to get something, or into the walk-in fridge or somewhere else relatively quiet even for 5 seconds where you can be alone or as close to alone as you can get just to take a deep breath, figure out how to handle a situation and "reset" yourself. That really used to help me a lot! Just don't stay in there too long! :P

Good luck. Waitressing can be very hard. It's a skill and requires a lot of prioritizing and patience. You'll get better and better with practice!
posted by ohmy at 7:12 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

For keeping things in order, does your restaurant have a seating order? Like, starting at the right-most seat and going from left to right, you number the seats (1, 2, 3, etc.). When I took orders, I wrote a #1 and circled it for the the person sitting in the #1 seat, #2 with a circle for the #2 seat, and so on. I'd leave enough room to add things on as the night went on (drinks, dessert, etc.). It's really, really helpful for large tables and makes splitting the bill super easy. If your work doesn't have a standard seat ordering system, make one up for yourself.
posted by cooker girl at 7:23 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm astonished your manager gave you a 15-top on your second day. Large parties are incredibly challenging, and I think anyone sane would forgive a new person for not getting it right. Usually new hires are in training with another server for a week or so.

I worked at a restaurant that had a rule that everyone wrote down orders starting with the person sitting right to the left of you, and going clockwise. It eliminated almost all of the who-had-what confusion. Does your place have a similar system, or do your coworkers have their own? If there's not a standard system in place, you might want to bring up the idea to your managers, since it will make everyone's job easier. (On preview, what everyone else said.)

For anything larger than six people, I usually divided the page of my notepad into sections clearly labeled 1, 2, 3, etc., and took a little extra time to write everything slowly (instead if my usual barely-legible "drp chfr" abbreviations). And if you suspect they'll be splitting the check, ask them how they're dividing it when they order, so you can put it in that way and avoid having to reprint the check an hour later. (You could do a lettering system for checks: seats 1 and 2 are on check A, seats 3, 9, 10 on B, etc.) Keep your notes until they're gone in case you need to refer back to them.

As for outgoingness, don't worry about it. Many people don't actually want chatty waiters. With time you'll be better able to read each table and figure out who enjoys conversation and who just wants their soda. You'll quickly build a script of things to say when you're not thinking on your feet. If you're working at one of those pieces-of-flair-type chains where you have to be chatty and attempt to upsell the onion bursts to everyone, you may have a trickier time of it. Regardless, people go to restaurants to eat and to chat with the people they came with, and you don't need to be befriend them to give them a good experience. You don't need to be perfect or anticipate their every need, either: if you refill their drinks and take their plates when they need it, and keep an eye on your section so people can catch your eye if they need something, you'll have a leg up on most people.

Good luck!
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:43 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm just joining in to say my husband and I prefer a professional server to the over-the-top friendliness some servers use. This is going to sound really harsh, but I don't even really want to know my server's name. If he/she is doing a good job, I won't have to look for them or find them to request something. I know that sounds extreme, but where we live, there are so many servers who go too far - sit down at the table with us, etc. it makes us highly suspicious of the super-friendliness. We think people only use that shtick to make up for lackluster skills.
posted by Kronur at 8:19 AM on December 2, 2012

Best answer: Hey there. I've been serving forever. You're new. You'll get there. No one is good at this job on the second day in a new restaurant. Don't sweat it.

1) Don't worry about being an under the radar server. That's how I do it and people usually like it. They're not there to talk to you, they're there to talk to whoever they're sitting with. Although, sometimes people really do want to talk to you. You'll know when. Follow your table's cues, otherwise just make sure they have what they need and they'll be happy with you. Silent service seems to blow people's minds for some reason. If I bring someone a new Diet Coke because their's was almost empty and they didn't even ask, sometimes it's like I'm a fucking god. I don't really get it, but do that. Anticipate what people need and just bring it, ask them if they need anything else. Get it if they do, leave them alone if they don't. Simple as that.

Oh, as far as saying stupid/weird things at tables. Geez, I do that all the time. That never goes away. At least not for me. I'll get halfway through a sentence and in my head I'm thinking, "I should just stop talking now." Sometimes I wrap it up quickly, sometimes I don't. The thing is, you're a stranger to them, they're strangers to you, of course the possibility of awkwardness abounds. The saving grace for you is this line, "Geez, it's been a long day. I don't even know what I'm talking about anymore. Can I get you two some drinks?" Bam. Awkwardness over and no one cares. Trust me. Just laugh at yourself. It's fucking food. No need to be uptight here.

2) Large parties. Ugh. The worst is when you approach and they won't look at you and won't acknowledge that you're even there. The best thing I can do is a really loud, "Hi everyone! How's it going?" or something like that to try and let them know you're there. If that doesn't work, well, I'll try and make eye contact with someone at the table. Anyone. Once that happens, that person will usually cue their friends that the server is there and to listen up. Large tables are like herding cattle. You've gotta take the lead or it can be hard. I like to know off the bat if I'll be splitting the check 8,000 ways or if one *person (that sweet sweet angel) is taking care of the tab. "Is everyone going to be on their own tab?" That'll give you an idea. Also, I'll use some kind of symbol next to seat numbers to denote who is on what tab. Seat 1,3, and 11 are on the same tab. Next to each of their orders I'll put a star. Seat 4, 5, and 6 are together. They all get a circle next to their order. I don't know what kind of system you're using to ring things in, but the restaurant I work in uses Micros and I can rename separate tabs as "circle" or "star." This is helpful if you can do it.

As far as joiners, I like to ask the table early on if they're expecting any more people. If they are, then leave gaps between the orders you write down so you can squeeze the late comers in between the orders you've already taken. Large parties suck. There's no truly easy way to do them. Just try to be in control of the situation. It takes time to learn how to tell a table how to be good guests without sounding rude. Also, a nice gesture, if your restaurant does this, is to send out something for free to large parties. They're going to spend a lot of money so most managers don't mind giving out a free dessert. It goes a long way in winning a table over.

*If you encounter a large party where one person is paying the tab, defer to them for everything. Let them be the one in charge, the all important host of the party. Of course be nice to the whole table, but whatever the bill payer wants or needs, that comes first. They control that magical extra gratuity you sooo hope they leave. :)

3) If a manager can't cut you some slack for messing up a 15 top, they're a terrible manager. You're human. It happens. Bad employees that should be fired show up late, go missing for long periods of time during a rush and have shitty attitudes that tables complain about. If you're not doing those things, and it sounds like you aren't, I wouldn't worry.

I hope any of this is helpful.
posted by smeater44 at 10:22 AM on December 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Regarding your issue #2, large tables- I used a numbering similar system to what's been mentioned by a couple people above already.

I generally let whoever wants to order first go ahead and they are #1. I'd write #1, then maybe something identifying ("red sweater") or whatever in case the numbers got messed up by people switching seats or generally milling around. Then I'd draw a big fat line under their order before starting with #2. That way each person has their own number assigned to them, and leave enough room under each one so you can write more as necessary (as they keep ordering drinks or whatever.) Once people have gotten their drink or food, you can cross that item off. Every time someone asks for something else, add it to their pre-assigned space on the paper under their number. The key is to always write it down and always CROSS IT OFF once they've gotten it so you can constantly be checking to make sure everything's been taken care of. There are plenty of times I've forgotten a drink or something but then when I get a minute of downtime I flip through my paper and SEE that it's not crossed off, so I run to the bar and sure enough it's there waiting for me and I bring it out. Even though it took a bit of time, it doesn't look as bad because at least you didn't have to remind me about it, I didn't forget. I know lots of servers take pride in never writing shit down, but it drives me up a wall because that's how things get forgotten. More often than not if a server takes my order without writing anything down, they forget at least one thing. Write everything down. This also helps in case a customer gets pissed about a wrong order- don't argue with the customer, of course, but then you can at least show your manager "No really this person DID order this thing this way, I wrote it down, see?" It's also crucial to be sure to check on them frequently. Even if you got all their orders right and everyone seems content now, with that many people, it may only be three minutes until someone needs another drink or someone dropped their fork or whatever. You don't necessarily have to go up and ASK them how it's going every few minutes (annoying) but do walk by frequently, and slow down enough and make sweeping eye contact through the group so that if anyone was trying to catch your attention they would be able to. Also, doing some water-filling or pre-bussing and getting finished dishes out of their way occasionally (rather than letting the busboys do all that stuff) will make you look better and also give your customers an opportunity to ask you for something they need without you having to interrupt their conversation. At the end of the day, it's not forgetting something that makes you a shitty server- it's forgetting it, and then not coming back to check again for 20 minutes so they sit there getting madder and madder without the thing that you forgot. If you're checking on them constantly, you can remedy forgotten things quickly and they'll be happy.

Anyway, the real lesson is you just need to develop a consistent system that works for you and use it every time. Even if you only have two-tops, use and develop your system whether it's numbering, or always starting to your left, or whatever. Trial and error to see what works for you. Then it will be habit and you'll be able to gradually handle bigger and bigger tables.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 11:45 AM on December 2, 2012

I think the biggest, and perhaps the only thing that has separated good from bad front-of-house staff is simply knowing when to ask for help. If you ask for help after things go down hill, or food is already cold, well that's food and money wasted. Ask for help when you know problems are going to happen, and most likely everything can be taken care of. Too many bad servers don't want to ask for help thinking they will lose out on tip. better to get help, possibly share tip, than 100% of no tip.

Also being given a 15 top by yourself was either a dick "challenge" move by management, or simply bad management. Depending on the formality of service I've seen 15 tops go to upwards of 3 servers. Let your manager know when you feel overwhelmed, if they have a problem with this so early on in your employment, you should seek work elsewhere.

Serving is also harder than many recognize. The really good ones make it look easy, but it is mental juggling your entire shift.
posted by efalk at 12:49 PM on December 2, 2012

Don't worry about not being a chatty server. Some people - including me - don't like chatty servers. It's like, "Please stop talking so I can get back to the conversation with the person I'm here with. Thanks!" Especially when they interrupt a good conversation to talk to us. Argh!

I wouldn't worry about the table if it was your second day on the job. If neither your managers nor your coworkers have said anything about you not being a good fit then you're fine. Even then, from my experience, they'll tell you you need to improve before outright firing you. Actually, I've never known anyone working in a restaurant to get fired for poor performance - just moved somewhere else or had their hours cut. Hopefully you don't work somewhere that will fire you for a mistake you made on day 2 without giving you a chance to improve.
posted by Autumn at 3:24 PM on December 3, 2012

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