Some years ago I was desperate for a part-time job. I ended up interviewing for a server job at a casual hospitality agency, despite having no experience in the industry.
Upon sharing that I hadn't worked as a waitress before (rookie mistake), the interviewer started to lecture me about how service is a serious profession, how people train for years to be a server, and so forth. I thought he was having a laugh.
I was so wrong (and I got stuck washing dishes for the next 4 months).
I know better now. A good waiter or waitress needs to have a decent set of skills. As a server, you have to juggle a lot of things at the same time while remaining calm. It's a stressful job, especially for beginners. For those who feel overwhelmed, I've composed a few tips to help you become a better server.
For newbies: Practise practical skills at home
I no longer believe a server's main job is carrying a bunch of plates, but for new servers this can be one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the job. Some of the other waiters are confidently carrying up to four plates to a table, while you're still trying not to spill the drinks on your tray.
Don't fret too much. It's something that you will master over time. Even the most uncoordinated, unbalanced person can learn with enough practise.
You can find how-to videos about almost any skill you want to learn online, like this one about carrying four plates at once. You can use them to practise skills at home, safely out of sight of guests.
Perhaps just don't use your expensive china...
Learn about the menu
"What's good here?"
This is just about the most unoriginal question a customer can fire at you. But it's one you definitely need to prepare for, because people like to get recommendations. Studies have shown that people rely mostly on other people's recommendations when choosing a restaurant, and this translates to the menu choice.
So it's good to be informed about your restaurant's menu. This will help you answer questions without hesitation, which will make you both more confident and professional as a server.
Here are some things that are good to know about your menu. You may need to talk to other staff to get the details for some of these:
- The specials (and how much they cost)
- How dishes are prepared
- What the ingredients are
- Different side options
- Gluten-free options
- Vegetarian/vegan options
- The restaurant's signature dish
If you really want to impress, you could also brush up on your wine knowledge. Wine Folly offers great resources about wine for beginners, like this infographic about pairing wine with food which could be really useful for recommendations.
Exercise your memory
Something that might serve you (no pun intended) in your menu learning is to work on your memory. This will also be really useful during service.
It's totally fine to write down the orders. In fact, I suggest that you do, as this reassures the guest that they will receive what they ordered. But it shows professionalism to not have to ask "who ordered the fish?" when you serve those orders out.
Training your memory can actually be quite fun too! This free Brain Trainer app for Android stimulates your memory in a game-type setting - ninjas included.
In your restaurant, some techniques that can help you remember orders include confirming the order back to the guest, visualising the plate and repeating the order back to yourself silently.
Get to know your guests
One thing that will really elevate you as a server involves getting to know your guests. This especially applies to regulars. Do you have a cafe guest who orders their large caramel cappuccino with no chocolate on top every morning? Ask them if they want their regular when they walk in tomorrow morning. It will make them feel special.
Some guests also really appreciate a simple chat with their server. So simply ask your guests about their day. If they mention something notable, follow up on it the next time they come in. 'Morning Harry, how was your weekend away at the beach?' 'Hey Susan, how did your daughter's recital go?'
Pay special attention to families with kids. Kids can be very easily entertained, and keeping the kids happy usually means the parents are happy too. And that means a bigger tip for you.
Work on your communication skills
Without a doubt, the most valuable skill a server has is the ability to talk smoothly. To some this comes naturally, while others struggle to come up with things to say. Improving your communication skills now will help you throughout your entire career and personal life, and the restaurant floor is an awesome place to practise.
One fact that should reassure you is that you won't be expected to come up with full-blown conversations as a server. You only have to do enough to make your guests like you.
How do you do that? By being positive and making them feel good about themselves. Serve with a smile. Compliment where appropriate. Make light conversation, and you will naturally end up talking about the guest's order anyway.
Another trick is to mirror other servers in your restaurant. Admire a work mate who seems to speak freely and easily to customers? Listen in on their conversations. Chances are they have a small pocket full of opening lines or questions they use with guests that you can steal, ehm... borrow.
So that's it! These are my simple tips to help you improve your skills as a server! Do you have any tricks of your own? Share them in the comments!