Friday, February 29, 2008

The Anchor

Today was Friday, and I sold less than $300 in product over lunch. A bleak anti-climax & a heinous waste of five cups of coffee. Why did it happen? Snow. The curse of the server, scourge of the restaurant world; bad weather makes people stay inside. If your restaurant does delivery, I don’t need to tell you that a good rain storm or even the slightest hint of snowfall can whip any kitchen into a total flurry of crossfire & activity, but the dining room will always suffer for anything but a mid-temperature overcast summer day.

When lunch sales are off, it’s a good idea to offer the close. Whoever’s closing tonight usually has to do it every night, and it’s never a far leap from a bad lunch to volunteering second or third cut. Restaurant workers will always read far too much into a lunch, but the bottom line is that even under the harshest conditions, most restaurants will pull off fifteen hundred dollars total for the day & everyone involved. That money has to go to somebody; if you let it be known that you’re willing to put the time in, they’ll let you. Provided that your supervisor isn’t overly anal and your closer is disenchanted at the idea of a long, lonely night, odds are you can get that person to cut their losses and make up for some lost time.

The thing about closing is this: the only thing you have to gamble is your time. It doesn’t cost you anything tangible to be there. You are accumulating money just by leaning against a counter in wait station, so if your lunch sales were sub-par, don’t just throw your hands up and leave! Servers are notorious for bailing immediately after their first whiff of a slow night, so capitalize! Don’t fear the close. The close is long, the close is hard, and it will always mean enduring endless jabbering around eight or eight thirty, which makes it extremely unattractive. My experience is that everyone gets along fine until it’s time for somebody to leave. As the closer, you don’t need to haggle for cut rights, but it’s your job to assign duties. This is good for two reasons:

The people who made the most money get to do the most work, and the right people are rarely in the position to make this happen. Also, you can establish yourself as a fair & firm server now, and they’re far less likely to try getting something over on you another night, specifically those when the situation is reversed. No soap opera or youthful, spirited whining match could ever match the heavy political fahrenheit inherent in any restaurant, most especially those with an exclusively male or female serving staff. I’ve seen GMs throw their hands in the air and tell an entire squabbling mob of servers to ‘just work it out amongst yourselves’ before fading into darkness to the echoing sounds of evil laughter, pale blue eyes gleaming from our walk-in and lasciviously rubbing hand over hand while the mob degenerated into an all-out frenzy.

Stand tall above this crowd on slow nights. Let the animals sort themselves out and plug along with your tables, because while they’re all struggling for supremacy you’re mopping up what little sales there are. If only two hundred dollars moves through the store after eight o’clock, that’s a bad night indeed & completely not worth sitting on two servers for. But if you’re the only one on the floor, it’s the difference between sixty dollars and eighty. As a human being, it’s not worth three hours. But as a server, banking their tips and living (scarcely) off of paychecks, if you put it in your head to follow this script for snowy days, you might find yourself off to Tahiti a little sooner than you thought.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Allying the Kitchen


You - the Customer

Never forget that your kitchen doesn't like you. They might smile to your face, you might laugh and grabass with them in the walk-in, but when bills print up with your name at the top you'd better believe they'd rather see you eat that paper than make the order written on it. In this moment you aren't their friend: you are The Enemy. A Work Creator, just like the rest of them. A layer of management, you might say, but only insomuch as once you have decreed an order he knows he must make it, or have a damn good reason why he can't. You perpetuate their misery. If between your ordering and their cooking a mistake is made, especially by them (but especially by you) their teeth grind and nostrils flare. They are just as temperamental and whiny as we are; the only difference is that we depend on them. Don't turn your nose up and avoid handling this particular problem when it arises (and it will), because that might help your self esteem, but it doesn't help your customers or your wallet, and that is very much why we're here, friends.

Lets talk strategy:

Stay Out!

Any Chef I've ever met will breathe fire on whatever number of lowly servers for no reason at all. If he is busy & you are there, well... Smart people don't need to be told it's raining. Just back off and wait. I don't like breathing down a guy's back. Trying to get an order out of busy cooks can be worse than pulling teeth (dentists have drugs, and there's less blood). If the customer has to wait and it's not your fault, the manager will likely wind up having to make it up to them - in which case your tip might improve anyway, if you've laid good groundwork convincing them you are competent and have their best interests in mind. I find my tips suffer on the odd customer with a slow or accident prone kitchen, but if when the nasty hits the fan with Chit Chasers you never seem to be around, bully for you. Remind them subtly in everyday conversation that you never ask where food is. If you're missing a dish, that's the expo/management team's responsibility. Tell them. Don't tell the guy making the food, because he's busy and just doesn't want to hear it. It is not your job to haggle & argue with the rest of the staff, and if you can avoid it, do it. Like I said: the odd customer suffers, but your section on a night-to-night basis might get their food faster. It is up to you to read your line cooks and decide whether this could benefit you or not.

Excuse, Excuse, Excuse!

Make things up to tell the customers and kitchen. They say you shouldn't ever blame the kitchen for a mistake, and this is true. But the funny thing about theory is that it often doesn't actually apply to real life - take Communism, for example. In a perfect world, we could all share an do better for it. In the real world, when you're explaining to the odd-man-out why he and his daughter can't eat while the other six people at their table already are, it's gotta be somebody's fault, and Buddy, that's not me. I jump on bullets like that for no man, and you shouldn't either. Managers who get all over servers they catch using this excuse usually come from the kitchen themselves, and are out blood over the principal of the matter. Nobody likes hearing that the wait staff continually blames the kitchen & therefore instills in the public's memory that your restaurant's kitchen can't handle the press, which is why it's good to toss it up. Another great standby is the computer system. I'll usually tell people that the system had been shut down and restarted, because no bills were making it to the kitchen, and something must have happened with their order. Assure them that they're your first priority, and you will not rest until their food is on the table. Reaffirm that it's not your fault & you are resolutely on their side. Nobody's happy with this response (again, because nobody's ass is on the line, and it's discomforting for people not to have an identifiable entity to hate), but it works, and there's nothing you can say. No way to prove it one way or another, and most people aren't wily enough to ask a manager about it. Your bill must've been lost in the shuffle, sorry we're out of that please re-order, etc. etc... Only a stupid and dangerous waiter will play the kitchen off the customers and vice versa, or tell his table one thing and the manager another, but I'm just a little of both, and if you're slick enough, the benefits can be substantial.

Flagrant Bribery

Any kitchen worker will accept a favor from you with obvious, barefaced greed. They may smile and chuckle, they might shake their head and walk away, but they'll remember you as That One; the server who took the time to help. It doesn't guarantee you an in, but it makes your life easier. They don't care why you're doing it, they just want whatever you're willing to give. Cut lemons for them, jump in dish, whatever - any simple thing you can do to make their lives easier will give you preference. Servers who treat the kitchen like trash might find that their orders come up late & wrong a little more often than those servers that don't, and the funniest part is they never put it together in their head. It's the same way with you and your customers! When someone is crass with me right off the bat, I immediately deprioritize them. That's just how the human brain works. You likely find those tables' orders come out a little iffy more often than not. That's because they either jolted you into being too worried about making sure they wouldn't be an issue (to the point where you got the order wrong), or your dignity took over and certain parts of your brain just powered down at that first snooty comment. It's the same way with your kitchen. I've always said there is no better insurance policy against dirty cutlery than good repore with this month's dish guy. Kitchen people will never flat out tell you they don't like you & your food is wrong as a direct result of that, because that sort of admission can get a guy fired. Please believe me, friend, those dogs have their day with us a lot more than most, and they are laughing about you when you're not around.

Always under promise and over deliver. Treat them like you'd treat your customers, but don't let them capitalize and take advantage, because they will. The only difference between your line cooks and your customers is you have to see the cooks again tomorrow, and they are secure enough on their end of the spectrum to enjoy ultimate comfort at your most incredible strain, if you let them. With a little polish and a big toothy smile, it takes roughly two weeks for those ten or twenty people to go from your worst enemies to Your People. Make the effort & notice the difference.

And say Thank You to the dish guy, for God's Sake.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Big Groups, Pt. 2

Find out the group's backstory if you can. A family gathering is more likely to show up four at a time, while business meetings will be far more punctual and accurate - especially if you're serving these people over lunch, in which case you can also likely assume that, whatever time they arrive at, an hour later they will be begging for a bill. Get your bills together as soon as possible. Everyone wants to leave at their own pace, and the expectation for your catering to each individual person's schedule is absolute. If your restaurant has a policy for automatic gratuity, it will be up to you whether or not to apply it. I usually don't. I inform the table that this option was available to me & I declined, because I don't like making assumptions about people's money, and: “Quite frankly, I feel like I did a better job than that.” Most people will appreciate the freedom to tip as they please and property owning white middle-aged males (the majority of the customers I've ever served) respect a little umph and confidence in a server - especially if they were prepared and did a good job, which, if you've followed these steps, I imagine you will have.

Be loud, firm and assertive. Dominate the table. Make it clear that this is your section and they are guests in it (without actually saying so). Set rules and boundaries immediately. If you're doing separate cheques today, I will ask that everyone stay in the seats they've chosen, otherwise I cannot guarantee speedy service. Please be as patient with me as I intend to be with you, and as this is a big group I will ask that you present any coupons or discounts you intend to request now.

This is when you get to save yourself heaps of hassle by explaining coupon deals, etc etc... If there are any shysters in the audience, this technique will quell their penny pinching about expiration dates and whatnot. The “One coupon per party, yes, but my wife and I are a party apart from everyone else” lamewad argument sounds much less convincing in front of thirty co-workers. (Note: if they try and railroad you with this later, say you’re very busy and there was a time for that earlier. Dominate them, then quickly defer them to a manager. It’s worth pissing off this or that idiot for the betterment of the group.)

While you have everyone's attention & are dominating your section, do the schpiel about the specials. Any manager likes a server that can move the product they want moved, and if you have your bit down & can make these items sound delicious, you've likely to at least get four or five through (assuming they don't all go immediately for the cheapest entree on the menu, which isn't at all uncommon, especially if it's on one bill).

You have absolutely no hope of turning a thirty person table over quickly after lunch - dig your heels in and get ready for weather, because those people will absolutely monopolize your time and section for two or three hours if it's a later dinner. Pump them full of liquor. Never serve to intoxication, but you might as well get the most out of it. Bigger bills mean bigger tips, period, and if they're going to be there anyway... Also, it is an old serving standby that the more alcohol a person has had, the better they'll tip you.

Go fourth and Dominate.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Big Groups, Pt. 1

In lieu of a motto, I present instead an equation you may use as a sort of North Star when tackling whales:

Big Groups = Section Dominance

Generally speaking, a reservation of twenty or more can be a death sentence on a busy day. Hopefully you will have these people in a compartment of the restaurant that is separate or adjacent to the actual arena, in which case you at least have some idea of how many tables you will be stuck with when the rush hits its peak. On frantic nights, I have seen adrenaline-sick GMs start to panic and suddenly delegate incoming customers into whatever’s left of (or nearest to) that party server’s section. Once capacity rears its ugly head, you might find yourself with three deuces more than you expected. It only takes one moment of panic and exasperation to make your own personal strain irrelevant & acceptable to any manager. Scope out which tables are closest to your reservation before hand. It might not be a bad idea to try making sure these tables are sat and spoken for early, before things get crazy and it just makes sense to complicate your life inexorably. Monopolizing them as water/present tables can also solidify your section dominance. Unless, of course, you want the fire, in which case my hat is off.

Have ice water poured and set in glasses for these people ten or fifteen minutes before they are scheduled to arrive, with pitchers to boot. Drinks are difficult enough to coordinate in smaller groups, and when you start multiplying that hassle, even a good server can, unprepared, find his or herself smoked within minutes.

First and foremost: Are the bills separate, or together?

It's a good idea to ask this as soon as they sit down and get the groupings together in your head - when you write down the orders in your notebook, be insistent that you receive orders within those subsections. It’s okay to leave one or two to decide, but make sure you have a clear space marked in your notepad - put a star beside it if you have to. This is crunch time, and while I find myself more willing to fly by the seat of my pants than most, a big group can be an ugly thing if you don't know which direction you're heading. There is literally nothing worse (in the world) than realizing after your large order has gone through your system and back to the kitchen that you made a last minute addendum on the back of a sheet of paper outlining one straggler's order that you were convinced you'd remember. Asking a chef in heated atmosphere to bump this one entree ahead of several others and coordinate it with twenty other dishes already cooking is Herculean at best, and that's even without the desired outcome.

If the bills are separate, you're not looking at a best case scenario, but then, when are you? Chug through the orders and do the best you can. NUMBER YOUR SEATS. Most good restaurants will train you to do this anyway. Pick a table end and number the seatings clockwise from the first customer to your left, from whichever side you’ve decided to stand from. Seat one, seat two, seat three... It is common practice to find a long piece of paper (bill printing paper is ideal) and write these numbers out ahead of time. People who want you to skip their order and give more time are easier to remember after you've made your round, because you will find big white gaps between your seat numbers. Dominate these people immediately, and point out their indecision by calling out the orders back to the table once you’ve reached the end, and point out any vacancies at this point.

Remove the need for cognitive behavior; don't think, and don't put yourself in a position to have to think. Everything should be clear as day, enough so that those helping you run food won't need your assistance in sussing out which order goes where. When they get to the table they're likely to just auction the food, calling out orders and setting them down wherever hands go up, but at least you have your company together enough that screwups aren't likely.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Back To Basics: Who are you serving?

This is something that applies to both your overall philosophy and each individual person. You must identify which beast in particular you are catering to before you can attempt to satisfy them. Some people want to really and truly be 'waited' on, while others don't want a goddamn thing to do with you. If your customer isn't looking at you, or even speaking directly to you (which you absolutely will encounter), you cannot take this as a personal slam. Some people are ignorant, others are easily intimidated, and others still have simply been taught this is the appropriate way to order a meal. It has nothing to do with your moral standards of decency and expectations from the public in general; you are trying to fleece this bastard - it doesn't matter if he wants to hurt your feelings. Get out of that holier-than-thou mindset and focus on the goal. He is telling you point blank exactly what he expects from you. Listen! Don't take it to heart or get upset or whine to your friends in the wait station. Use his language and gestures as ammunition to get what you need out of him. Were he a better person, his kindness and well-to-do attitude would get you about as much as his actual attitude is now, provided the tip doesn't change. You cannot save for a house on eye contact alone.

The overall point here is that it doesn't matter whether they offend your delicate sensibilities. Thick skin and distance is required in these situations. If they are a cruel or malevolent person, don't take offence. There's no cure for it & hating people you don't know for reasons you don't fully understand will never contribute to your CD collection – you’re only punishing yourself, because you know he doesn’t care. You're better off just to accept them for who & what they are. Move forward and Impress. The only direction for servers is forward - anything else can get you killed. Nobody you know can grasp what your day to day life is like. You cannot expect them to. It is detrimental to your health & overall worldview to focus on the shortsightedness of your average Joe. Being a server gives you a potentially depressing insight into the ongoings of the average human being in your area. You cannot focus on what you perceive to be that person's individual shortcomings - instead, liken them to other people you've served. Ask not how gravely this person is upsetting you. Ask instead why, and how (based on previous experience with that sort of person) you can use that information to swindle them into thinking you're their kind of server.

Some people will expect extreme professionalism out of you, and be aghast at anything but. Others still will expect professionalism but secretly hope for a jester in disguise. It is acceptable to allow them to take point on this score. The foundation for making better tips (assuming you are already in the position to accrue said tips) is being able to read your table. A skillful server knows right away what somebody wants from them; their mode of dress, facial expression, the sort of company they’re keeping, etc…

This information is essential to your endeavors and I do not plan on rehashing it much. Learn your lesson today and look to tomorrow for new wisdom. It is on this very auspicious day that I begin my blog, and we might as well do it right. Thank yourself for finding this blog and bookmarking it with haste – there’s much more to come, and all of it is useful and quirky.

Thank you for abiding my introduction.