New Job Blues

It’s probably the same in most professions. Starting a new job is a misadventure of incompetence, mistakes, and anxiety. In a hospital, you may know how to write down the time for a patient’s appointment, but until you screwed it up, you had no idea how to log it into the computer. A mechanic can fix a blown head gasket on a VW, but now he’s working on Mustangs and he feels like a complete idiot.

Maybe restaurants are particularly difficult, though. It’s a very personality-driven industry, as in, the personality of the restaurant. Every house wants to be distinct and unique, offer something different. The fare, the service, the system, the staff demeanor, the layout, the structure of the dining experience, etc. Even merely putting a plate on the table is different everywhere. Ladies first, sure. But from the left or the right, or we don’t care? All meals at once, or one at a time, or we don’t care?

Every waiter goes through sucking when starting a new job. The most thorough and intense training program doesn’t prepare you for how things actually work. All the prickly details they tested you on in training? There are three or four times more of them that weren’t covered.

You learn from experience.

I bring this up because my mom sent me a distress email today. Seems my neice, Connie, 19, recently got a job at a fine dining French restaurant. She has been scratching out an existence in the Big Apple as an aspiring actress/dancer. She’s been making mistakes and is worried she’s going to get fired. Mom asked that I share some of my expertise with her to help save her job.

Conveniently, I also had yet to enter a post in the blog. The letter I wrote makes nice material here as well. Check it out:

Dear Connie,

Hey there! How’s NYC? Are you making it there, as Frank would say?

Anyway, I just got an email from my mom, asking me to share some advice about waiting tables. You may not care to hear anything from me, or anyone, about this, so just disregard if that’s the case.

She said you were worried you might get fired from your new job because you get flustered and make mistakes. The example she gave was your not knowing the price of the special and apologizing, saying you’d check. Actually, without a doubt, that’s the proper thing to do. Depending on the scenario, however, you might improve how you come off in that situation with a little white lie. Something like, ‘I don’t know, it wasn’t posted, but I’ll go check the computer for you right now.’ Or, ‘Actually, they just put it on the board without the price. I’ll check for you right now.’ It makes it seem like you’ve got your act together and it wasn’t your fault.

It’s always important to appear in control, but it’s just as important not to appear defensive and making excuses. It’s the real juggling act. When there’s something you don’t know or a mistake you’ve made, you should be thinking fast about what you can get away with in terms of diverting blame from yourself. (Now, this isn’t a tactic to avoid responsibility. It’s a tactic to keep the guest feeling comfortable with you. If they’re comfortable with you, they’ll have a good experience. And your management will be happy regardless of your minor miscues.)

Aside from diverting blame, there is also a time to squarely take the blame on yourself. When you do this, be very clear and simple and apologetic, and above all exude confidence that you will be making sure that this gets handled for them.

When I take the blame, I usually apologize sincerely (often repeatedly), and enter into a dialogue with them. I have several options in my head, and trot them out for them to choose the best one. ‘I’mso, so sorry. I got caught up on the computer, and I flat-out forgot to order your salads. I’m sorry. Your dinner’s coming in a few minutes. Now, if you like, I can run and get them anyway right now. Of course you won’t be charged for them. Or I can make them to-go with dressing on the side so they stay crisp and you can have them another time. No charge, of course. Or we can just forget them, and I’ll get you some complimentary dessert. Again, I’m so sorry.’

Do you get the idea that I’ve been there before? Ha-ha! This happened just a couple weeks ago exactly like this. It happened to me last night with an appetizer. They elected to take the App along with their salads instead of beforehand.

Being in control means, to a large degree, that the guest trusts you to take care of them properly. There are a lot of ways to create this mindset:

  1. Telling them what you’re going to do before you do it. This is probably the biggest secret I’ve discovered. First, it removes doubt in their minds about what’s going on, what to expect. Second, it shows that you have your shit together. Third, it takes their attention off the service experience because now they know exactly what’s going to happen. They’ll just happily go back to their own conversation and not worry about you for awhile. Example: ‘Okay, thanks. I’ll go order your drinks. When I come back I’ll tell you about a couple of specials.’ Or, ‘I have to take a drink order from these folks over here (gesture to new table). It’ll just take me a couple minutes. When I get back, we’ll talk about dessert.’
  2. Making visits to the table, even when you say nothing (often preferable) it’s reassuring.
  3. Keeping them updated – if things are taking a long time in the kitchen, tell them you just checked and it’ll be just a bit longer. 
  4. Giving them things/service is also reassuring. I mean like filling their water, bringing new silverware, pouring more wine, crumbing the table, just chatting for a moment or two, clearing used plates and glassware, etc.
  5. Appearing confident, but also being confident enough to admit when you don’t know something.
  6. Sometimes when they ask a question for which you don’t know the answer, you can still win by telling them what you do know. ‘I’ve never had that exact wine, but I have had that type. It drank like a smooth version of a Cabernet.’ (See, that’s kind of bullshit, but they can’t pin you down because maybe the one you had was like that. Also, it’s not believable that a waiter has had every wine on the list, especially when it’s expensive and when the waiter is young.) You can apply this to food questions too. Admit you haven’t been able to try everything, but that ‘I’ve served a couple of those and the aroma was amazing – beautiful presentation, too. Also, the people who ordered it said it was outstanding.’

So that’s kind of the PR aspect of it. Really being in control involves knowing your material, understanding the systems of the restaurant, and being able to predict what’s going to be happening.

This is a tall order, but don’t get discouraged because every new restaurant job is like this. You truly do learn on the job, and it’s unrealistic for your bosses to expect otherwise. What they like to see, however, is that you are not making the same mistakes twice. If you don’t immediately learn from your mistakes, you will be a goner sooner or later.

It really shouldn’t be that hard. Remember driving a car and not bothering to check over your shoulder before changing lanes and nearly causing a pile-up? You made a note to yourself, and it soon became automatic. Likewise, a guest gets cranky because his well-done Filet Mignon is taking too long – next time someone orders one, you point out, right then, that it’s a thick cut and well-done will take some extra time. Or, in same scenario, it’s better if possible to fire that dinner earlier than normal so it actually comes out ‘on time.’

One more thing I always tell trainees: Stop. Before you leave anywhere (your station, a table, the kitchen, the side station, etc.), take five extra seconds to review what you are going to accomplish once you leave. Even lay out the order of your future tasks in your head before you go: ‘Take these drinks to table 10; grab dessert menus on the way; drop off drinks, tell them I’ll be right back to tell them about the specials; give dessert menus to table 12, take coffee order; tell specials to 10.’

I really do that all the time. It’s a huge component to presenting a confident aura to the guest, because you know exactly what you’re going to do and you are therefore very calm. Even if suddenly in the middle of it you remember something else to do, you’re still 95% in control and you won’t be swayed. In the above example, once on the floor you might remember you forgot to get more bread for table 11. You simply swing by there and say, ‘Your bread needed another minute in the oven. I’ll have it next time I come by.’ Done.

Finally, since the boss is part of the problem, you should use your charm and have a talk with him/her. Tell him you’re aware you’ve been a little shaky lately and apologize. Emphasize that the job is new to you, so there’s a lot that’s not automatic yet. Tell him what an awesome restaurant it is, so you’re more nervous than normal to do a perfect job. Emphasize that you are learning fast with each shift. Tell him you would appreciate any pointers he can give you to make your assimilation go more smoothly. Finally, thank him for the opportunity here and what an honor it is to work at such a fine restaurant.

Note that the above paragraph is trying to gain his cooperation in working with you, helping you. If you can convince him that you’re a go-getter who just needs a little of his incredible expertise, he’ll take you under his wing. Place yourself on his side – you’re totally interested in doing things the right way, his way.

And as I said, use your charms in doing so.

I hope some of this helps. If there’s something else you need advice with more specific to your situation, let me know.

Good luck. I’m sure you’ll be able to get the thing on track.



One thought on “New Job Blues

  1. foodserviceninja Mon, March 23, 2009 / 9:35 pm

    nice letter

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