Cover Counts

Counting covers is the practice of trying to give each server an equal number of guests per shift, thus ensuring in the long run that waiters have opportunity to make the same amount of money. Simply alternating tables doesn’t work because a table of six is not the equal of a table for two. Tables would be even at 1 to 1, but one server gets six customers to two for the other.

Because waiters are a naturally greedy and jealous lot, the system of counting covers is imperative to allay paranoia about management favoritism towards select waiters. Counts might vary a few guests either way, but because of the effort, these variances even out over time.

Many restaurants don’t use cover counts. They are bald-faced about their system of favoritism. Usually it has to do with seniority, and often who is sleeping (semi-secretly) with the manager. And that’s fine, too, I guess. If you know going in what to expect, you can decide if it’s okay with you, making below average money for a year or more, so you can eventually make above average money on the back end. People who complain about restaurants like this kind of bug me. Anywhere you work, the system being employed should be obvious to you after just a few months – if you didn’t know it already from Day One. Waiters have the option of being transient. If you don’t like it (and it’s working for the restaurant, as evidenced by its many years of operation), you should leave.

Michael’s, my day job, employs cover counts. Carney’s doesn’t, and it doesn’t matter because we pool tips there.

I’ve had an ongoing beef with the particular cover count system used by Mickey, the day manager at Michael’s for the last two years. It’s a small tweak she uses regarding the shift closer. My experience in every restaurant has been that the closer stays later, has more responsibility, and often has more work (checking other servers’ sidework, closing sidework, etc.). The reward for this is that he/she gets extra tables (and therefore, more money) after the rest of the floor has been cut. The other waiters almost never have a problem with this, as they recognize the extra work and later hours involved with closing, and because 95% of waiters always want to get off early. Meanwhile, the closers like it because they are the other 5% and enjoy making the extra cash, and don’t mind working for it while the other jackasses are out spending their earnings on cocktails.

Well, Mickey’s tweak – she believes, an improvement – is to manage the covers to take into account the late parties the closer will get. For example, she’ll cut the floor with Waiter X at 15 covers, Waiter Y at 14, and Waiter Z (the closer) at 9, because she knows there is a four-top coming in later, and she expects another possible table or two to walk in.

The first problem is obviously that this eliminates the ‘Closer Bonus.’ The second problem is that nothing is guaranteed. Reservations don’t show up; in fact, late reservations are more likely to no-show than any other. Expected walk-ins are just a roll of the dice. You could get five tables and run your ass off, or you could be chasing tumbleweeds for two hours.

I only close one day a week at Michael’s, so percentage-wise her system might serve me better because of my more numerous non-closing shifts. But I just don’t think it’s right. I’ve talked to all the other waiters about this, and they agree too: This is not the way it is done anywhere.

I (and at least two other waiters, separately) have addressed Mickey about this issue specifically. She won’t change. So we have had to accept it.

But it still doesn’t keep us closers from getting mad watching the other waiters get loaded up in a 4-to-1 ratio vs. the closer.

It happened today. Three on the floor (incidentally, as the closer, I nevertheless opened the restaurant as well). I got an early 3-top and that was it. The other two got numerous tables, finally totaling 8 and 9 covers each by the time it was 1:20. A slow day, obviously, with only one six-top reservation left on the books. I figured at this point everyone was pretty much cut, and I would get the six-top, and any walk-ins.

Sure enough, a quality walk-in comes in, Mr. Corelli. I had him last week. He’s a regular, good for a 30% tip. Another waiter normally gets him, by his request, but last time I did such a good job he said he wanted to sit with me whenever she was not working.

Because of the cover count and floor-cutting situation right then, and because his usual waiter was off, I immediately went to his table as he sat down. We said hello and chatted, I got the cocktail order, I referred to a dish he ordered last time that wasn’t made quite right (for him), and how we’d get it perfect this time. He was glad to see me and things were rolling.

I ring the cocktails, deliver them. These guys like to start slow and finish abruptly, so I leave them alone to talk and drink. Back in the side station I’m just dicking around, pretty much killing time. After a few minutes, Mickey comes back with a chit (for each party seated, a chit with a name and other instructions/info is printed and given to the server). She says, ‘I’m going to give this table to Chrissy, because you have the six-top reservation coming in later.’

I say no problem. I assumed another table had walked-in while I was back there. This would ultimately put me with at least 13 covers and Chrissy with 10 or 12, depending on the size of the ‘new’ walk-in. Fine.

After another few minutes I return to the table. Chrissy is chatting up Mr. Corelli, which isn’t unusual because he’s a regular, a nice guy, and a great tipper. As I get closer it becomes obvious that this is the table Mickey was giving her. It was awkward at the table because Mr. Corelli looked at me like, ‘What’s going on?‘ In fact, he even said that out loud. ‘We thought we were getting you.’

‘Yeah, well, Mickey has a way she runs things,’ I said, knowing better than to bring internal stuff to bear on the guests. I just told him this is the way it was, and Chrissy will definitely take good care of them.

But I was freakin’ flaming. Nevertheless, I immediately transferred the table (in the computer) to Chrissy. You need to obey orders or the whole system breaks down.

So now I was back to 3 covers. Back to zero customers currently in the restaurant. It’s 1:40 and the other waiters are doing their sidework. I complained to Chrissy herself, not because I wanted action or blamed her – just that she’s a friend and we all disagree with Mickey’s management of cover counts. She said she understood. She even said I could have the table if I wanted. I said no because I’m not a strong-arm guy. I didn’t want to steal the table; I was just upset because it should have been my table.

Mickey came back to the side station a few minutes later. I was fit to be tied.

‘I just can’t understand how you can do that to me,’ I said.

‘But you’re getting the six-top. They’re in the bar.’

‘Right, but now Chrissy is up to 12 covers and the six-top only puts me at nine. I’ve had three covers.’ If you can’t tell, I was super upset. ‘And the worst thing about it is you know Mr. Corelli is an $80 tip. And you gave it to her and she was already ahead of me on covers . . .’

Unfortunately, Mickey became upset and frustrated. She offered that if it was okay with Chrissy I could still have the table. As I said, I didn’t want that. So, having said my piece, I went back out to stand sentry over a (nearly) deserted floor.

Mr. Corelli looked over his shoulder, spotted me, and waved me over. ‘I hope you won the coin toss,’ he said.

‘Well, I wish I had too, but I didn’t.’

‘But we wanted you. You were already working with us. She hasn’t done anything,’ he said. ‘Isn’t there something you can do?’

‘The only way anything would happen is if you talked to Mickey, because it’s what you want that matters,’ I said, coming pretty close to, if not actually, crossing the line. But then, he did ask. And I certainly wouldn’t want him to think I didn’t care, which would be insulting to him. I continued, ‘But you if you do, you have to let her know I had nothing to do with it. You called me over here.’

At that moment, Mickey swung by the table, asked how it was going?

Mr. Corelli: ‘Oh, it’s fine. You know I called Waiter over here to find out why you were switching Chrissy on to us. She’s a great girl and everything, but Waiter has got us going. He’s been doing everything for us.’

Mickey quickly capitulated, putting me back on the table, making it seem like that was the reason she was coming over anyway. It’s possible that was true.

After that, Chrissy transferred the table back to me in the computer; Mickey pretty much didn’t talk to me the rest of the day; and Chrissy left without saying much. I went on to get the six-top and wait on the two tables.

The issue got a little more sticky when the six-top ordered a bottle of Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet – $350. They proceeded to order appetizers, salads, and dinner entrees, and multiple bottles of water. Their check was $930 and I got a $200 tip.

Mr. Corelli had a big day even for him. Despite bringing his own wine (VIP’s don’t pay corkage), his party of four rang up a $450 bill. He tipped me $150.

So I felt even worse for all the ‘greedy’ drama. I wasn’t able to psychologically fall back on the fact that Mr. Corelli was the only saving grace of my day. Still, intellectually I have to realize that the good fortune of that six-top was just that. It would have been more likely that a random group of six people at lunch would run up only a $250 bill and I might get a $40 tip off it.

The real problem I felt I had to address was the screwed up logic employed in giving Mr. Corelli to someone else, at that exact time, place, and situation. It wasn’t consistent with even Mickey’s flawed concept of fairness; and it became more egregious – less acceptable to just let it go – when the table in question was a well-known big tipper.

I suspect I’m going to have to chat about this with Mickey when I return to work on Friday. My instinct is to apologize, but thinking it through, I can’t really do that. Although I am sorry a conflict and some hurt feelings resulted, the situation wasn’t my fault. I was initially victim to misapplied rules. I got upset and emotional, and merely voiced my frustration to the manager. What happened after that was kind of an uncontrollable snowball effect.

Final wrap-up: I walked with $350 for the day (I got a couple of piddly tables much later – score a half-a-point for Mickey, I guess – for an additional $30 tips. Whereas I broke out of my three-month stretch of $60 shifts a couple weeks ago, this marked breaking the $200+ drought that had been going on since December. And what a way to break it.

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3 thoughts on “Cover Counts

  1. SkippyMom Mon, May 25, 2009 / 10:28 am

    First, congrats on the tips! You’re buying 😉

    Mickey has it wrong, that is obvious, but I don’t think you should feel bad about saying your piece regarding Mr. Corelli. The guest WANTED you, REQUESTED you and was peeved even before Mickey approached, enough so that he was explaining it to you. I don’t think that you wanted Mr. C so much for the tip, but to give a VIP the experience he expects [for what it is worth that is the type of professional you strike me as]. Who knew the six top would order a $350 of wine AND tip on it [sweet!] – you have nothing to worry about IMO – Mickey’s stupid system backfired on her and she knows it. And Chrissy offered to give the table back.

    Additionally – Mickey was scamming you numbers-wise because you were well below Chrissy’s covers when she handed Mr. C to Chrissy.

    Enjoy the tips – you deserve them. 🙂

  2. FoodServiceNinja Mon, May 25, 2009 / 10:34 pm

    I back your play on the deal entirely. I think you need to get Mickey to discus WHY she does this system in her way. NOT what she says but WHY she does it. It reminds me of the situation where your gal is fighting with you over X but what she is mad about is Y.

    I would also focus on how the closer is rewarded by the extra tables. She seems to trying to be fair. Explain it this way its NOT fair to the guest for server A, B, and C to have excess covers than the server CLOSER because it means the closer can give better service than the other servers because of the reduced load. I understand its relative because of the caliber of the staff. Personally I think this is why a restaurant should manage cover count to spread out evenly the workload to keep service levels consistent. It just so happens it plays into the greedy, competitive nature of servers. It also forces the usually inept hostess to pay attention to seating rotation.

    As to the regular-he wanted you, he had already declared he was your regular on a previous visit. Based on previous postings that sort of info should be kept and then followed up on on a return visit so to give the table away unless you were the server to be leave early meant Mickey was basically being rude to the guest. All you did was give him the info he needed to get what he wanted.

    And explain to Mickey then if her system is fair then its only fair that when the closer never gets the covers to equal the other server she owes out of her pocket the diff between what the closer earns per cover and what the other servers on the shift earned per cover. Trust me she wont want to make up the difference.

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