What Makes A Real Pro

I mentioned before how WordPress.com offers various statistical data on your blog. One of the features is a listing of the most popular search terms readers use to reach the blog. Previously this led to an interesting question about how to handle the hurried diner.

Well, another search has piqued my interest.

‘What is the one specific detail that signifies a real pro waiter?’

Naturally, I figure, why answer a question in ten words when it could be answered in 1000?
Or 3000?

The Details That Signify A Real Pro Waiter:

I’ll start with honorable mention.

  1. Anticipatory Service.
    1. Waiter shows up with something before the guest can ask for it: drink refills/reorders, a new napkin, having the check in hand as the guest is asking for it, etc.
    2. This is nice, ’cause it makes the waiter look like she’s on top of things. It can humble the guest if he’s inclined to be critical of the speed of service. But at the same time, it can be little more than a parlor trick, akin a bartender tossing bottles and such – lots of flash, little substance.
  2. Mad Product Knowledge.
    1. Your waiter unleashes a torrent of descriptors of the daily specials, down to preparation details and the components of the homemade sauces. She is similarly fluent on any menu item you’d care to ask about. She knows the ingredients in every cocktail. She can name 20 different single malt scotches, including their specific producing region.
    2. There’s a good chance this person took 7 years to get her college degree – or else she’s still ‘working’ on it, just taking a couple years off to find out where her head is at. She is taking so long not because she’s unintelligent. Rather, she’s very smart, and she’s applied those wiles to her job. She just likes waiting tables better than the idea of getting a ‘Real Job,’ working 9 to 5 (or more realistically 9 to 7), and taking the effective cut in hourly pay.
    3. Again, this can effectively be a bit of a parlor trick, albeit a useful one for the guest. But it comes to bear mainly on the selection part of the dining experience. What do you order? After that question is answered, there’s so much that product knowledge does not affect.
  3. Mad Wine Knowledge.
    1. See above. But it’s even less important than general product knowledge. I’m convinced that the large majority of wine drinkers don’t want to hear: what they’re tasting/smelling, where their wine was made, what it was made from, how it was fermented and bottled, nor what the winemaker did to make his millions before he got into the wine business.
    2. What wine drinkers want most is to hear why the wine they’ve chosen is good. And almost any waiter can be coached to say: ‘That’s our biggest seller,’ or ‘It’s very smooth, isn’t it?’ or ‘Yeah, not many people are smart enough to pick that off our list.’
  4. Great Personality.
    1. Sure, as a guest you’re dining with you dinner companions. But you’re also dining with your waiter. If he has a fun personality, it adds to the experience. Who wants a grim sourpuss who mumbles, doesn’t make eye contact, won’t laugh at your stupid jokes? That kind of waiter demeanor becomes a negative focal point of the meal. Instead of enjoying yourself, you’re thinking about your various objections to the waiter.
    2. On the other hand, when the waiter can ‘join’ the group in a fun but not-overbearing way, he adds to the enjoyment. The waiter can provide needed punctuation to the social context. He can tactfully (and thankfully!) interrupt someone going on too long. He can save a boring, punchline-less story with a good aside that gets the teller out from under it. He can amplify what is already a good story.
    3. Alas, a lot of waiters rely on their good personality to the exclusion of developing the necessary chops to master the other aspects of the job. Like a beautiful girl who never cultivates a viable career skill because she’s always lived rich and famous lifestyles being treated to vacations, expensive cars, and carte blanche shopping sprees by her well-heeled boyfriends, these waiters are giving million-dollar smiles when paying attention to their ten-dollar Timex is what’s needed.

[… drum roll here …]

And now, the top attribute of a real pro waiter . . .

  1. Control.
    1. Okay, there are a lot of bad connotations to that word, control. But this is the common and dominant trait of all great waiters. Go ahead and conjure again the memories of waiters with the previous four traits, the great experiences you’ve had dining with each one . . . Well, when I was a basketball player and someone made a lucky shot, we always used to congratulate him with the line, ‘Hey, even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.’
    2. So let’s break off the Top Five list and discuss why Control is the signature trait of the great waiter.

Control, control, wherefore art thou?

Control is most obviously (obvious for waiters, if you’re one and you’re reading) exhibited by ‘having control of your table.’ It’s been the main directive of every employee manual and greenhorn training lecture since the year BC 0001, when the staff was briefed and pumped up before that epic party of thirteen (though Judas left before his entrée was delivered – he said he had to go meet a man about some silver – then gave Jesus the Hollywood kiss, ‘. . . wish I could stay longer . . .’).*

*Supposedly, when the check came, the rest of the guys tossed in one silver denarius each. It was heard amongst more than one, ‘Hey, it better be enough. This is three days pay for me. Unfortunately for the waiter, who was working in the one of the best restaurants in town, that really wasn’t enough for an average meal – never mind the volume of quality wine these guys were accustomed to drinking. When all the denari were collected, and the other guys left (remember Judas didn’t pay for his appetizer, nor his Sour Apple martini), Paul was left to settle, and, yes, it was short. He made up the difference himself and tossed in a couple denari for the waiter, who had of course suffered through one of the most tense and ulcerous quarterly sales meetings in history (then or now). After all, Paul reasoned, even if things with the firm were horrible, it wasn’t the waiter’s fault, and he did a good job.)

That guy did a good job, apparently, because things seemed okay when the guests left. And I guess I’m wrong for digressing into his situation because that was a strange and exceptional night in what was probably an average good restaurant.

In a normal restaurant, where the fate of life, love, war, and religion for the next 2000 years is not hinging on prompt pouring of the wine, control matters a lot less. Not that any of us is happy that server Sextus was good at his job when Judas told him, ‘I’m gonna kiss the main man. Pour him first. He’s my boy!’

But back to modern times, it matters a great deal when the guest can see he/she’s in good hands. The waiter is the Captain of the ship, the Pilot of the aircraft. Even when all hell is breaking loose, the waiter’s calm makes the difference between mutiny and a smooth experience.

There are so many ways the waiter can maintain control. There is a jackass, loose-cannon guest in a party of four, and the waiter accepts his broadsides, doesn’t back down from them, and in fact triumphs over them with stainless steel witticisms – this makes the entire party, including the jackass, feel comfortable and accept they are going to have a great meal. It really is coasting from there.

The kitchen breaks down and there is going to be a long wait for . . . whatever. The pro waiter hits his tables with frank information, with near- and long-term solutions. ‘Things got backed up. I put your order in right away, but it’s going to be a longer wait than normal. Work with us here, we’ll get you some complimentary desserts or drinks.’

The pro waiter acknowledges readily what has gone wrong (but only if the guest knows already – no need to draw attention if no one is bothered). When she arrives for the first greeting five minutes late and the guests seem to have been waiting for her, she says, ‘Sorry to keep you waiting. I’m ready to get your drinks ASAP.’*

*I’m also sorry that this is such a monumental problem for corporate restaurants. Anybody who’s worked corporate knows there’s a 60-90-120 second minimum rule (depending on the patience of individual corporate Mount Sinai Tablet Engravers) for greeting new tables. I think it’s bullshit. Yes, I do understand what is perfect (the rule), but there are exceptions every single shift where that rule cannot be met. When the server is making cappuccinos (or whatever takes a long time) in back and a new table is seated, let’s say the server is even just finishing those cappy’s and then delivers them. Is it even possible to be there to greet the new table in less than 120 seconds? Or what if a waiter is entering the full order for a 6-top in the computer? Come on! It’s not realistic all the time. Instead, restaurant trainers should emphasize . . .
yes, Control. Get communication with your tables and it won’t matter so much that they waited 3.5 minutes to be greeted.

Sometimes I think corporate restaurant honchos are like the boss in the Dilbert comic strip. ‘What’s the shortest possible time before a guest will start to wonder where the server is? Sixty seconds? Then let’s err on the side of caution:
The Rule Is 30 Seconds!’

Are they aware that pouring yourself a cup of coffee at home, including getting the cup and the cream, takes about a minute? What is wrong with these supposed ‘corporate restaurant professionals’? Do they not drink coffee at home? Have they not been in a restaurant where each waiter is serving four or more tables at once and even might be getting that same one-minute coffee for any or all of them at the same time?

Here’s something I’d like to see in corporate management: fuzzy logic. It’s essentially what their best waiters employ every night. Let’s see, five different tasks each designated as Right Away. I can’t fulfill one obligation right away but I can instead work one in the meantime, making the former (and the other three) just a little late, but it will save me time on the whole
as a group.

For instance, my lunch restaurant, Michael’s has strict guidelines about replacing used steak knives (even if used for buttering bread) before each course. Well guess what? With all the other obligations of service at this high-end place, my judgment is that I don’t always have time to handle that steak knife thing. I’m doing things like clearing plates, running some else’s hot food, bringing a check to a diner that’s ready to go, greeting a table within 60 seconds . . . In the hierarchy of these essential service steps, where does replacing a perfectly good and guest-acceptable (albeit butter-‘stained’) steak knife fit in? Practically dead last. But corporate management likes to fall back on terms like ‘non-negotiable’ and ‘spec.’

Mind you, I’ve never gotten busted for the re-knifing thing (or lack thereof) – perhaps they respect my experience, savvy, and grey hair? – but other waiters do get ‘noted.’ So when I train waiters for the day shift at Michael’s I tell them readily, ‘There is what they call ‘spec,’ and there’s what I call ‘getting it done at lunch.’ I will cite my steak knife example, and point out the inconsistencies of ‘spec’ vs. what is sometimes required to Get The Job Done. For another instance, is it necessary to bring the dessert tray to a table that has already indicated it is in a hurry and needs to get going?

Well, at Michael’s, the dessert tray is another ‘spec’ mandatory step of service. Instead of fuzzy logic, some jackass corporate hack, looking to enhance his own promotion potential, advocated mandatory dessert tray presentation as means of possible 0.13% increased dessert sales, over 123 stores that means $31,117 annually . . . Congratulations. Meantime, greenhorn waiters who don’t know any better are wasting 320 seconds presenting the dessert tray while . . . Wait! A new table is going un-greeted and another table is waiting for their check to be dropped!

‘I’m sorry, GM, but I had other those other things to do, I couldn’t offer the dessert tray to that table.’

‘Yes, but in that situation
you should have asked someone for help greeting your new table, and running the check for your departing table, and expediting the re-fire for your other table. That’s part of your job. Even if you have to ask us (management – but don’t actually do it if you ever expect us to regard you as competent). We’re here to help you. ‘

. . . Maybe the restaurant business is just like every business. In each company there are a few people who excel at their jobs, i.e., who’ve mastered the subtleties and idiosyncrasies that make them a success, and there are the rest who are more or less new-hires that don’t know shit and are actually holding back the progress of the company until they learn (if they ever do). A small subset of companies (Microsoft ’80s-’90s, Google ’00s, TGIFridays mid-’80-’90s, etc.) obtains new-hires who are best-of-best or else are such go-getters that this doesn’t happen immediately – the culture and the carrot/success possibilities is so strong that everyone is first-class, or else rises to the level of the peers.

But most are not of that class. A successful restaurant concept in a given market is like a cloud of chum in the water for quality waiters. Unfortunately, it also attracts the hacks. But even so, the good servers will congregate around the best new restaurant in town. The place will thrive. Every other restaurateur will be jealous about how they do everything so well and they are ace-ing our shit . . .

Well, that’s because all the real pros are working their Fuzzy Logic waitering magic. When business slows down, and the pros leave for the next Big Thing (unless management and corporate management makes it happy for them to stay), the restaurant enters into the hopeless cycle of hiring ‘spec’ greenhorns to work with the few Fuzzy Logic specialists remaining. And the tide never seems to turn. The good people drain away two by two, replaced by greenhorns one by one and one by one.

What I’m saying is that it’s impossible to manage large groups (really large groups like chain restaurants)

Yeah . . . So where was I? . . . Was I anywhere?

Right . . . It’s part of control. Problems are like a dike springing leaks. If you don’t acknowledge them with that little verbal ‘finger,’ (no jokes, please) they keep leaking. Isn’t it irritating when a waiter pretends nothing is wrong? Yet, when something is wrong and it is noted and promised to be attended to, guests quit worrying.

That’s the key to Control. The guest knows you’re in control and they don’t have to worry about how their meal experience comes out. That’s why they’ve come out to eat instead of doing it themselves at home. Who wants to fret about that junk when you’re paying $30-100 a head? Why should they?

That’s why Control is the best trait of the professional. Guests can forget their usual concerns/worries about putting on a meal and just enjoy the eating and their company.

Who cares about your smile or your great jokes or the fact you know the swimming-depth of Chilean Seabass?

Diner: ‘If there’s a problem, tell me how it’s going to be handled. Otherwise, let go of me and let me enjoy myself.’