Proper Waiter Language

No, I don’t mean to be final arbiter on semantics and diction in the restaurant. We all have our pet peeves, our preferences.

In fact, someone has done this column already. There’s a fantastic blog called Sorry Not My Table, the post I refer to is I’m Still Enjoying Working On This. The author manages a fine dining restaurant in Napa, CA. He appears to be a great manager/ex-waiter. I can say for sure, however, that he’s a very talented writer; his writing is about as good and humorous as anything you’ll read in a ‘real’ magazine or book. Actually, it’s a lot better than most waiter featurettes that appear in the local newspaper or in-flight magazines. Please check him out. You’ll like it.

So it happened I read Sorry Not My Table’s post and it inspired me. This is not a rebuttal. I just want to add a few things of my own. First, the reason for even caring about how we express ourselves in the restaurant.

‘The Customer Is King’

The goal of word choice in the restaurant should be to make the guest feel comfortable. A large part of this process is establishing a pecking order, where the guest, frankly, gets to peck on your head if he feels like it. Sure, we keep our self-respect; we don’t put up with bullies; we demand some decorum in return. All of that. But we are ‘serving.’

This is why all these ‘waiter rant’-type blogs are so ridiculous in their righteousness that the ‘guest is no better than we are.’ That’s just not the point. The guest is dining out to enjoy the experience of having servants. What, not to eat? Of course, but (we’re assuming finer-ish establishments here) the desire to eat can be satisfied quite easily any number of ways. Why spend double, triple, or ten times the money to eat? Because you can be served like the wealthy person you are, or wish you were. This is the service we provide. If you don’t believe that, then you must believe there’s no difference between your restaurant/job vs. the hot dog counter at Target.

Because people are basically decent, most guests don’t abuse the fact that you place yourself below them. The nicest ones resist this hierarchy, instead working with us as equals as much as possible.

If all this is causing your skin to prickle maybe you should stop reading. You obviously have control and self-esteem issues. We’re just doing our jobs. It so happens this is the arrangement between worker and customer in our industry. But it’s like that in every job everywhere. Bob Dylan has a great song that says it all, Gotta Serve Somebody. Have a listen while you read (10 second commercial at beginning).

What I’m working up to is shaped like a doughnut. A lot of calories and flavor, with nothing in the middle.

There is no hard-and-fast rule for how to make a guest feel comfortable. One waiter’s stiff formality works on certain guests in certain circumstances; another waiter’s ‘How y’all doin’ tonight?’ is effective for her. I worked one restaurant where the owners forbade waiters to ‘talk to tables’ (in other words, converse outside of taking orders and asking necessary questions), while another restaurant made it a requirement to engage the guest in conversation. Both were in the fine dining realm, more or less.

I guess, with my pet peeves, I take issue not so much with the manner as much as the precision of the words.

If you’ve been reading even one post here (let alone the whole year+ I’ve been writing), you’ll know that for better or worse I let few details go unexamined. And in the brouhaha about restaurant language, this tendency is evident: We spend so much time on repetitious tasks (greeting a table, asking if we can clear their plates, etc.), we over-analyze.

But then, that’s the fun of the whole thing.

‘You Better Not Have A Problem With It . . .’

This is the one that galls me the most.

Me (as diner): ‘Say, do you think I could please get a side of ketchup to go with my lobster?’

Waiter: ‘Not a problem.’

Even writing it now I want to scream, ‘Aarrrgggggghh!

This one kills me because it takes an innocuous if irritating colloquialism, ‘No problem,’ and turns it needlessly into an offensive response. ‘No problem,’ I can understand because it’s deeply-embedded shorthand used across the country. Like, ‘Hey, dude’ for hello. Like ‘Take it easy,’ for goodbye. ‘No problem’ is practically a reflex that really means, ‘Yes, I will.’ No, I don’t like the practice, but I understand it, and don’t really take offense.

On the other hand, ‘Not a problem’ (and it’s on-the-rise slacker cousin, ‘No worries’) is about 10% colloquialism and 90% bald statement. When I hear it, my mind goes, ‘And if it was a problem . . .? I don’t care if it is or is not a problem for you. It’s your job and why you’re getting paid and why I’m tipping you 20%. I don’t need to hear a running commentary on how difficult I’m making your life. You could always just say, ‘Yes,’ and go do it. I do have the number of a good therapist you can call on your day off if you need someone to talk to. Meantime, I’ll just tell you what I need, and you can get it for me if physically possible. Is that going to be a problem?’

No, it doesn’t bug me that much.

‘You Guys . . .’

I’ve had a plan for about a year now, but the wife won’t let me do it:

A young female waiter says to us, ‘I’ll be right back with your guys’ drinks.’ When she returns and gives me my root beer, I say, ‘Thanks, guy.’ And then I proceed to call her ‘guy’ for the entire rest of the meal, as often as possible, or until she starts to cry.

Here I concur with SorryNotMyTable. It sounds low-class, coffee shop. But most of all, it’s usually not accurate. We are not all guys. Unless the waiter means to say hello only to the guys, and ignore the girls. Maybe he’s saving kisses for them?

‘Yes, Thank You, You’re Welcome’

Really, we’re just so damned bored and/or sick of the repetition in our job, we’ve invented these alternative ways of saying the same thing. Won’t just Yes and Thank You do?

If you’re having trouble, I’ve designed a chart to help out.

Directions: Use words in column headings. Shun using the substitutes in body of table.

Yes

Thank You

You’re Welcome

Will do! I appreciate it My pleasure
Not a problem Have a good one No problem
No worries Take it easy Think nothing of it
Right away! Take care Sure thing
My pleasure Come again No, thank you!
Absolutamente, Señor! Is that all? Yo! Holla!

Order vs. Selection

A long time ago, a trainer told me it was low-class coffee shop to say, ‘Are you ready to order now?’ She said it was much more refined to say, ‘Have you made your selections?’

I tended to agree, so that became my standard. When I train people I don’t make too big a deal out of it (like my trainer did), but I often mention it.

The thing is, though, is ‘order’ really that bad? It’s actually pretty accurate, in a number of ways. The guest is ordering me around; he is placing an order just like he would for a book from Amazon.com; he’s even putting order into his dining experience by telling me what he will eat and drink for the next hour or two.

Still, I’m not going to switch back. But the contrast between the two words is illuminating:

Familiarity and Contempt

I’m sure ‘order’ did not have poor connotations even in most fine restaurants 40 years ago. It probably replaced, ‘So whatcha want?’

A word becomes wrong when we finally get sick of hearing it and using it. Somewhere along the line, fine restaurants lost all their ‘customers.’ They were replaced by ‘guests.’ Customers are fine for hardware stores, gas stations, beauty salons, and even Tiffany’s Jewelers. But not for restaurants. Maybe we’re thinking too hard about this stuff.

The Trap Of Political Correctness

The whole thing ends up like a game of tag. Once one word or phrase is saddled with a negative connotation, like ‘enjoy,’ suddenly you’re a jackass for using it. Follow the progression of words/labels for various ethnicities or minorities: 1) Mexican to Mexican-American to Hispanic to Latino. 2) Crippled to lame to handicapped to disabled to physically challenged. To name a couple.

I don’t know who decides when a term starts to stink of negative stereotype. All I try to do is switch to the new term as soon as I find out I was an asshole for using the old one.

Of course it’s not nearly as critical in the restaurant whether we ever use the word ‘order’ instead of ‘selection.’ But that’s what happens. When I read NativeNapkin’s (Sorry Not My Table blog) post on this subject, he hated the overuse of ‘enjoy.’ I was mortified. I use the word constantly. And I can’t seem to stop using it. Even when I’m standing at the table, having just delivered entrees and checked that there’s nothing else anyone needs at the moment, and I’m telling myself not to say it, a kind of narrow, specialized Tourette Syndrome kicks in and I back away and say emphatically, ‘Enjoy!’

NativeNapkin has ruined a perfectly good word for me.

But that’s just how it goes. ‘Enjoy’ has been tagged, and it’s only a matter of time before the only place you’ll be able to hear it is at Denny’s.

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19 thoughts on “Proper Waiter Language

  1. nativenapkin Fri, December 11, 2009 / 8:29 am

    Dude, thanks for the shout-out. And sorry to ruin your favorite adverb/adjective/command-form verb for you.

    I had the same issues with “Absolutely” a few years back. It didn’t take any “Clockwork Orange” gag-reflex psychology to stop; just had to remember I was a Ketel One man.

  2. nativenapkin Fri, December 11, 2009 / 8:30 am

    Oh, great post too! Are you always up this early?

  3. SkippyMom Sat, December 12, 2009 / 6:07 am

    I LOVE this post. You are so right. I would never say “No problem” EVER. I find that “Certainly” works just fine and so much better.

    And in all my years of serving I never once referred to a table as “guys” – ever. I am guilty of saying y’all – but I am in the south and dang it I can’t get that out of my venacular. 😉

  4. waiternotes Sat, December 12, 2009 / 4:31 pm

    Thanks for the kind words, folks. (BTW, is the term ‘folks’ verbotten somewhere and I just don’t know it yet? Maybe I’ll just say y’all?)

    And yes, Native Napkin, despite working steady lunches for the last 5 years, I have never broken from my night owl ways, established during the first 2/3 of my waitering career – when I only worked nights. I’m still like that Seinfeld joke about Nighttime Jerry vs. Daytime Jerry. Nighttime Jerry always gets his way, parties that extra hour or three, and Daytime Jerry pays the price and can never do anything about it.

  5. waitersfriend Sun, December 27, 2009 / 8:39 pm

    re: ‘customer is king’

    it is good to read some clear perspective on what we are there to do. forgive my ignorance but most people seem to only want to complain. the role of a waiter is what it is. it is up to you to do it well an get reward out of you efforts. i can say that when i took a short-term bar job in the whitsunday islands i thought i would have a great holiday and a wonderful experience. what i got was an industry full of committed and passionate individuals and the opportunity to spend my working life exploring food, wine and social activity, all at the expense of my guests. i thank them for my experiences and look forward to serving the vast majority of them.

    • waiternotes Tue, January 26, 2010 / 2:47 am

      Thank you. It’s nice to have you reading and contributing. And nice to have a like-minded individual out there!

  6. vandervecken Tue, January 19, 2010 / 7:37 am

    Great blog. I totally agree with you that knowing how to properly address tables is part of our job. And I always stomp on trainees who say “you guys”. For “No problem”, I use “I’ll be right back with [thing you asked for}” or similar. This way, I confirm I heard right by repeating back [a key habit, I think], assure service, and say something friendly without being too personal or glib. I’m with you that people are there for the experience as well as the food, and have always been of the “actor on stage” school of tableside demeanor. It’s our role to create the best experience possible — but NOT to interject our “Me”.

    That said, I have no issue with ranty blogs. Whatever our role is on the job, outside we’re still humans, and our responses to abuse [perceived or real] still have their effects. Letting off steam is healthy, letting it off to someone “outside the loop” is known to be be effective, and blogging is a good way to do it.

    Anyway, again, excellent site!

    • waiternotes Tue, January 26, 2010 / 2:50 am

      You’re right, of course, about ‘rant’ blogs. What’s not to enjoy? It’s like sitting in on a post-shift drinking session at the local dive bar.

      I just feel that kind of thing, for a blog, is *too* easy. In other words, it comes naturally for waiters like me and everyone else. I say, go ahead and let that steam off here and there, but don’t let it be the only note in your symphony.

  7. Dejavous Fri, September 10, 2010 / 7:32 am

    You are an absolute professional . Thank you for posting . These are little but important things that one doesn’t get to hear much these days .
    I am quite new to the profession and really like people who enjoy what they do. Its hard on a Friday night; but it would have been my good fortune if there were more people like you working where I work . Anyway reading your post was the next best thing.

    • waiternotes Fri, September 10, 2010 / 10:48 am

      Thanks, Dejavous. Tell your friends!

  8. Julie Sun, July 24, 2011 / 9:00 pm

    “Not a problem” makes me cringe when I hear it from a waiter or waitress. Me: “I’d like a Sprite.” Him: “Not a problem.” Me: Why would it be a problem? Don’t give me “not a problem” for every simple request that should NOT be a problem. It’s insulting!

    • waiternotes Mon, July 25, 2011 / 1:23 am

      Julie – I read your comment.

      Not a problem.

  9. Kija Sun, April 13, 2014 / 7:57 pm

    I bet you have lots of worry lines on your forehead. You seem too rational for your own good. Go take a vacation! Spend some time on top of a mountain alone somewhere. Get in touch with your soul. Remember your basic human nature and come back down to earth. You seem to be living in the matrix.

  10. Johnathan Sun, May 18, 2014 / 9:35 pm

    Seems like you’re just an uptight prick about shit that doesn’t even matter to you. If you don’t like the server’s vocab then go eat somewhere else. You really wrote a fucking essay about your pet peeves when you go out to eat? Get that dick out of your ass, man. Sheesh. You seem like a brown-noser, a real big shot who doesn’t make shit haha. Anyways, have fun and continue to write novels on how restaurant’s server’s vocab bothers the fuck out of you. I bet your wife fucks you, buddy. Anywho, go fuck yourself you fucking piece of shit. You “genius journalist.” You probably printed your associates degree from Phoenix.com

    Sincerely,

    That guy that uses “no problem” and I don’t give a FLYING FUCK if it irritates you. Continue to suck dick for money.

  11. Veronyka Sat, February 14, 2015 / 9:30 pm

    Really? Your waitress said you guys and you preceded to call her a guy for the rest of your meal. You’re a jerk. Just do the world a favor and stay home and cook your own meals.

  12. Christi Mon, May 25, 2015 / 12:59 am

    I’m making a difficult transition from years of diner waitress/bartender to a formal Italian Restraunt. I’m a person that is never at a loss for words and caught myself stammering . My mind blank. Proper wording oh my! My boss about to beat the diner out of me! I need so much work and practice!

    • waiternotes Mon, May 25, 2015 / 2:49 pm

      Yes, you can get up in your own head about it. But you’ll see in a month or two that you’re not self-conscious anymore. Also, always remember that effective communication is the goal. Word choice can be component of that, but a real connection with the guest trumps everything. I’ve been to 5-star steakhouses where the waitress was throwing twangy ‘y’alls’ everywhere, along with the rest of her southern dialect, and she was great.

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