Handling The Hurried Diner

Quick entry here. WordPress offers all kinds of statistical info to bloggers, including ‘Top Searches’ on your site. Recently, this appeared on my admin page:

a abr is very busy and one person did not show for their shift. a guest says he is in a hurry and you already have three tables that sat down before him. what do you do,  a bar is very busy and one person did not show for their shift. three tables one guest in a hurry what do you do

Someone seems to have had a big problem – a write-up or maybe even being fired – with a fourth table that was in a hurry and complained, even though our server already had three tables seated earlier.

I have made up an inaccurate concept about foodserving: The big trick is understanding who can wait and how long they can wait. That’s why they call us waiters.

Of course it’s inaccurate because it’s the guests doing the waiting, not us. But I still like the play on words.

The way to handle the above situation is to assess correctly who can wait, and for how long. Obviously, there’s a later-seated table in a hurry. Your first thought must be to get them going, eating, and out as quickly as possible, and damn the torpedoes. This is what you should do. Unlike, presumptively, the other diners, they have stated their desires. At that point you would tell them the compromises they’ll have to make, i.e., order very quickly; be prepared to have courses overlap; and you’ll drop the check as soon as physically possible. In other words, they will have to be willing to forgo the usual pace – and some of the service frills – of a meal in your restaurant. Make it clear you are doing this at their behest.

Next, you get a handle on what the rest of your station is doing.

Side Note: There are too many possible nightmare scenarios to address that would render this analysis impossible – like, for instance, the kitchen has collapsed and everyone is waiting too long for their meals. Instead, I must assume we have a relatively normal night on the job here.

There’s a good chance most of the other three tables are being perfectly normal. So, when opportunities arise to give faster service to the impatient table, you serve the impatient table first, on the assumption you have more good will to burn with the other tables. Essentially, because you’ve set things up the way I described, and placed the full order for the impatient table immediately, you can now proceed with normal service. In other words, taking out the food, clearing the plates, etc, as the tasks come up.

In the event that another ‘nice’ table notices that the other table was served first, you can then explain to them what happened: The other table was in a hurry, and thus ordered immediately upon being seated; that the kitchen doesn’t know from anything – they just make the dinners in the order they come in. And finally that this is not delaying their dinners in any way – they will come up promptly at the proper time.

Of course, our Internet Searcher specified a ‘bar table.’ This is probably a lot more difficult, as bar patrons expect their drinks orders to be accepted quickly and placed quickly and to be served quickly – regardless of what kind of ‘cool’ people they are. They also expect to be served ‘in order,’ as in, first seated (and to order), first served. This is a totally acceptable expectation.

In this case, the server really has little option other than to explain to the impatient table that he/she will do everything possible to make this all quick, but there are several other tables waiting ahead of them. You just cannot serve a bar customer first merely because he states that he’s in a hurry and can’t wait. It’s totally likely that all the other customers feel the same but are just too respectful (and knowledgeable) to state the obvious.

When the impatient table gets indignant, that’s when the server earns his stripes. You must be firm without being threatening, condescending, or confrontational. It helps, usually, to interject your personal dilemma into your firm explanation.

‘I understand, and I’ll do everything I can. But right now I already have three other orders to place. Those people are all watching me, waiting for their drinks. If I serve you first, they’ll all be angry, and rightfully so. Just like you would if you ordered first. I’ll do the best I can – I understand you’re in a hurry.’

Who has time for this kind of a soliloquy? You. You almost have to do it, or else you’re going to have an irate patron pouting, shouting, giving you a bad (or no) tip, and/or complaining to management. If nothing else, when the above does happen anyway, you’ll be able to explain to the manger how you handled it, and you’ll be exonerated.

Finally, the cryptic Search Query mentions that one guest is in a hurry, what do you do?

God bless you bar people! We dining room people have a lot to handle that you never deal with, but I’ll never understand how you can still do a good job with all the ‘separate tabs’ obligations of your job.

Assuming your hurried guest in the same party has a separate tab, it’s fairly obvious that you have to attempt to be ahead of the game and bring his check with the delivered drink. Even if you don’t have the physical check (because you don’t have time) you can just tell the guy, ‘If you want to close out, that’s $8 for the martini.’ Let him give you the cash or his card, then you can figure it out later. Likewise if he’s had several drinks: just spitball it and say, ‘Two martinis and an Amstel, that’ll be $21, more or less.’ Figure it out for sure at the machine.

Again, the communication to the guest is the most important part of this. You must tell them what you’re going to do for them, what you are doing for them, and what you have done for them.

When you do this, most any human guest will come to understand that he’s gotten the best that can be gotten under the circumstances, and he’ll be happy enough – though maybe stressed out because he’s late for his plane, and maybe shouldn’t have stopped for drinks in the first place, but anyway it’s all on him.

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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.