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Service Woes?

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Browsing this site, I've seen a lot of people post the things that they consider to be "bad service." I've waited tables in casual fine dining restaurants for years now as I've worked my way through college, and have to say that some of them confuse me. I get told regularly that I am providing excellent service, so I'm curious to better understand the reasoning behind some of the complaints I've seen posted (and I'd like to explain why I do things the way I do them). I've also added a couple of related questions about patterns I've noticed in customer behavior that I just don't "get."

Here are the particular gripes that I don't understand:

1) Expecting automatic refills on bread.

We generally provide 2 pieces per person, which seems to be the amount that most people will eat. Giving people more when they don't ask for it seems like it would generate needless waste. I don't understand what the harm is in asking for something you'd like, if it cuts down on the amount of food that goes into the garbage.

2) Not wanting dirty plates removed until everyone is finished eating.

I was trained to respond to any item left on the table that someone is no longer using by clearing it out of the way, so the customers don't have to look dirty dishes sitting before them, cluttering up the table. At every restaurant job I've had, the boss thinks you're being slack if you're not on top of clearing empties. I don't understand why people seem to think this means you're being rushed, rather than knowing that we are trying to make things more comfortable for you. By all means, linger at the table, but do you really want dirty dishes there with you? I don't really understand why people would want to falsely appear to be at a different stage of their meal (not finished with their plate) than they are.

As an aside, I also don't understand that one last person who is finished eating but will not, under any circumstances, let the server remove the food they're not going to eat. It's an odd pattern I've noticed.

3) There seem to be conflicting complaints on this forum that people a) want their drink refilled without someone asking or b) don't want drinks refilled because it changes the ratio of drink to milk/sweetener/whatever. I always refill automatically, unless it seems the table is about to leave soon, and then I'll ask. Is this just a no-win situation: interrupting the conversation or diluting the beverage?

4) I think there was one thread awhile back, where someone was complaining that a server said s/he was tired. I can imagine this being a complaint if the server just randomly volunteered the information, but if a table is being friendly with me and inquires how I'm doing (not uncommon), I tell the truth. Not in explicit detail, mind you, but I'll say anything on a continuum from "great" to "tired," figuring that if they didn't want to know, they wouldn't have asked. It's a tiny moment of human-to-human communication that reminds both involved that we're people, not just embodiments of the roles of server and customer. We get a lot of regular customers in the restaurant I've worked at for the past five years, and people seem to appreciate not getting a canned response to whatever questions they ask, even if it's a mildly personal one.

5) Lastly, why do some people want new flatware with the next course? It's pretty rare where I work that they ask for it, but there does seem to be a bit of huff on the boards about it. I don't get it -- if you are the only person who used it, doesn't it seem to be the environmentally friendly thing to do not to send it through the dishwasher? Needing a new set when it hasn't been on the floor or anything boggles me. Is it an old-school etiquette thing?

And speaking of huff, I'm rather shocked at the amount of vitriol some people have for a server making a small mistake. Sure, having flawless service is great, but some of the responses people have posted that they have said or thought when their server forgot something or didn't know something seem disproportionately acerbic. Sometimes I forget to look at the specials board before I get my first table if they come in really early and there's lots of set-up. Sometimes a request will slip my mind. Sometimes an ice cube gets caught in the pitcher in a funny way and I dribble water on the table. I don't make mistakes every day, but they do happen. It seems the reasonable reaction to an honest mistake is genuinely to cut a person some slack, no strings attached. It's what I try to do in my interactions with people every day. After all, everyone slips up at work from time to time, it's just that when servers do it, there's a table of people scrutinizing them.

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  1. I do not particularly want to place used flatware on my bread plate, dirtying it, or (much) worse, on the table, which is certainly not put-it-in-your-mouth clean.

    I appreciate when servers ask if I would like a bread refill or more coffee or iced tea. I don't need another basket of bread brought automatically, as I don't want to create waste (and if I'm alone or with just one other person and we know we won't eat any, I'll ask not to have it brought to begin with), but it's nice to have a server ask rather than to have to flag someone down with it. Asking a simple "More coffee?" isn't much of a disruption to conversation, and is preferable to my having to stop my conversation just to prevent a server from pouring something I don't want.

    I prefer plates to stay on the table until everyone is done, but I don't consider plate removal onerous in casual resturants.

    1. I'd be pleased to have you be my waitperson. I think what you are, in essence, proposing is a fair trade-off--you'll make an effort to provide me with a comfortable dining experience and I won't expect you to be a mind reader re: the hundred little things where it seems like you can't win for losing (e.g., refill my drink without me asking or I'll ask you if I want more beverage, and I won't think either of us has done the other wrong). I may pester you for extra salad dressing right when you're trying to get drink orders for two other tables or linger over coffee when you'd really like to turn the table, and you might occasionally dribble water on my table or jostle my arm as you pass or forget that salad dressing. Let's call it even. You hang in there.

      p.s.--so that I fulfill the social contract of post and reply, my preferences as to the above are as follows--1) I do not expect automatic refills on bread--if you put it on my plate, I may well fill up on bread--I'll ask if I want more; 2) I'd prefer you leave my dirty plate in front of me; 3) I like it if you automatically re-fill anything that has free re-fills, otherwise I prefer if you'd ask first; 4) if I ask you how you are and you say you're tired, my response is likely to be "I'll bet you are" and a sympathetic smile--if I ask the question, I'd better be prepared for an honest answer (within reason--swear words might take me aback); and 5) I'm happy to reuse my flatware at many restaurants--at fine dining restaurants with a number of courses, I expect them to be appropriately switched out between courses--but I generally have to guess a bit as to what the practice is at the restaurant, and sometimes I guess wrong.

      Again, you could violate any of these preferences--automatically refill my bread, take away my dirty plate, fail to automatically refill my beverage, tell me you're having a fantastic day when your day has sucked and, I don't know what you'd do about #5, and we could still very well be on track for me to think the service is perfectly ok.

      1. My opinions:
        1. Auto-refills do add to waste. Always best to ask, imo. That said, I shouldn't have to the the one doing the asking - a server should see that the bread's been eaten and ask if we'd like more.
        2. This is old-school etiquette. The idea, I believe, is that removing people's plates while others in the dining party are still eating draws attention to the person still eating, making them feel like they should rush. Old rules were that you begin eating when the host/hostess begins, follow his/her lead on speed, and end when he/she does. That way the entire party is on the same page and no one looks like they are hoovering their food, or lagging behind. This evolved to people trying to generally keep pace with eachother, but the ones who are finished early keep their plates until the slower ones are done, so all plates are cleared simultaneously, new silver (if required) is placed, and the next course is served to everyone at the same time.
        There are differences of opinion on this one now. My SO is a S-L-O-W eater. If it's a "fancy" place, I expect that my plate will not be taken before his, because I don't want him to even notice that I am done, if possible. He should be left to enjoy the meal at his own pace. If, on the other hand, it's a casual place, I'd rather they take my plate do I don't keep picking at it. At minimum, a server should ask whether they may take my plate before doing so.
        3. Water should be refilled automatically. Other drinks - the server should ask first. A big no-no is to refill wine glasses, unless requested, imo. Servers have no idea whether the wine should be poured equally between all diners, or if the faster drinker should get more of it, etc.
        4. I, personally, think it violates the social contract when a stranger answers in any way other than positively when asked how he or she is doing. Call me horrible, but I don't actually want to know that you're tired/bored/etc. I am out to have a good time, so just smile and say "Great, thank you, and you?"
        5. I ask for new silverware for a couple of reasons: (a) if I don't want to mix tastes (I asked for a new fork after eating a fish dish before digging into a banana's foster), (b) when the old stuff is dirty (e.g. fell on the floor, has food on it, was set down on the table, or when a server touches it - I've had a server pick a fork up by the tines and set it down on the table for use on the next course. No thank you.), (c) it is not suitable for the next course (I don't want to use my coffee spoon for chowder, or a butter knife to cut a steak, etc.)...

        Generally people should cut servers slack, but some slipups are less easily excused, like forgetting to read the specials board. It's annoying to have to send a server away to find out about the specials, and even more annoying to not be told about a really nice looking special that the table next to you ends up ordering... :)

        7 Replies
        1. re: akq

          I have an issue with this : I, personally, think it violates the social contract when a stranger answers in any way other than positively when asked how he or she is doing. Call me horrible, but I don't actually want to know that you're tired/bored/etc. I am out to have a good time, so just smile and say "Great, thank you, and you?""

          So you ask a person, "How are you?" or "How's your day?" or something similar and expect them to lie to you, if their answer is not respoundingly positive? Why ask in the first place then? That is almost like entrapment. Geesh, poor server. *bzzzzzz!* wrong answer.

          A friendly "hello, We are looking forward to our dinner here, it's a nice night, Does the chef have any specials?' sounds like a much more positive start, gives your server a chance to know you are definately in a good mood. And doesn't leave them walking the fine line of what sort of answer you are expecting.

          1. re: Quine

            "How are you" has become a standard greating between strangers and acquaintances and in those cases should be interpreted akin to "Nice to meet you" more than an acqual inquiry into someone's true emotional/physical state. It's not a "lie", or at the very least, a white lie - just like when meeting someone you don't particularly care to meet you still say "nice to meet you". More often than not if I ask a server "how are you?" it's in response to him or her posing the question to me first - it's polite, generally, to respond in kind and generally impolite when asked how you are not to ask in return.

            1. re: akq

              See i disagree, especially when you KNOW you don't wish to know the answer. If a server asked me "how are you this evening?" I can politely reply, "I am good, I am looking forward to tonight's dinner", or "Good TY, Are there chef's specials tonight? " etc. You are acknowledging the social contact with a response that moves the conversation forward in a meaningful way for both, without placing the other in a position where they must lie.

              1. re: Quine

                What if you're not "good"? How much do you have to disclose in order for it not to be a "lie"? I think the point of contention here is the degree of disclosure necessary for "good" or "fine" not to be a lie. Most, if not all people dining in a resto or working in one should at least be able to recognize that they are at least "fine" and that it's not a lie...you can leave off the part about the medical issues, just being dumped, being tired, hating your job and that doesn't make it a lie.

                Your two responses above don't actually acknowledge the server as a person in the same way that the server acknowledged you. It seems more like the old class system where the upper class would never deign to inquire of a lower class person how he or she is doing. More modern etiquette, imo, dictates that if someone (e.g. a server) asks how you are, you answer politely (fine thank you) and return the inquiry to which he/she should also reply politely - fine, thank you (or some variation).

                1. re: akq

                  That is so funny, you think by making a person say a lie "I am fine" and nothing else, is acknowledging them as a person? OK.

                  "I'm fine" with your answer.

                  1. re: Quine

                    I think that my extending a curteous greeting that was first extended to me (as opposed to having the curteous greeting extended to me and then *not* returning the curtesy as you suggest) I am acknowleging them as a person. I still don't get why you're so adamant that people have to "lie" in order to say "I'm fine", but maybe we just have different outlooks on life.

          2. re: akq

            I do not understand this. If you do not want an honest answer to a question, even if you are just trying to make small talk, then why ask? There is nothing wrong with not wanting to know the realities (good and bad) of people you encounter in everyday life, especially your servers. However if you cross that line by asking a personal question, to expect what is essentially a lie as a response, is demeaning to them as a human being.

          3. Any time you read boards like this, you will see contradictory complaints. I was looking at an online discussion of how to be a good retail worker; the people chiming in gave totally contradictory advice. Some people just want opposite things.

            That said, it sounds like you are a fine server, but you mention things you "don't understand" that you actually seem to be critical of in a customer. Not wanting plates removed is a really common preference; maybe it's old-fashioned or something. And it may well be that removing stuff makes it easier on the service and the kitchen, but that doesn't necessarily mean customers have to like it. New flatware for a new course? Why is that hard to understand, if you are switching from fish to meat or something? Bottom line, you don't really need to understand it. You need to decide whether it's worth humoring people with those preferences or not.

            1. What a good post.

              To start with, some people are impossibly fussy.
              1. Auto bread refills - I agre with many that it is best to ask if they would like some more. It is not up to you to be the waste police or to decide whether or not the patron needs more. Some like bread, are crazy hungry or want it with their meal. No need to explain to you right?
              2. Dirty plates - If your boss wants them gone - off they go. Fine dining - best to leave them. Traditional etiquette demands no removal before the last person has finished. Most people these days prefer the plates be removed and certainly expect them to be removed in more casual eating places. About the last person eating not wanting the plate removed. Chuckled when I read that. There are a few reasons I can see for this: They want to control or they have merely taken a break and are not done or they are unsure if they are done.
              3. Drink refilling. Again with the waste - I would give that up. It is a tip killer because it is annoying and not your place. If a coffee or tea is 3/4 gone it is safe to assume a refill is in order unless, as you said, the meal is at end. Then ask. Customers should not be worried about rationing their liquids, have to wait for liquid or have to battle the proportions of sweetener./creamer to beverage. It is a fine balance. BUT the main thing it is not about YOUR convenience, but theirs. If you are worried that you will not be there to attend to the cup, get with your fellow servers and agree to watch one another's tables for bevie levels.
              4. Personal info. The more casual the place, the more personal chat acceptable. BUT no long stories unless asked and no unburdening yourself no matter how tempting. Do you want to hear how tired and annoyed your server is to be there? Most don't. Keep it light. Unburden yourself on a friend or another server.
              5. Why fresh flatware? How much time do you have? Generally speaking, some want fresh ware because they do not want the lingering food or spit that has sat there between courses on their fork to start the next course. Should the patron have to lick it clean? Maybe they could lap at their plates as well. Kidding. Again, it is at their pleasure that we serve. Scoop up the silver with the plates. It is good and proper form. It will then be up to you (and the habit will form) to replace the flatware before the next course arrives. Use that time to replace napkins, refresh drinks, attend to any upcoming condiment needs... You know, all the stuff they make you run for later or get you impossibly in the weeds and then deliver less than perfect service later.

              About your end note. Most people will be unfailingly forgiving of say - inadvertant ice cube slips or a forgotten something or other, if you are honest and kind and get it fixed quickly. Apologies smooth even those most grumpy among us. Just one apology, no excuse making.

              Background: Server, restaurant owner, restaurant patron.