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Who Trains Waiters? [Moved from the Boston board]

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  • WTF51 Dec 23, 2009 05:30 AM

This post was triggered by a meal we had at Bistro du Midi last night, but applies to most of the better restaurants I have eaten in across the US, with the exception of New York. Our server last night was polite and friendly, knowledgeable about the food and offered us several useful suggestions. Bistro du Midi uses a team approach, so other servers, the wine guy and the front room manager were also at our table at various points. They shared the server's positive qualities.

However, there were some other aspects of the service that were bothersome:

1. All the staff used this stilted, formal language when talking with us. "What will you be having?" "Tonight we have available ...", and my favorite, "How are your items tasting?"

2. They cleared used dishes and glassware 3-4 times as we finished our entrees rather than all at once, with a request each time.

3. The person who cleaned and prepped our places after the starters were cleared was so intent on his job that I found myself looking at the top of head as he whisked the crumbs away.

4. Several of the dishes were placed in front of the wrong person.

I admit that these are not huge issues, and my dining companions called me a snob when ti tried to discuss them afterward. But I encounter them so consistently in many restaurants in many cities that I have to conclude that the staff is purposefully trained to do 1.-3. and that 4. is a problem of immense complexity that resists a solution.

Regarding server-speak, the people who serve at most high-end restaurants are carefully selected and trained, and their performance is monitored and improved. I guess that the great majority of them are articulate and able to express themselves naturally and accurately in normal conversation. So, clearly who decides that they should use future plural language when talking with customers? Is it somehow considered more formal and gracious than more direct sentences? Is it a way to insure that all servers speak grammatically and courteously?

The decisions behind the other issues really puzzle me. Why would a restaurant decide that it is preferable to interrupt dining conversation several times during a course, rather than when everyone was clearly finished? A server wouldn't need to ask permission if they waited. Cleaning each diner's place between courses is nice, but it adds yet another interruption, in this case a physical presence in front of the diner.

Finally, I know that it is possible for a group of servers to know who ordered what and deliver the right dish to the right diner. I just don't understand why it happens so infrequently.

The goal of great service is to be informative, anticipatory and unobtrusive. We know it when we experience it. Part of it is instinctual, I believe. However, many of the core elements can be designed, taught, and implemented consistently. So, who decides on approaches that seem, at least to me, to be inconsistent with this ideal?

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  1. Regarding point number 2. This is a huge issue with many people. The old school ruling is that it is extremely rude to remove plates etc until everyone at the table has finished the course. As the slowest eater in most groups I often will give up my plate before I am through eating because feel like I'm holding up the rest of the party. I've heard that waitstaff is mandated to follow the new standard but I don't like it.

    14 Replies
    1. re: ginnyhw

      #2 is just a blatant attempt to turn the table over more quickly (too quickly in most cases). This might play at Mr. Bartley's, but it is quite unacceptable when you are at a somewhat higher end place. SDLT, for one, has a huge issue with this point and it has happened multiple times at multiple locations. The last time we were in the Boylston Street location I politely asked the server to wait to clear the dishes until we had all finished entrees, and which point a manager stormed out of the wings and grabbed my wife's dish anyway. It was absolutely laughable, and we have not been back since.

      I wouldn't even say she is a slow eater, rather she just does not shovel her food in as many in our society (me included). It seriously degrades from my enjoyment of the evening to see this happen time and again. However, a polite word from me usually backs the servers off.

      1. re: ginnyhw

        " As the slowest eater in most groups I often will give up my plate before I am through eating because feel like I'm holding up the rest of the party."

        But that's exactly what you're doing, plates or no plates.

        1. re: invinotheresverde

          I was using myself as an example however as soon as the first plate is cleared the mood changes for the group still eating. What if an elderly relative or someone who had been served later than the other guests was still eating? Good manners include minor inconvenience.

          1. re: ginnyhw

            Yes, you used yourself as the perfect example. If you're continuously the last person eating, you are holding the group up, which is rude. You seem to notice that yourself, as you usually surrender your plate, which is polite.

            I wasn't speaking about the elderly or those served later. I was speaking of ungodly slow eaters.

            Also, I'm unsure how "the mood changes" once a plate is cleared. It sounds like your own personal anxiety.

            1. re: invinotheresverde

              That sounds remarkably intolerant. My wife, for example, is a slow eater. She's a tiny woman, can't take large bites, and has eaten slowly since her first morsel of solid food. I'm not talking about an extra half-hour per course, just that she's consistently the last to finish any plate. Should she force herself to rush and risk making herself sick out of some misguided sense of politesse?

              A fine meal with friends should not be a race. If you're in that much of a hurry to get on to the next course maybe you should consider getting into competitive eating.

              1. re: BobB

                Yes, that's what I'm saying. Dining out should be a race and I should be a competitive eater because I obviously pig out.

                I'm saying that if your guests are constantly waiting, dirty dishes in front of them, for one person to finish, it's rude. How is it not?

                1. re: invinotheresverde

                  Someone will always be last. In the meantime what about another glass of good wine and stimulating conversation?

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    There's a difference between taking a couple minutes longer than your companions and taking 15-20 (arbitrary number). If I have to wait an additional 20 minutes per course for the same person to finish, it will become very annoying.

                    This is sometimes why waitstaff clear the table in increments. Hopefully, it gives Pokey a wink and a nudge that everyone else finished a long time ago, the next course is ready to be served, and yes, he/she should finish up.

                    There are only so many extra glasses of wine one can have, and, as a Chowhound, I'm there as much for the food as the conversation.

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      Always the best advice from you...

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        I lose my tolerance when it's always the same person, and the reason they're last is that they've been monopolizing the conversation. (A group of us dine together every couple of months, and one of the men does this always. It's so irritating that we're thinking about dropping out.)

                        1. re: pikawicca

                          What makes that situation even more bothersome is that the talker is typically only a few bites into the meal when everyone is finished. Enjoying stimulating conversation after you're finished isn't going to help because the talker is likely still droning on with no clue about his other diners. However, taking away everyone else's plates should indicate to the talker that he needs to move it along. At that point I don't really care if he feels rushed or uncomfortable.

            2. re: ginnyhw

              I didn't like it either until i thought about it. In the old style there were often several courses... up to 7 or 9 and each course was relatively small. on smaller courses there is less difference in the amount of time each diner takes to finish.

              I have found I far prefer to have my place cleared so that I don't have to sit there with a 3/4 eaten pile of mashed potato or rice that I really don't want to eat. The old style fit formal stuffy old fashioned lifestyles. People don't live that way any more, and if they do, they should find the few remaining formal stuffy old fashioned restaurants that are dying out rapidly because no one wants to eat that way.

              1. re: KaimukiMan

                Interesting theory, but I don't buy it. Except for special occasion dinners, 7 to 9 courses has never been the rule. It's not a question of old-fashioned vs modern. It's simply a question of patient vs impatient. And while it's certainly true that modern life encourages impatience, impatience breeds rudeness. At a nice dinner, take your time, enjoy the company, have, as Sam suggests, another glass of wine, and do your best to fight the encroachment of boorishness.

              2. re: ginnyhw

                I think this post is one of the most incisive and erudite of any that i have recentluy read here - not just a foodie but a foodie with a brain - most wait staff at fancy pants places act as if it is a privilege to let you plunk down 125 per head to pay to eat. Weird as it is the more you pay the more they control you - if you pay the bucks you should be able to have a bit more control over the dining experience except the opposite tends to be true - staff at roadside diners I(whether in nebraska or nyc) I find to be infinitely more solicitous and kind then at thos e joints charging a buck a head. where you really get this 'youa re privilged to let me serve you attitude' is from the average sommelier who as a class, let's face it, tend to speak in tongues - this is not to say that some high end places don't have great respectful staff - like the folks at the dearly departed chanterelle in nyc.

              3. Point number 4 is a issue with me. I realize that the meal will not be necessarily served to you by the same person that took your order, and it seems to be the generally excepted rule now that the server or busser who brings your meal to the table may ask who gets what; ridiculous, really, since there are easy ways for management to rectify this issue.
                The FOH dining room manager/maitre'd trains the servers; there are standards of good service but those standards are influenced by the knowledge and experience of the manager; service styles change with the times and unfortunately, not necessarily with the diner's pleasure and enjoyment in mind.

                1 Reply
                1. re: bushwickgirl

                  Typically, the first person to the left of the server is guest #1 and then you should follow clockwise around the table. There's no good reason why a guest is served the wrong meal - just too lax when pulling plates from the window and organizing them on the tray or mixing them up as they come out.

                  Much of serving is instinctual, as the OP suggested. Bottom line is you can't please all of the people all of the time, but well-informed, articulate and efficient servers make me a happy, happy guest.

                2. As a restaurateur, when I consider a server for a position, I look for attributes like a passion for the food (or at least an interest in it), cheerful/thoughtful demeanor, an ability to work efficiently, and most of all -- common sense.

                  So many of the gaffes restaurant servers make are the result of a lack of common sense. It's the inability of the server to put themselves in the diners' shoes and see if their actions are still okay. The op said it right - "part of it is instinctual" (or should be).

                  A waiter with an iota of common sense can be trusted to make a decision about items 2 and 3 on the OP's list. Some diners want constant clearing, so they don't have to look at used plates/glasses. Some want not to be interrupted until all have finished (my personal preference). It's the waiter's/captain's call, based on signals (whether overt or subliminal) on the part of the diners.

                  Item number 1 is just silly. Restaurants who give their servers a "script" and a list of appropriate utterances are going to make their staffs seem like poor actors stumbling over their lines (unless, of course, your server's a very good actor). Servers should use a not-too-informal tone when addressing customers, but I believe the actual language should be of a server's choosing -- that way they're communicating naturally with the customer.

                  About point 4: today there are a number of aids that servers use to help them recall (if they should forget) who gets which dish. Restaurant POS systems all identify a "seat number." Even guest checks that're handwritten by waiters occasionally feature little table diagrams with numbers so the server taking the order places the seat number next to that diner's order. This way, if the order-taker isn't the one delivering the food, they've left a roadmap for the server who does. That being said, there's a little thing called memory. I have received better service in *diners* from professional servers than from the clueless twentysomething "actors" that wait on tables in "hot spot" restaurants. A professional has their customers' needs on their mind. So it's easy to remember who gets what. There are helpful little tricks, like associate the low-cal plate very naturally with the diner who ordered a diet soda. The face of the single diner who ordered the salad with oil and vinegar is all one need remember when the other three persons at the table opt for house dressing.

                  A professional server is also the one who works like the devil to prepare their station (we call it "side work") before the diners arrive. They have plenty of lemons at the ready for customers who want it in their ice water, so they don't have to trudge all the way to the bar to get lemons. Their salt and pepper shakers have been re-filled and are wiped clean of grease and marks. If a professional seats you they scan your table to check for missing silverware/glasses/etc. A professional will actually *look* at the plates they're serving and if there's something wrong, will never put it before the customer -- they'll take it back to the kitchen and tell the chefs that they won't serve crap. And a professional will never ask the question "do you want cream for your coffee?" of someone who at the beginning of the meal indicated that they're lactose intolerant.

                  When faced with a server with whom I must work who has a deficit in the common sense area, I have a training "trick." I tell them to imagine that each customer is either their mother or their father. Would you seat your parent at a table that was missing pieces of the table setting? Would you serve your mom a glass of ice water with a big greasy thumbprint on it? Would you give this ugly, splattered dinner plate with sauce all over the rim to your father to eat, or would you have the kitchen re-plate it? By using an example the server can grasp mentally, I've managed to "mine" the common sense that exists in them but eludes detection usually.

                  Finally, on training: Many restaurants do offer one-time or time-to-time training by FOH management (or a consultant, for that matter). That only goes so far. In the "trenches," I find that servers learn a lot from each other, rather than anything else. If you bring a person into the workplace who has poor habits (like asking "are you still working on that?") the poor habits are going to rub off unless they're nipped in the bud.

                  The best servers are those who have a great capacity for short-term memory. I, sadly, am not one of those, so I write things down on a little scratch pad I keep with me. The OP asserts that the core elements of good service can be designed, taught and implemented consistently. Sadly, this only works with people who *want* to be taught. There's only so much that really ought to be taught -- common sense answers the rest of a day's questions as to what should be done.

                  So who decides on these approaches? The sillier ones, like the "scripted" waiter-speak described in OP's item 1, are crafted by management teams who're trying too hard to make the dining experience completely "the same" no matter which server you get. They don't recognize that servers are individuals. Some people may have no problem with saying things like "is the food to your liking?" no matter what the customer's doing, but others who're more genuine might want to choose their own words, perhaps saying to a customer who's eating with gusto "it sure looks like you're enjoying your meal." If a customer's not eating with gusto, they'll ask if there's something that the customer would like changed.

                  New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer has been wowing people for years with his uncanny ability to hire great people. If you want to see professionals in action, visit Eleven Madison Park or any other unit he owns. They're all passionate about what they do, are helpful to customers and each other without being fussy -- and they earn a lot of money in very busy environments. How does he pick them? He doesn't, really. They pick *him.*

                  On the other hand, a restaurateur who's not doing that well will not offer a server an environment that pays off for hard work. So servers who're eager to work will hurry elsewhere, leaving the shiftless, lazy ones to remain. These are the winners who, instead of cleaning tables, smear them with a filthy, greasy rag. They never re-fill sugar holders/condiment containers. They take a smoke break right before your order comes up, and when they deliver it to the table ten minutes later and ice cold, they reek of the marijuana cigarette they've just been smoking. No amount of training will ever turn one of these folks around.

                  /rant off.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: shaogo

                    the second i started reading this post, i knew it was you, shaogo/little dog/paul lol. you subscribe to all the waiter protocol i do and i think i need to visit your restaurant

                  2. there are times when a resto is busy that the kitchen REALLY need the plates back. Sometimes they have enough for a fairly busy service but when full might not have enough of a certain size plate or water glasses so the cook or wine waiter might tell busboys and servers to gather up dirty dishes so that the dishwashers can do their job. Towards the end of the night you would want your dishwashers to send full trays into the dishwashers to get their jobs done faster before all the pans and trays come in from the kitchen.
                    Remember the staff are all paid hourly so the quicker things are done and put away the faster everyone can go home.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: smartie

                      I had no idea about this. I'm with the camp that everyone's place should be cleared at the same time and have often wondered why, when everything else has been perfect, suddenly they start clearly piece meal . . . this explains it! Thanks.

                    2. WTH is "future plural language," and why is it offensive?

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: pikawicca

                        i think some people get offended when the server asks, for example: "what will we be having for dessert?" because the server won't actually be eating the dessert, only serving those that will.

                        perhaps people feel that it taints the server/servee relationship, or that all servers are of a separate social caste from diners, or are otherwise undesirable or not-quite-human. the plural language seems to mean that the server is "with" the diners in some way that the diners don't care for. one person's friendly service is another person's too-chummy. it's another can't win for the server, since diners also have a problem with being queried directly/informally: "what would you like?" (too familiar, rude) or more formally (see also the minefield of addressing a woman by "ma'am" or "miss" or "hon" or "young lady").

                        1. re: soupkitten

                          As long as it's not "you guys" . . . am really sick of this. Especially when it's a group of women. "You" is plural as well as single - I wish everyone, not just wait staff, could get a handle on this when speaking to a group.

                          And "how are your items tasting?" . . . !?!?!? seriously? That's just so wrong.

                          1. re: cinnamon girl

                            Calling the food "items" does seem pretty silly. From what I've read here on CH over the years, though, there seems to be no way to ask if everything is all right without offending people. No matter how it's phrased, someone is always annoyed or put off. It's too casual, too formal, too roundabout, whatever -- it's always something.

                            1. re: cinnamon girl

                              Ugh. I hate "guys". There's no reason for it. A simple, "Would you like dessert?" or "Would you like appetizers?" is phrased so much simpler. "Guys" is an extra, unneeded noun.

                              1. re: cinnamon girl

                                i agree with the 'you guys' horror. really! it diminishes the tip immediately and sets me in the mood for expecting worse. i wish someone would talk to these 20 somethings and let them know it's awful for a grown adult to hear the party, especially when it includes women, addressed this way.

                            2. re: pikawicca

                              Thanks SoupKitten. That is exactly what I meant by future plural language. I don't find it offensive, but rather stilted and faux-formal. No one speaks that way in normal conversation, but it is pervasive in restaurants. That leads me to think that it is in fact consistently taught. Why?

                              I am surprised to hear that some people find "What would you like" is too familiar. That does put the server in a tough spot. I hope diners view servers as professionals, and not servants.

                            3. There are few shared assumptions in the modern United States about what constitutes good service. Many diners prefer, and even insist, that their plates be removed before their companions have finished the course. Waiters are haplessly trapped between those who expect traditional etiquette and those who demand instant service tailored to the individual rather than the group experience.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: juantanamera

                                While I do spend a good deal of time defending Americans from Europeans, I'll have to say that the debate that emerges among Americans about the clearing of the plates is silly. The people going on about how horrible it is to sit with a "dirty" plate in front of them for more than a minute or two sound a bit precious and that worst kind of high maintenance: the ones who invent new rules every time they need something to suit them. Plus, how filthy, horrible and awful an eyesore is an empty plate?

                                It's one thing to have a companion who keeps one waiting for 15-20 minutes, but that's a pest all around as that person is screwing with the timing of the kitchen. The plates at that point are just an added reminder of someone's selfishness. But let's face it: this is not the commonplace upon which the rules are based AND I also have sympathy for guests who are made to answer one question after another and then must shovel food down in an effort to keep up.

                                It's also another thing for empty plates of all eaters to be left on a table for ages, because that signifies basic neglect on the part of the server. But again, that's not what people are talking about.

                                I say we liberate the waiters from this foolishness and remind people of the basic rules: plates are removed after everyone is finished eating. One signals that one is finished eating by placing fork and knife side by side on the plate. One also signals readiness to order by putting the menu down.

                                And if you're one of those people who can't bear to have your plate in front of you, perhaps you can simply ask the server t clear accordingly in order to protect these delicate sensitivities.

                                Do I sound intolerant? Yes, on this matter I am. But not because people want their dishes removed out of sync with others; it strikes me that what people want can be accommodated and tolerated. Rather, I dislike the way these folks are trying to pretend that this is the protocol and then fault waiters for not knowing that this is their desire. And yes, all this "dirty dishes" talk is just silly. I'm almost frightened to think of how people are eating...

                              2. Well, with the exception of the off-topic argument about slow eaters, this thread clearly reveals that the biggest service challenge is meeting diners' widely varying expectations and preferences. In fact, I am not sure that trends are pervasive enough to be able to generalize as in KaimukiMan's "no one wants to eat that way" statement about when dishes should be cleared.

                                This variation in expectations highlights the value in tailoring the service experience to individual parties or diners, especially as the meal progresses and the staff can observe and learn about the table. At thee Inn at Little Washington in VA, they have a structured approach to this. At the beginning of the meal, the first server assesses the mood of the table, assigns a score of 0-10 and describes the approach that will result in the guests reaching a 10 by the end of the meal. Then, as the meal progresses, they tailor their service accordingly. This of course leads to very different approaches to different tables. Patrick O'Connell, the owner and chef, even wrote a short case study in Harvard Business Review describing this approach.

                                Two followup questions:

                                What are the "shared assumptions" about service that every server should provide?

                                Is it possible to tailor the experience beyond relying on the experience and insights of the individual?

                                Happy Holidays

                                1. Based on all the responses thus far, you can see its impossible to meet all the wants/needs of the dining public. Everyone wants it their way. Wait...??? :-)

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: lynnlato

                                    applauds lynnlato... well put.

                                    and yes my reply was a bit over the top.

                                    having grown up skinny.... literally unable to put on weight, and now having every mouthful not only calling my name to be eaten (too many years of the clean your plate club) and having every bite contributing to turning me into the goodyear blimp, I fail to see the disadvantage of having an individual diner's plate being cleared.

                                    If the dinner conversation is so fragile that it can not stand this virtually invisible intrusion, then maybe it does need a distraction.

                                    Since we do not live in the age where there is a footman standing behind each diner waiting to clear the plate, having all the plates cleared at once is a horrendous and overwhelming task for a single person, perhaps with the assistance of a busser. Finer restaurants seem to find a way to serve 5 or 6 diners at once by having two people assist, but I have yet to see that when it comes time to clear. instead one poor schmuck is burdened with an enormous pile of dishes on her or his arm, trying to balance it while leaning forward to clear the plate of one or two more diners. Talk about a recipe for disaster. Meanwhile all conversation has come to a stop while watching this amazing acrobatic feat, and each diner silently praying that when it all comes crashing down, it will not be in their lap. Even if it happens only twice or three times during the meal, i find that far more disruptive to the atmosphere of the dinner party.

                                    1. re: KaimukiMan

                                      Well, your post re: clearing is a good sell, and I think I may have bought it. I waited tables for a couple of decades and it was drilled into my head early on not to clear plates until all guests were finished eating. But I think you're absolutely right - as long as it's done so inobtrusively (is that a word?), its better to clear them when individuals are finshed. Otherwise, diners are pushing them here or there to get them out of there way while the server waits for the straggler to finish up to clear the table.

                                      But the old skool dining public only knows that "the rule" is do not clear until all diners are finished and so they will continue to feel violated if a server defers from this. Ugh.