"Things Waiters & Waitress say, but Shouldn't" (The WorkingGuy.com)
So hey first off this article ISN’T a humor list - sorry to disappoint.
It's the admittedly long version of a "spiel" I give to new servers when training them, about simple things to say and not to say. I usually tell them “this isn’t policy by the way, this is just me hopefully helping you to truly “stand out,” to better serve our guests, and to make more money...”
I was pretty honored recently to have a newer server come back to me the next day after we’d trained together (upon catching herself saying the “don’ts” a few times - which is ridiculously easy to do, as you’ll see in just a moment) to ask me if I could repeat it all back to her. But this time she was taking notes! So wow, that inspired me to write it all down here. It warms the cockles of my heart knowing that my little “last day of training spiel” truly is valuable and helpful to those who want to be better than average.
Four things NOT to say -vs- What TO say :
#1) “Is this all on one check?”
Except in establishments where one check is policy, this is a pretty lame way to start off with your guests. We servers of course prefer tables to be on one check because it’s easiest for us! It actually comes off as pretty transparent that that is exactly why you’re asking tho. But we don’t get paid / tipped to make our own lives easier; we’re supposed to be making our guests’ experience in our restaurant more comfortable and convenient, for them.
So here’s the guiding principle of this article, and the approach that I’m recommending :
At every opportunity, turn your question into an offer to serve your guests’ preferences, not your own.
For example, say you’ve got a group of four, that looks like two couples… Try saying “Would you like me to keep this on two separate checks for you?” - at least if it’s painfully obvious that they’re couples. Otherwise, maybe leave the number “two” out of the question (or maybe use four instead) ‘cos these days, you just never know, right?
This gives them the opportunity to answer “Yes please,” thus clearing the air and alleviating them of the potential awkwardness inherent in that situation (which equals points for you) - or for them to say “No, one check is fine” or even “No, bring me the check.”
It’s always better for you to know up front who’s paying anyways (even just for sucking up purposes, haha) rather than having to get caught up in their semi-drunken argument over the check, an hour or more later. If there is going to be a fight, start it when you can walk away to get their drinks! Otherwise you're going to find yourself feeling awkwardly suspended in time, with the single check hovering above the table in your hand while they duke it out, or - worse - put pressure on you to make the choice. Believe me, you’re doing your guests and yourself a huge favor by getting this out in the open, right off the bat.
Four businessmen? “Would you like me to keep up with this as four separate tabs?” is a great way to start off. They’ll either say yes because they really, really do need it that way -OR- the “alpha” will speak up , and from there you can much more directly ask him/her salesy questions about appetizers, or expensive wines, knowing that the rest of the group is going to defer those decisions to whomever is paying. But either way, they’ll have a much better opinion of you as a competent server who’s going to work a little harder to meet their needs, right from the outset.
Here’s the thing : if they’re on company expense accounts, separate checks might be unavoidable for them (if your restaurant allows separate checks that is. Some actually do not anymore, which is bs to me as far as customer service is concerned!). But when the option does exist, you trying to get them - or those couples - to change their minds is just so incredibly lame, like I said. In the back of their mind, they know you’re trying to manipulate them into what you want because you’re lazy.
This is “strike one” against you, and now you could be in the position digging yourself out of a hole without even knowing it... when conversely, you could be already loading your bases for a grand slam.
#2) “Are you ready to order?”
Sounds like the right thing to say because it rolls off the tongue easily, and we’ve all heard it before, right? Which is my point exactly. They’ve heard this canned line from the last 500 waiters they’ve had in their lifetimes.
Just be different, so that you will stand out. Again, turn your question into an offer. Great ways to phrase this - that still get you to the exact same place, only in style - might include: “Would you like another minute to decide?” or “Do you have any questions about the menu I can help you with?”
Because guess what? Whether you use one of my lines above, or you prefer to come across like the truck stop “Are y'all folks ready to order yet?” server, the answer you get will be the exact same according to their situation (just as in the “one check or separate” example). The only thing subject to change at this moment becomes how they perceive you, because either they’re ready to order, or they need time, or they have questions.
So how about sounding a lot less like you’re rushing them, and a lot more like you’re there to help them?
To SERVE them, that is.
#3) “How is everything?”
Yeah, you’ve never really lived (as a server) until the owner of your restaurant responds to this question by staring you down with a pissed off look, saying “I don’t know. I didn’t order everything. Why don’t you try asking me how my steak is?”
Skip the canned “same old, same old” line(s) that can be used on every table you wait on, and personalize your question to mirror what each individual guest’s experience is, with you, that day.
“How is your steak cooked?” is definitely on the right track, but how about “Hey is that Strip cooked medium enough for you?”
In my experience, they won’t actually say “Awwwww, you remembered!” but to some smaller degree, that’s almost exactly how they’ll feel about you. Why? Because you tailored your question to reflect what they themselves told you! You’re not just asking them the same exact question(s) which they can probably hear you asking your other tables around them. They’ll feel like they are definitely getting personalized attention if you just say something like “Is your Steak / Salmon / Chicken as moist / well-done as we talked about?”
When you talk to your guests as real individuals rather than as “the huddled masses” they’ll treat (and maybe tip) you like a real person with a name, more so than they’ll treat (and maybe tip) you like “the waitress” whom they are destined to forget in thirty minutes or less. Let’s face it, there’s a world of difference between “How is everything?” and “Hey is everything all yummy tasty delish for ya?” Or, if the vibe is right as you’re approaching to check back, how about a slightly over-confident “Just double checking folks - So, did I tell ya that Lamb was The Bomb or what?”
Saying things somewhat off the wall definitely won’t be appropriate in many situations of course… but using your own words (rather than even mine) in context of the rapport you’ve by-now built with your guests (or should have), will allow you to provide them a more enjoyable and memorable experience.
Y’know… you’re not the only one who has a “script” or a “canned” set of lines at your disposal, based on life experience. Unless you’re waiting on people who have literally NEVER dined in a restaurant before, odds are they have canned “auto-replies” to the canned phrases I’m asking you to not use. In many cases, when you spout off old worn out and overly rehearsed “telemarketer” lines, your guests just might “hang up on you” - mentally speaking, I mean - before their meals have even arrived. They will answer YOUR canned script from THEIR canned script, the exact same way they answered their last server - from last night, and from last week, last month, last year - who just happened asked them the same exact questions you now are.
And by that I mean, they will answer you without looking you in the eye, without remembering or caring what your name is, and frankly, by treating you like crap in some cases, interacting with you like you’re not even there. Why wouldn’t they, if after 15 minutes you’ve done absolutely nothing to stand out to them?
Conversely, you’ll quite organically command more respect as your guests come to realize that they actually have to listen to you, and even pay some undivided attention to you for a brief moment, when your conversation and questions are just slightly tweaked to be even just a little more personalized than they were expecting. Good, memorable, praise-worthy and tip-worthy service is about exceeding expectations. Do so, and your guests will be inclined to treat you better than average most likely.
The worst that can happen is on their way out, they’ll rave to your manager about how great you were, just because you stood out from the “other” waiters and waitresses they’ve become used to. And bored with.
Regardless of how they tip you, this DOES affect your income positively, in the form of better shifts and sections, as managers want happy guests, not bored ones.
Okay with those warm ups out of the way, here’s the one hurdle you have to get over in order to truly be an Olympian.
And it may not be as easy as you think to master this one...
#4) There’s ONE WORD I’m going to ask you to 100% completely remove from your vocabulary when you’re serving.
See if you can guess which word it is from these extremely common sample questions below:
“Do you need anything else?”
“Do you need more water?”
“Do you need more bread?”
“Do you need another beer?”
“Do you need separate checks?”
“Do you need another minute with the menu to decide?”
“Do you need a to-go box?”
So... do you “need” to read through that list one more time, or do you “need” another minute still to figure out what one word I "need" you to never say to your guests when you’re serving them?
Now that I lay it out like that, you don’t really need me to tell you how rude you just might be coming across without even realizing it, do you? Or especially, how utterly inconvenienced you OBVIOUSLY will be, if some "needy" guest in your section actually has the unmitigated gaul to answer “Yes” when you ask them if they “need” something.
Forget everything else I’ve said if my style of serving just doesn't fit you, but let’s get this one right okay friends? Nobody you’ll ever wait on “needs” a thirty dollar Prime Rib shoved in their face today. Nor will they “need” a nice bottle of wine poured down their throat to wash it down. They don’t need deserts either. Really, they don’t!
We are here to bring people what they WANT, not what they need, okay?
(Actually, we’re here “TO TELL THEM what they want” but that concept might be a bit advanced for training day.)
So, one more time, in case you’ve already forgotten : Turn your question into an offer.
“Would you like….?” “May I bring you…?” “Could you use….?” "Would you prefer...?"
Use whatever words that come naturally to you, so long as “need” isn’t one of them. By practicing this and my other tips, you will easily and automatically find yourself offering superior service to all of your guests, exceeding their expectations, and making more money.
My proposed book* cover, from Shutterstock
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Additional Resources - Training NEVER ends, we just get lazy! When you're ready to really step up your game, learn from those whom I personally think are "the best in the biz!" David Hayden, author of "Tips Squared : Tips for Increasing Your Tips" and Jennifer Anderson, blogger, sommelier, and author of many helpful "crib sheets" and online courses at www.iamwaitress.com
* While I still haven't gotten around to publishing my 50 chapter blog in hard copy, if you'd like notification if/when I do, just send an email with the subject "Tip Or Stay Home" to me now at
GuyMalone @ Protonmail.com