I’ve been meaning to write this one for a while, but I haven’t had a chance, for many and various reasons (really, the amount of times I write that at the start of a post, I should really just stop making excuses and write the damn things).
Anyway. I have been working as a waitress for a while now and I feel that there are a few things you should know about your waitstaff. People seem to think this job is just a matter of writing down orders, bringing out food and taking money. I’m here to tell you it’s a lot more complicated than that. Obviously not all waitstaff you come in contact with actually have the following skills (I’m particularly reminded of Phoebe’s sister Ursula who waitressed at the cafe featured in hit comedy ‘Mad About You’ – yes, my knowledge of early to mid 90’s NBC sitcom comedy is that detailed). I’m not trying to defend those really, truly terrible waitstaff who bring you the bread basket in their pants (‘Friends’ reference there, for all you playing at home), but next time you’re in a busy restaurant and you catch sight of your waitstaff consider that, if they’re doing a good job and you are enjoying yourself and your food, it’s likely that they have some (or all) of the following skills:
Think of it this way. The kitchen is Israel and your little table of two is Palestine. Now, I’m not suggesting that the kitchen staff are going to enter the restaurant and start building an illegal settlement on your table, but you and the kitchen have conflicting goals, aims and beliefs (some dating back many hundreds of years), which essentially boils down to the fact that the kitchen wants to cook your food the way they always have and always do, and you want things different and slightly personalised (no onion, no pepper, extra crackling… you name it, you want it). Your waiter is like Sweden or Norway at a UN-sanctioned peace conference and is the go-between in negotiations between the kitchen and the table. ‘We can’t replace the goat’s cheese with parmesan, but I can offer you extra feta.’ The better the waiter is at getting the kitchen on side, the more likely it is that you will be able to enjoy the food you want to enjoy the way you want to enjoy it.
2) Language and Descriptive Skills
You see something on the menu. It sounds kind of interesting, but you are puzzled by some aspect of it. You ask the waiter a follow-up question. The waiter’s answer at this point is going to help you decide between taking a risk on something exotic or going for the burger. Also, your future enjoyment (or not) of your meal will depend a great deal on the accuracy of their descriptive powers (eg Your waitress tells you that you get five thin sausages with your mash. It comes out with three fat ones. If thin sausages are a particular passion of yours and their inclusion in the description therefore played a role in your decision to order said British staple meal, then you will, most likely, be sorely disappointed in your waitstaff). I’m not saying all good waitstaff are also potentially Pulitzer prize winning authors just waiting for their chance to shine… but, oh, ok, well, perhaps I am hinting that.
The best staff know what you want before you want it. They offer you starters and sides you never knew were essential to your dining pleasure until they were offered. They get you a full water jug before your old one runs out. They fetch sauces before you ask for them. They print the bill before you have to mime for it. The best staff even know what you’re feeling before you’ve processed and understood the feeling yourself. From across the restaurant, I have registered a look of unhappiness on the face of a customer who had just bitten into their meal and, in a matter of seconds, rushed to their side to rectify the situation. I think you’ll find that good waitstaff actually combine the empathetic skills of a Mother Theresa, the mind-reading abilities of Derren Brown and the rapid-fire response of Superman.
4) An Eye for Detail
You may not care that the water glasses on your don’t match, but I DO CARE. And furthermore, I WILL DO EVERYTHING IN MY POWER TO PREVENT SUCH A TRAGEDY OCCURRING. See, though you may not realise you care, you will, at some point, glance at your table (maybe there’s a lull in the conversation, or some joke has fallen flat) notice the mismatched glasses, and even if you’re not conscious of it, part of your brain will register, ‘hmmmm… something’s not quite right. Something looks a bit scrappy.’ And then, on some level, you will start to feel uncomfortable. You will feel awkward. Unhappy. Like, life is no longer worth living. You will leave the restaurant displeased by something you can’t quite put your finger on. I am so dedicated to my job as a waitress that I care about whether or not all the people sitting on your table have the same size water glasses. I care about whether or not all the tables in the restaurant have the exact same layout, even though people at Table x will never see the layout at Table z. I care if you’ve been given two entree forks instead of a mains fork and an entree fork. If, when setting up the restaurant, I had enough time to measure the gaps between the napkin and the cutlery with a ruler, I would do it. What I’m trying to say is that, at work, I am actually Carson from Downton Abbey (at work, mind. At home it’s another story all together. I just switch that part of my brain off. It gets tired, you see).
5) Strategic Planning
On a busy afternoon or evening in the restaurant, you need a plan of attack. You need to work like a chess-player, always thinking two or three steps ahead. Or, like a boy scout, always being prepared. Or, like an ARMY GENERAL ORDERING HIS TROOPS INTO BATTLE. You need to know what all your tables are doing and all your tables are going to want not just in the present moment, but in the FOLLOWING fifteen to twenty minutes so you can make certain that all things happen at the appropriate time. And, if that’s not possible, then you need to make sure that the most important things happen first and the least important happen sometime afterwards. For example, a lot of meals are being brought out from the kitchen for Table No. 1, just as you’ve just taken a coffee order from Table No. 2. It might seem like the coffee order is more pressing (because you have to make it yourself), but it could take up to ten minutes to get it all done. In that time, Table No. 1 could discover they don’t have their sides, one of their party is missing a meal and another’s meal is cold. If you ignore Table No.1 for 10 minutes to make coffee you can be assured that for the rest of the afternoon, you will genuinely feel like a soldier under attack from one particular quarter.
6) Interpersonal Skills
This one is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how little it is appreciated – probably because everyone thinks they can do it. There is a difference, however, between good interpersonal skills (mine) and excellent interpersonal skills (some of the girls at work). The trick is to make everyone think you are their best friend. And the best way to do that is to try and believe it yourself. Laugh convincingly at jokes that aren’t funny, or you don’t like or that don’t even make sense. Your customers are the most fascinating, interesting, delightful, entertaining people you’ve ever met (and, hey, sometimes its genuinely true). You learn to handle difficult customers (who may not be interested in being handled). You notice when customers want to be left alone and when they want to have a chat. On my whimsical days, I like to think of the restaurant as my own grand 1950s manor, in the style of an Agatha Christie novel, and I am the lady of the house, graciously welcoming this eclectic bunch of dignitaries into my home (of course, I never run it so far into the novel that a mysterious murder occurs). I am the hostess with the mostess, so to speak, swanning about in a flowing chiffon gown, making chit-chat with all my guests and making sure they are as comfortable as possible.
Yes, I know, I’m totally bonkers, but it gets me through my shifts.
7) Mathematical Ability
There are a lot of people out there who don’t even look at their bills at the end of the night (who are these people? How much money do they have? Where did they get it? Can I have some too please?) They just hand over their cards and say, ‘oh, just split it equally.’ Just split 106.93 equally between 6 equally? Umm…. ok, give me a second. I have used my 5th grade maths skills more in the past 6 months than I have since the 8th grade when we were suddenly allowed to use calculators for exams. You can’t really carry a calculator when you’re on the floor (well, you could, but there are so many other, more vital waitstaff tools that need to be carried about – pen, pad, bottle opener etc – that, by the time you start adding calculator to the list you may as well just grab a backpack and bring the till and wine cellar with you), so when someone hands you a bill and some cards and says, ‘oh, just split it equally’, you have to do some pretty quick (and accurate) maths. So, it may not be essential to do it manually, you could walk away and get the calculator, but in my personal experience, suddenly looking anxious and rushing off to get a calculator can make a customer nervous. And, the last thing we want to do is make a customer nervous. The less the customer has to worry about pesky, routine things like money and cutlery and condiments throughout a meal, the happier they are when they leave.