Service Station: A Waiter Is Not a Sherpa

Eric Weiss - September 2013

The late great humorist Nora Ephron summed up a major diner complaint when she titled an essay “No I Don’t Want Another Bottle of Pellegrino.” Aggressive refilling of water glasses and the consequent startling bottled water charges on tabs is one of half a dozen sticky situations, from escorting guests to tables to clearing the plates, service guru Eric Weiss ( discusses below.

From the moment guests enter the dining room to the time a waiter clears plates and brings the check, one inappropriate word or gesture can turn them off. Rather than find yourself trying to recover a badly handled situation, train staff in advance to tactfully anticipate customers' needs throughout the course of their meal.

Your table is ready.
Too often the person bringing guests to their table is Sherpa-like, leading an expedition up Mount Everest. How many times is that person really accompanying guests to the table and not walking between 10 and 30 feet in front? Are they concentrating more on the table as a destination rather than the guest? If a guest should trip and fall, or stop to admire a painting on the wall, where would they be?

As this is the first impression, it can be a propitious time for the restaurateur to find out more about the guest. Is this their first time at your restaurant, is it a special occasion, what is their mood? The guest, on the other hand, can determine if there is a true connection—will I be taken care of or just herded like a head of cattle into the pen? Take the time to walk with or slightly ahead—the information learned can be precious "fodder" to pass on to the service team.

Guests, not camels.
Servers or bussers have a notorious habit of automatically refilling water, wine, or beer glasses. A host with a party of six might not like to see one of his guests monopolizing a wine bottle, or a guest might not want to make numerous trips to the restroom. Guests can be unhappily surprised by inordinately large tabs for bottled water.

Always ask or motion to the guest with an open hand if you are about to pour a beverage. Do not assume that every guest would like his or her glass filled to the brim.

Boarding house reach.
Guests like their personal space. When any one of your service staff reaches across them, an apology is in order. "Pardon me," "Excuse me," and "May I" are always correct. The nonverbal request making direct and engaging eye contact asking for permission will never be considered intrusive.

Every table has a "power position."
This location is one where there is an optimal view of every guest at the table as well as in the dining room. It’s out of the way of trafficked areas. It doesn't force the diner to turn his head 360 degrees "Exorcist-style" as you address the table.

It’s ideal to return to that position throughout the service. Your guests will know that when you are standing there, you have something important to say. Of course, there are exceptions—banquette seating or physical restrictions in the restaurant. Just be aware that your derriere is not parked in someone's face.

Clean Sweep.
Polls show that diners' most frequent complaint is when one person's dishes are being cleared while others are still eating. It makes them feel as if they have to gobble down their food in order to keep up. This is an absolute "no-no" unless someone asks you to remove their plate, they have pushed their dish obviously out of the way, or they have stacked their dishes themselves with their napkin on top just to make it clear. And even then, it’s appropriate to ask "May I?" In service, asking for permission as opposed to making assumptions is key.

I will never forget a bartender at a seafood restaurant in Connecticut who literally threw the change at my face when I asked her for the remainder of a $10 bill, $7.50 of which went for drinks.

You are not a teller at a bank. Don’t ask guests how or if they would like their change when they are paying the bill. It is entirely up to them when paying cash if and how much of a gratuity they would like to leave.