February 23, 2012 – How Waiters Read Your Table: Restaurants Train Servers to Judge Diners, Make Service More Personal; Nixing ‘Hello, My Name Is…’
What looks like a convivial scene is a waiter’s nightmare: people at a table, chatting away, and menus closed with drinks in their hands. Click on WSJ Video below:
Yet when Alex Martin, a 26-year-old waiter at Blue Smoke restaurant in New York, tried to take their order “they didn’t even look up,” he says. “If you are standing there for more than three seconds it’s like an eternity.”
At such times, Mr. Martin employs his go-to strategy of “the hand on the table.” Placing down his palm draws the group’s eyes up and out of the conversation, interrupting but without being pushy, he says. A few minutes later the men had ordered and quickly returned to chatting.
Called “having eyes” for a table, or “feeling” or “reading” the table by restaurant workers, it’s how the best waiters know what type of service you prefer before you tell them. From fine dining to inexpensive chains, restaurants are working to make service more individualized as the standard script (‘I’m so-and-so and I will be your server tonight”) is sounding dated.
Even chain restaurants like Denny’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill are focusing more on personalized service by training staff to note body language, eye contact and offhand remarks, hoping to make service feel less mechanical. Traditionally, eateries taught waiters to follow a script and push add-ons like desserts and drinks.
Getting service right, not just food, is increasingly crucial for restaurants. The number of people going to restaurants is expected to grow by less than 1% through 2019, slower than population growth, predicts NPD Group, a market research firm. At the same time restaurants from Applebee’s to fine-dining spots like Press St. Helena in California’s Napa Valley say guests expect better service as they continue to demand top value for their dollar and learn more about restaurants’ behind-the-scenes operations through TV shows and books.
We asked what can we do that will set us apart from the scrum,” besides discounting and coupons, says Wayne Vandewater, vice president of learning and development for Applebee’s, owned by DineEquity Inc. “Food is easy to copy, a building is easy to copy, but it’s not easy to copy our people.”
Some restaurants still employ waiter scripts, but now they are being used to dig for guest information. At Romano’s Macaroni Grill, an Italian-themed chain, waiters are taught to use their scripted offer of house wine to find out if the table will want a fast, leisurely, or lively meal. If “they say, ‘no, well, we are going to the theater,’ ” then the waiter knows dinner isn’t the main event, says Brandon Coleman III, chief marketing officer for the company. To speed up service, the waiter may bring the check at the same time as the food.
If diners have a laptop open on the table, they might not be interested in appetizers that are best for sharing or learning a lot about the cocktail menu, says Ricky Richardson, chief operating officer for Carlson Restaurants Inc., which operates T.G.I. Friday’s.
“We changed ‘suggestive selling’ to ‘situational selling,’ ” says Rene Zimmerman, senior director of training and development for Bob Evans Farms Inc., a family-style restaurant and food maker. Instead of offering every breakfast guest one additional item, say biscuits and gravy, waiters are taught to adjust their offer depending upon the guest. For a diner who places a lighter order, like a bagel and fruit, the waiter might suggest a cup of coffee or tea.
Restaurants are investing in training despite the historically high churn rate in wait staff, though turnover has slowed since the recession. Waiters can be paid below minimum wage in some states because they earn tips. In other states, they are paid a minimum wage that varies by state from $5 to $10, plus tips.
As part of a recent, two-week training course at the Cheesecake Factory in Burlington, Mass., Lauren McDonagh, 23 years old, sat with four other new employees before the lunch rush. They heard tips on how to interact with tables with children (if a kid says he doesn’t like green things, don’t use lettuce, even as a garnish), first-time guests (walk them to the restroom, don’t point), and celebrations (get at least five employees to sing “Happy Birthday”).
Ms. McDonagh and the others are taught to “tour guide” guests toward menu options they think are best, like easy-to-prepare food if they are in a hurry. When Ms. McDonagh began waiting tables without any training at age 18, “it took me three months to realize you give the dessert menu quietly to the mom, otherwise kids scream,” for dessert, she says.
Reading a table happens within seconds of a waiter coming to a table. By asking for a cocktail menu or smiling and making strong eye contact, “they are saying ‘hey, I want to engage with you and I want you to make me feel really important,’ ” says Mark Maynard-Parisi, managing partner of Blue Smoke, a pair of barbecue restaurants in New York, owned by Union Square Hospitality Group. If people seem shy, “you want to put them at ease, say, ‘take your time, look at the menu.’ “
Blue Smoke does seven days of training with new waiters, five days of trailing an experienced waiter and two days of being trailed by the experienced waiter. Each day includes a quiz and a focus such as greeting guests.
With parties of four or more, “the most important thing is to read the dynamic between the group,” Mr. Maynard-Parisi says. Alcohol (who is ordering more or less) is a potential point of contention. He reads eye contact and body language to see if a group is friendly (looking at each other) or less secure, like an uncomfortable work meeting (glancing around the room, fidgeting). “Am I approaching the table to rescue them or am I interrupting them?”
Because people often resist speaking up when they’re unhappy with their meal, waiters are taught to detect if a guest is unhappy. When asked about dinner, if a guest says, “‘It’s OK.’ That to me is a red flag,” says Allison Yoder, general manager of Press.
At Cheesecake Factory, employees are taught to look every guest in the eye when moving through the dining room, watching for people looking up from their meal, pushing food around their plate, or removing ingredients from their dish—all signs they might not like their meal. Even if it’s not their assigned table, they are trained to ask if anything is wrong and try to fix problems.
Reading a table is still more art than science. On a recent night at Blue Smoke a couple came in with a baby in a stroller, usually a demographic looking for a quick dinner. Instead, the baby fell asleep during the meal. “They spent so much money,” says Mr. Maynard-Parisis. They “got another cocktail and dessert and an after-dinner drink.”
The Signals You May Be Sending:
If a waiter reads the needs of your table correctly, you’re likely to end up with a good experience. Inadvertently giving off the wrong signals can doom a table to service that’s too rushed, too slow or just off kilter. Here, how to work the system.
If you’re chatty… A waiter is more likely to assume a friendly, chatty table is there to party. Get ready for more offers of drinks, dessert and a talkative waiter.
If you act moody… You may get better service. Several waiters said they are more careful to get every detail right when they believe a table is already in a bad mood (a couple fighting or a tense business meal perhaps).
If you say ‘It’s OK’… To attentive waiters, saying food is ‘OK’ is a red flag that you aren’t happy with your meal. The waiter or manager might dig for more information to fix the problem.
If you ask about the menu… Food questions are a sign that you either like learning about everything you might eat or you feel lost and need guidance. One menu question could lead to a long, full menu description. If you seem overwhelmed, the waiter might try to steer you toward a particular order.
If you grab the wine list first… Expect the waiter to focus wine explanations and questions about refills to you.
If you’re early and fancy… Diners who are dressed up and have an early dinner reservation may lead waiters to suspect they have another event that night and serve them at a fast clip.
If you’re wearing a suit at lunch… Diners who look like they just stepped away from their cubicle, whether in a suit or business casual, are bound to get speedier service. The exception: If the waiter realizes the boss or valued client wants to set a slower pace by asking for more time before ordering or pulling out papers for a sales pitch.
If you act like the ring leader… A waiter will try to determine who is in charge at the table through body language, clues in conversation or by who made the reservation, and defer to the wants of that diner.
If there’s no obvious leader… If no take-charge person emerges at the table, the waiter may struggle to figure out whether to be chatty or invisible and whether to make the service quicker or more leisurely.
How the check is brought to the table can make diners grumble. Some guests want the check without asking, some feel rushed if a check is placed on the table before they ask. When researchers asked customers which restaurant service mistake is worst in terms of overall satisfaction, they said not promptly settling the check when the guest is ready to leave, or problems with the check amount. (This complaint was second only to messing up the food order.) The research, which surveyed 491 people who had dined at a table-service restaurant within the past month, was published in the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly in 2010. Its ‘tricky,’ says Serge Krieger, general manager of fine-dining spots TRU and L2O Restaurant, both in Chicago. Instead of leaving people in check limbo, ‘we make them ask,’ says Mr. Krieger. ‘After coffee, we say, “Anything else I can get you?” And they usually ask for the check.’ To signal when diners are ready to pay, Applebee’s, owned by DineEquity Inc., has introduced check holders (see above) that say, ‘I’m ready to go!’ The new books are in about half of its 2,000 U.S. locations and customers are using them, says Wayne Vandewater of Applebee’s. (Credits: Photo – The Cheesecake Factory, Narrative – Sarah Nassauer for the Wall Street Journal).
The Master of Disaster