This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2015.
Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments.
From a server at a high-end Philadelphia restaurant:
As a server, you have to be flexible. You have to be able to cater to different expectations and be able to meet them within the first two minutes of talking to your guests. For me, it's about how to modify my serving style with each table.
For example, one night I had this group of guys. They were in their mid-30s, probably investment bankers—kind of arrogant. They think they're above you. You greet them, but they continue to talk and completely ignore you. What do you do then? Do you get intimidated and walk away? Is that the attitude you want to have? Or, do you just tell yourself, OK, so they are pompous assholes, but they might also be a really good table because you know they have the money to spend.
I'm not afraid of you. I don't know who you think you are, but you're in my house.
I think they would appreciate someone with balls who's not going to shy away because they totally ignore you. My response is to continue to talk over them until they stop talking and give me really annoyed looks. I just look right back at them, stare back at that person's eyes. I'm still going to do my spiel. I'm not going to walk away and come back and waste my time. I have about six other tables to worry about, so you're going to hear me when I'm talking to you.
That table's whole demeanor kind of changed toward the end of the night. They tipped me over 20 percent.
I'm not afraid of you. I don't know who you think you are, but you're in my house. Yes, you're my guest—but you have to respect me.
But I think the most important part of being a server is being a good salesperson. We're the face of the restaurant and the driving force for the restaurant to generate revenue.
The objective of working is to turn your table fast, so you can make as many turns as possible to make the most money possible. We get ranked based on sales per person and also have additional competitions based on our liquor sales or whatever. You're constantly put in a competitive environment.
If I'm approaching a large table—six or more—we offer a tasting menu. It's the most convenient way to turn the table quickly. You don't have to take orders for each individual, because that can take up to five or six minutes. Especially for customers who have never been there before, it's a great sales pitch. They don't know what to order, and it's a huge menu. I'm like, "You don't have to worry. It's always going to be enough for everyone, and you get the experience without having to do any work. Everything is preselected for you."
For people who are amateurs, who are so afraid to look at the wine list, that's when you guide them through it. You have to tell them with confidence. There shouldn't be any hesitation.
If they decide to go with the à la carte option, I'm taking control of the situation. I will say, "You should start with some appetizers and I'll make sure there are enough for everyone." So it's automatically an upsell without them even thinking about it. And then I'll say, "Each person order an entree, and you should probably share three or four salads for the table." So already in their head they're like, This is what we have to do. For a good server you establish that at the very beginning. Before they even had a chance to look at their menu, you already sold them.
As far as drinks go, when you approach the table and give water options, you point out the drink menu. They'll eventually find it, but even if they weren't interested in drinking, or weren't thinking about it, now they're thinking about it once you point it out.
For people who are amateurs, who are so afraid to look at the wine list, that's when you guide them through it. "This Malbec is great, but this Malbec here has a similar price point, probably $15 more." I tell them a little bit more about the history, the vintage, the climate where it's from. They're impressed with my wine knowledge, and they'll probably go with that. You have to tell them with confidence. There shouldn't be any hesitation.
The flow of the restaurant is unpredictable. It could be slow all night, then you get this huge push at 9 PM. You're completely unprepared. You're automatically strategizing how to maximize your income within that situation. You have to prioritize. And you have to stay calm. You have to have a clear mind or you're going to start making mistakes, and it usually cascades. Once that happens, then you're gone. You're going under.
People do Yelp about you. They could mention your name in the review, and you do not want that. So you do everything you can to cover your ass.
The best is if there's a convention in town. There are a lot of business people who aren't from this area. They're looking on Yelp for a higher-end restaurant. They want to spend money and be impressed. That's an easy sell for the tasting menu.
The people that come in after 10 PM on a weekend are probably people who have to work late themselves, so they tend to not have as much money. You already know they're probably just going to get one course. At that time of the night, you want to get out as soon as possible. You don't want to linger with a table that you're not going to make money off of.
Based on your judgment of that table, sometimes you don't really need to be there for them. They don't expect that level of service. As long as they get what they wanted, they're fine.
I think an important thing about being a good server is to be able to bounce back from a bad situation. You have to know how to recover. You don't want to have your table leave unhappy because that could reflect badly on the restaurant. And people do Yelp about you. They could mention your name in the review, and you do not want that. So you do everything you can to cover your ass.
Yes, money is important. But if people are going to come spend that kind of money in a restaurant, to experience something they have high expectations for, then they should leave with that high expectation met, if not better.
As told to Aaron Kase.