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It starts with a smile and a warm greeting …. good service, that is.

Have you ever sat down at a bar in a restaurant and encountered a service professional who did not smile or even greet you with a “hello” to start? How did it make you feel?

My husband and I stopped at a favorite restaurant of ours not too long ago and had this happen to us. We had just sat down; my husband excused himself for a moment and the bartender came up to me with no smile, no greeting, just a “can I get you something from the bar” query. She took my (our) drink order and left me with the “bar menu” because I did tell her we would be ordering food once my husband returned. I told my husband what had happened while he was away and how disappointed I was in her attitude which was so very different from what we’d experienced on previous visits.

At first he shrugged it off but then began to observe that she was doing this with others as well. Her attitude didn’t change when she brought our drink order; and, in fact, we had to prompt her to take our food order. Still -- no smile; no conversation. We didn’t quite know what to think or do. Should we say something to her or mention it to the manager? Perhaps she was having a bad day. Perhaps she was just not suited to be on the front line. What would you have done?

I was reminded of this experience, as I was reading “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles. The story takes place over the course of about 30 years in what was once Russia. The lead character spent a great deal of his life as a waiter in a restaurant in an upscale hotel while under house arrest.

The nightly rituals that were followed and the food and wines served, were described in intricate, mouth-watering detail, but what I found most interesting were the simple, basic, common sense instructions given to staff when dealing with clientele which were to:

  • Look customers in the eye.

  • Smile.

  • Answer their questions.

  • Make recommendations.

  • Record preferences accurately.

Sage advice for the times for sure, but it caused me to wonder what additional protocols wait staff are expected to follow in today’s world (assuming that all of the above still apply). I know that when my husband who did a short stint bussing tables many years ago in a 5-Star restaurant (who also knew this wasn’t something he was ever going to be good at), would add the following.

  • Never refer to anyone older than you as “you guys.”(A major pet peeve of his when he hears this phrase.)

  • Acknowledge their presence with a smile; identify yourself as their server by name.

  • Learn the art of hovering:Server passes by the table slowly enough to be seen by the patron -- but doesn’t stop unless he/she is spoken to or beckoned.Server acknowledges patron with a smile or a nod but does not interrupt.

  • Know and understand what’s on the menu; show enthusiasm for what it is you’re selling.

  • Pay attention to the details.

  • Serve from the right; pick up from the left.

I was intrigued enough by this and wanted to also know what qualities managers look for when hiring wait staff and posed the question to a networking group I am a member of. The qualities (not in any particular order) that stood out (many of which I’ m sure you’ll agree are applicable to any industry) were as follows.

  • Coachability.Are they eager/open to learn or is their attitude going to get in the way?

  • Bright eyed, alert and engaging.A spring in their step.

  • Positive attitude; willingness to get along; willingness to help others – a team player.

  • Sense of humor.

  • Kind; good work ethic.Honesty.

  • Passion in their voice and positive vibrations.You should feel the passion in their voice and their mannerisms when they respond to the question:“What is your why?” A person who knows what they want out of life.

  • Ability to engage with customers.They need to be able to “read” the room and give patrons what “they” want in food and interaction.

  • Their physical presentation:how they dress; their grooming.

A few other comments gleaned from my queries.

  • Without proper training and processes/procedures in place, there will be anarchy.

  • Hiring the best trained people and dropping them in a poorly run environment will stifle their enthusiasm and/ or cause them to leave.

  • Owners AND staff must be customer focused and driven.

  • If the staff is not having fun, they’re doing something wrong.They have to love it to be good at it.

  • Waiting tables is not an individual activity.Servers are part of a team and have the most intimate contact with customers.

  • Give staff a voice to share their ideas.Foster a selflessness team approach.

  • Look seriously at your bussers; hire them and train them in right.

  • Look for a performance based interview template to help you ask all the right questions to identify the qualities and traits that best fit your company.

Obviously, there are numerous restaurant types from chains to family-owned one offs, informal to the most formal, lower priced to the very pricey each with their own individual training programs and specifications/qualifications for hiring. I also know waiting tables is not something I could do, but those that do and do it very well, are amazing to watch and a credit to the restaurants they work for. My comments are more generalized in content but hopefully will provide some good “food for thought.”

Written by Mary Jo Wiseman, CMP | Author, “The Meeting Planning Process: A Guide to Planning Successful Meetings”


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