Waiting tables is a great training ground


"Sir, the specials tonight are....very special"

"Sir, the specials tonight are....very special"

Few jobs besides waiting tables allow for unbridled experimentation coupled with unparalleled immediate feedback  in the form of cold hard cash, or lack thereof, .

First of all let me say that I waited tables in a variety of establishments – from my very first job as a waiter as 17-year-old in a Shoney’s Big Boy to years spent as a waiter in high-end new American cuisine restaurant in a historic district in Williamsburg, VA and just about every kind of establishment in between.

First and foremost let me say that I wanted my customers to get good service and enjoy their meals. With that ground in rule in place everything else was open to experimentation. From how I greeted the tables to what specials I suggested and even how I described them. For some tables I was the formal waiter with the perfect upright bearing and stiff upper lip providing silent, efficient service striving to be invisible while for other tables I was the gregarious social animal full of laughter. As your table sat down you took the pulse of the party trying to figure out if it was a date, a business dinner, a social engagement, special occasion, or whatever. You also tried to figure out who was the alpha member of the table – note that I didn’t say alpha male.

Early on I discovered that more often than not the women at the table were in charge one way or another, either formally because they had invited clients to dinner or informally because if they weren’t happy than no one was happy. Either way acknowledging and deferring to the women in charge  of the table was a smart and easy decision. It was fascinating to me the number of my coworkers that would still pour wine for the man to taste even when a woman selected the bottle. The rule of thumb I was taught and used was whoever ordered the bottle, tastes the bottle. Simple, effective and it avoided embarrassment for everyone involved. Not to mention adding  an additional 5%-10% to my earnings from women who were pleased to be treated with the respect they had earned.

Once a waiter has the specific logistics and idiosyncrasies of a restaurant down cold that’s when the improvisation can start. Much like Jazz musicians you have to know the songs before you can change them. So I knew that I could ask the chefs to hold a meal or reverse the order of a meal – Occasionally I sell tables on the idea of dining continental, having salad as the last course before desert. You’d be surprised at how many tables really enjoyed such a simple novelty. The added bonus, of course, was that instead of sharing a few appetizers and salads between the table everyone ordered their own salad, driving up the per person spend and putting more money in my pocket, and in the restaurant’s as well. And the customers had a more unique and interesting meal. Truly a win, win, win.

Originally I became a waiter because Shoney’s was the only place that would hire a minor as a waiter since no alcohol was served. It was a perfect foundation for my career as a waiter. Paying attention to your tables and keeping their coffee cups full was a challenge when you had 10 tables, all with special requests, but I rose to the challenge and greatly enjoyed the adrenaline rush from moving non-stop for 6 hours. And those Shoney’s regulars weren’t shy about feedback. If you didn’t do something exactly the way they wanted they would stop you right in the middle of serving food and loudly dress you down before harrumphing off to complain to the manager.  You quickly learned that the woman at table 18 wanted her fudge sauce on the side, the bearded guy at table 12 wanted skim milk in a pitcher with his coffee and the kids at table 6 wanted extra ketchup on their burgers. And they all wanted all of those things right now all at the same time. I remained a waiter out of economic necessity and because I was talented.

Triage and prioritization became essential survival skills without which you’d spend your night in the weeds, restaurant speak for having so much to do that you can’t function. You quickly learned that a table without drinks was an unhappy table and if a table had dessert you had better be ready with the check just in case they decided not to linger. You quickly learned that the chefs and other back of house staff could make or break you, and often did so just for fun. More about that another time.

You'd be surprised at what goes on in the minds of your waiters and waitresses.

You'd be surprised at what goes on in the minds of your waiters and waitresses.

As enjoyable as the job could be, like many jobs sometimes it was just plain boring. And to make those nights go by faster sometimes you’d play games with other waiters. A favorite was the : ” I can sell more specials than you”,  with the winner getting a beer at the end of the night.  The chefs loved it when we played these sorts of game because we were showcasing what the chefs had created special for the night and we loved it because it was a personal challenge with bragging rights when you won. Creating new ways to market a mustard-grilled, free-range, organic chicken with fresh local Surry suasage and sour cherry-glazed duck breast served over a rosemary polenta  was hard. 

Although it tasted great, it was a mouthful to say and by the time you finished describing the dish in its entireity the table’s eyes usually glazed over and they’d order steak. So you learned to ask questions of the table soliciting what they liked or didn’t like. You asked if they had ever eaten free-range chicken before, or if they had a chance to taste the polenta, and so on. Eventually you’d craft your specials presentation with emphasis on the things that piqued their interest. More often than not I won those bets because I’m competitive and can be fairly persuasive.

That repetition of presenting specials still pays dividends for me now, especially when I have to present to C-level executives. When you’ve earned the chance to present to a C-level executive you had better make that presentation worth that person’s time. They will rarely sit through 45 powerpoint slides with a presenter rambling on and on. Even if they do sit politely they won’t be happy about it, more commonly they’ll whip the Blackberry on you or simply get up and leave the room.

A better way to go is to edit down the presentation to somewhere between 7-10 slides, all with some meat on them and have other supporting slides ready if needed. If you can’t communciate what you need to say in 10-15 minutes than you probably can’t do it in 45 minutes either. Sure additional details might be important but if you can’t show a business need and value quickly – then you probably don’t have either one. 

I also use my alpha recognition skills when meeting clients. It pays to know who is driving the project and who is just along for the ride. I’ve seen too many people focus on the C-level executive when it’s the director who really has the decision making authority that the C-level exec will just rubber stamp. This is especially true with technology sales – the CFO just wants to know about the numbers and the ROI payback period. Once those are established they’ll defer to their IT director to choose between vendors. If you don’t understand that simple fact, you are setting yourself, and your company, up for a disapointing quarter.

Were you ever a waiter? If so what lessons did you learn and what skills do you still use? -t

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