This week I'm celebrating two years working at Plum Bistro and almost three years as a server. I enjoy my job, and for the most part the people I meet are pretty great, but sometimes even really great people can make my job difficult without even meaning to. So here are some insider tips for those of you who have not had the pleasure of working in the food service industry!
1. Being seated.
If a host seats you somewhere, it's usually for a reason, even if that reason may not always be apparent. A restaurant may look mostly empty, but especially in a smaller place you really have to optimize seating to accomodate reservations and anticipate rushes. If you don't like where you are seated, please ask about your other options! Often the host can make something else work, but please don't move to another table without asking, or be offended if a host declines to let you sit exactly where you want. They are not doing it because they love to be withholding.
Serving is a lot about timing. I don't mind spending time recommending dishes or answering questions, but telling me you are ready to order when you are not (and then me waiting raptly at your table for you to make up your mind) is not an efficient use of my time and it makes it hard for me to remember your table's order. Please decide what you want before you tell me you are ready. I don't mind coming back in a few minutes!
Often I am asked an opinion between two dishes, and after I give it, the customer takes my recommendation, but asks for it without something. Like, say, olives. I love olives, and recommend dishes based on olives being a part of the flavor profile. A lot of times that ingredient you are asking me to leave out is a significant part of what makes that dish good, so if you don't like olives, don't choose something where olives are a central ingredient. The dish without it is incomplete and you are compromising your food experience. It's okay not to like things, but if can't find anything on the entire menu to suit you without adjusting it to your "tastes," you probably need to adjust your tastes. (Granted, I don't personally have a lot of sympathy or patience for picky eaters. I think it's mostly psychological.) Same goes for subbing. I'm happy to sub asparagus for broccoli, but picking parts of different dishes off the menu and asking me to ask the kitchen to make some frankenstein dish is not only a total pain in the arse for me (and the kitchen) it's also a bad idea since the chefs work hard to design flavor combinations that work. That's their job.
A lot of people don't know that at most restaurants, servers keep their own bank. What does this mean? It means I carry a wallet full of 1s, 5s, and 10s and when you pay cash and ask for change, I keep your cash and pay you change from my personal bank. Then at the end of the night I pay my cash sales back to the restaurant. Still with me? What this means is that there is no drawer of money anywhere that belongs to the restaurant. So if you want change for your $100 bill on a $15 tab that can really screw me for the rest of the night, since you now have all my small bills, and I have your very large bill that is no use to me for making change for my other customers. Even over the course of the night, multiple people asking me to change their twenties into a 10, a 5, and five 1s can really put me in a tight spot. Sometimes I have enough cash sales (especially if it's toward the end of a shift) that it is no problem, but please don't assume I have a bottomless pile of small bills with which to be your personal bank.
It is AWESOME when people pay in cash and say "the rest is yours" that is so easy for me. But if you do need change (and you often do), awesome people let me know how much they want back. Like if your tab is $20.36 and you want to tip me $3-$4, you can just say, "Please give me $6 back." That way I don't have to dig up 64 cents in change just for you to give it back to me. Saves me SO much time.
Paying with credit card is fine too! Paying with 7 credit cards is considerably less fine. If you are eating out with a large group of people, please consider bringing cash and telling your friends to as well. I have no problem splitting the bill a few ways, it's just when we get to four splits or more that it becomes an issue. Not because I'm lazy, but because running all those cards takes a really long time and I can get really behind with the rest of my tables. Not only that, it means I'm monopolizing the computer and credit card machine (and we only have one where I work) so none of the other servers can run credit cards, put in food orders, or print checks while I'm figuring out your bill. It can mess up the timing for the entire restaurant.
Tipping is how you pay for a service you have received. Someone has done all the communication and transportation of food for you so that you get to relax. So if you don't tip, even though legally no one can make you, it's no different than stealing. This business works on a cultural assumption that you will pay me 10-20% of your bill, and if you tip less than 10% that is stealing. From me. If you accidentally take your credit card receipt with you--you know, the one you write the tip on and sign--that is no different from accidentally walking out of a store with merchandise you did not purchase. And it happens to me about twice a week. Here in Washington I make a decent minimum wage, but many states have a special "server" minimum wage. In Michigan I made $2.65 an hour, which is basically slave labor if I'm not getting tipped.
So, how much to I expect? Well, that depends.
Were you impressed with my knowledge of the menu or did I spend extensive time recommending and explaining dishes to you? 18-20%
Do you need special food to accomodate your allergies and I have to make special communications with the kitchen? 20% (or 25% if you are really a pain in the butt...we know it's not your fault, but if I'm working hard to keep you safe, please reward me).
Do you have children that have made an enormous mess? 20% at least. Especially because children's menu items cost less, but are just as much work to deliver.
Did I split your bill 6 ways? 20%
Did I provide a basic but efficient, friendly service? 15% please.
15% also acceptable if your bill is inflated by expensive items, like if you ordered two expensive bottles of wine. (This also works in the opposite direction. Order 18 different $1 tacos? Percentage should be WAY up.)
If I made a small error, but fixed it right away? I'm sorry you had to ask for ketchup twice. 15%
Did I make an error that seriously interfered with the enjoyment of your meal? It doesn't happen often, but when it does I always feel bad about it and have no problem accepting a low tip. 10%. Lower only if I was truly heinous.
And just FYI, the kitchen and bartenders get a cut of the tips too! This varies by restaurant, but where I've worked the kitchen gets 20%, so when you tip your server, you are also tipping the kitchen and maybe the bartender. So many people feel your love!!!
Always remember to look over your itemized bill for any errors, and if you are in a larger party, often an "auto-gratuity" is added at 18-20%. You don't want to accidentally tip on top of that, unless it's because 18% isn't enough for the excellent service you received. Then please do! Also, unless you are planning on filing your itemized receipts for business expenses or something, please leave it with me. That way I don't have to print out another one and we can all save some trees. YAY!
5. Camping out.
We all love long and luxurious meals, and I want you to have that. Within reason. Before you decide to "set up camp" at a table, however, please take into consideration a few things. Is the restaurant busy? Depending on the size of the party, reservations are set 1.5-2.5 hours apart. It's hard to plan for which parties are going to be longer than usual. If you're making a reservation, you can ask the host for a longer reservation if you know you are going to be a while, and that will help her plan...but not only can you hold up reservations, but also mess up wait-time estimations. It often happens that I tell a waiting party it will be 15 minutes. But then my table decides to stay half an hour after they've finished eating. The party waiting is never pleased about waiting 40 minutes when I said 15. In fact they are usually pretty bitter about it. I really don't like asking tables to leave. A few years ago at a restaurant, I was asked if I could leave and I was pretty offended, but now I understand why. In any case, it's not fun to be put in the position of potentially offending the people who decide your tip.
"Camping out" keeps one of the tables in my section out of circulation, meaning, I'm not making any money off of that table. It's not a big deal, but it's kind of a bummer. If you decide to linger longer, you may want to tip a little extra.
Working at a restaurant is exhausting work, and when my shift is over, I want to go home...buuuut I can't close out and go until all my tables have paid (and I've gotten the signed copy back.) It's a bummer to sit around and wait while your table neglects the bill. Also, if your server tells you that her shift is over and she is transferring you to a new server, that is your cue to pay (unless you aren't done eating, in which case don't worry about it.)
The courteous way to hang out after dinner is to tell your host or server, "We'd like to stay and chat for a bit, let us know if you absolutely need this table." Pay soon after you are finished, and return your bill to your server.
I hope this info share is...well, informative. I certainly think servers could also improve a lot, but I know it would be easier to provide good service for everybody if everyone knew a little more about how things work in a restaurant.