Good Service is a Skill

by Bryan Barbeau – DFW Office
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As a restaurant professional and someone who eats out often, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the industry. I’m sure you’ve seen the same thing, and I bet it’s annoyed you just as it has me. That observation? Service is horrible most places you go. Smaller restaurants with a few units seem to suffer the most, though certainly they aren’t the only ones who need to polish this facet of operations.

I recently went to a wonderful Pho restaurant in Fort Worth with my family. They weren’t super busy; it was early in the day and there were 5 tables. There were also 3 tables that were dirty. Not dirty as in needing to be wiped down, but dirty as in plates, bowls, and glasses sitting on them. There were two people working the floor. It’s not my intent to describe blow-by-blow the experience, so I’ll just summarize our meal. We ate, we were happy with the food, and we miraculously kept our 3 and 7 year old kids happy for the entirely of the 90 minute experience. You read that right. 90 minutes. For rice noodles in broth. In 90 minutes we had our water and tea refilled twice. We ate ice like it was going out of style. To be fair to the business, 20 of those 90 minutes was us waiting at our dirty table for the boba my wife ordered to go to be made. I gave up and we just told them to forget the boba. At that point, who could blame us? Will I go back? Probably by myself when I have an hour to kill for lunch. With my family? Never again.

At one point, my wife asked me why this was so bad. I told her to watch the staff and see how they were dealing with tables. During our visit, 3 other tables walked in, so we saw how the servers were doing their job.

Can you guess what we observed? It’s what we call Ping-Ponging. Both servers would go to one table, go to the kitchen, go to another table, go to the drink station, go another table, go to the kitchen, run out food, go to the kitchen. It never stopped. This is the single least effective way to wait tables. Ever.

It occurred to me that this staff (and most likely the owner) had no concept of the Steps of Service, nor of the idea of consolidating your steps. Note this is not a singular occurrence. I’ve seen this same scenario countless times across the country. Toward that end, let’s look at the basics of Good Service and what it takes to build that skill.

The 8 Steps

There are 8 steps to serving a table. This is the same industry-wide where you have table service. Certain steps will have different details, but the flow is always the same. I’ve added training tips to each step that anyone can take to their staff and improve service almost overnight. My take on how to execute these is based on two decades of serving, managing, and owning restaurants. Feel free to tweak the details to fit your concept, and for the love of food, keep the steps intact. And finally, I’ve written this from exactly what I did as a server. I was the guy the other servers hated. I would clear $100 in tips on any shift at any volume. As a manager, my staff would always make excellent tips and my sales were always better after I got the team trained to follow these steps my way. I know you can do the same.

Greet the Table/Take the Drink Order – Offer Appetizer

This is start of your journey. A server is a guide and a revenue generator. They are an expert on the food and drinks, and they should take that role to heart. I require my staff to greet in 30 seconds or less. That can be as simple as an acknowledgment (Hey guys! Be right with you.) I require my staff to take a drink order within 2 minutes. Drinks are VITAL. A table will wait to place a food order patiently (within reason) if they have something to drink.

My standard was “Hi! My name is Bryan and I’ll be taking care of you today/tonight. What can I get you started with to drink? Tea, Soda, a Heineken or Frozen Blue Margarita? Shots of tequila?”

Notice the specific drink offers. Notice I didn’t ask “Do you want anything to drink?” I’m selling. My staff is selling.

After taking drink orders, I say “I’ll get those right out for you. Should we start some fried calamari or a hummus plate as an appetizer?” Again, notice the specific suggestions. After the decide on apps, I finish with “I’ll get that appetizer started for you right away and be right back with drinks. Don’t forget to save room for some of our chocolate delight cake or apple pie. I had the cake for breakfast today and it was awesome! Last question, is this one check or separate checks? Got it! Be right back.” See what happened there? I sold dessert. Everywhere I worked as a server, and in my restaurants, I pushed a ton of dessert. As a server (when done correctly) it’s an easy sell and tip booster. As a manager, it’s an easy revenue increase.

On my way to the server station, I look at every single table I have I pick up empty plates or trash, note drink refills needed, or realize a certain table’s food should have already come out. The KEY here to communicate to your staff is that they have 5 minutes from taking that drink order to deliver the drinks. Another note worth mentioning. Fresh glass refills (except Ice Tea/Coffee) are awesome for improving service. I’m headed to get drinks anyway, I may as well load up with soft drinks for every table I have (that needs them) and deliver on my way to the table I started with. I teach the “three finger rule” to my staff: If you have three fingers from the brim on a drink, bring a refill. Yes, your staff will need tray skills to pull this off effectively. Don’t let the scare you. In concepts where trays simply didn’t exist, I had my bussers handle the majority of refills, especially tea, coffee, and water.

Deliver Drinks

Again, this happens within 5 minutes of taking the drink order. If the table needed time to decide on an app, I ask again here. This is also where you can do specials or featured items. Too many places try to do that at the Greet and Drink Order stage. That’s a waste. Sell them the appetizer. Plant dessert in their head. Then hit that special or feature. I’d rather add a $12 app and $8 dessert to every two-top than sell two specials. But guess what. At this point of the game, I am positioned as a guide. They trust my suggestions even though they haven’t tasted them, oddly enough. This is a subconscious reaction to the interactions we’ve had.

If my unit doesn’t have specials, I still point out what I want them to buy. Again, I’m selling. My staff is selling. Your staff should be selling. It goes like this. “Here’s your drinks, cocktails are on the way, and the appetizer is cooking. Real quick, let me tell you about our hickory smoked prime rib. It’s smoked for 8 hours and available tonight from rare to well done. We have an 8 ounce for $16 and a 12 ounce for $20. I can add extra ounces to your cut for $4 an ounce. Both include soup or salad and a baked potato. I also suggest the grilled salmon. It’s fresh from market and grilled to your temperature. Comes with a light aioli, grilled brussels, and roasted carrots for $12. Are you ready to order or do you need a bit more time?”

No matter where I waited tables, I would pick two things off the menu I wanted to sell, and I’d offer them. I chose a high and medium cost item. I’m never suggesting the $8 hamburger. I train my staff to do the same thing, and to change it up every so often. You will get regulars, and if you’re always pitching the same items, you become a joke, not an expert.

Take Food Order

There’s a hard and fast rule here: Write it down! If you are doing a good job as a server, you are talking to or checking on every table every time you are on the floor with no exceptions. You WILL forget something. Write. It. Down. Even if you use a POS, grab some paper from the printer and take your orders on it. Use a ticket book.

Next up, use pivot points. If your concept doesn’t have one, make them. It’s normally from where the server stands at the table, and the first guest to the left is #1, to their left is #2, and so on. Enforce this rule on your staff, or use it as a server, and you NEVER have to auction off food again. It also makes splitting checks MUCH easier. When using a good POS, I have my staff put drinks in according to pivots as well. Once again, makes splits much easier to do after the fact.

Read it back. Tell them what they are having in the order you took it. Ask if they need anything else. Be specific. Look at drinks or cocktails and mention refills. Ask if they need more ranch for the appetizer.

Finally, tell them what to expect. “I’ll give you a couple minutes to get through that appetizer then I’ll bring your soups and salads right out. Once again, my name, is Bryan, if you need anything else, don’t hesitate to ask!”

Deliver the Food

We’re assuming here that you’ve delivered bread, or salad/soup by now. This is the entrée we’re discussing.

Don’t auction the food to the table. Use those pivot points and name the plate as you set it in front of the guest. Make sure it’s faced correctly. If your concept doesn’t have facing on plates, you need to talk to your BOH. If your staff doesn’t know how to face plates, you need to train your staff.

Once the food is down, ask if everything looks correct and if anyone sees anything else they need. Anticipate drinks. Announce you’ll be right back with the refill. Something like “Okay folks, does everything look good? I’ll be right back with soft drinks and tea refills. Sir, would you like another glass of wine with your steak? Does anyone need anything else to make this meal perfect? I’ll be right back with those refills.”

It’s a great idea at this step to check on anything cooked to temp. If it’s a hamburger, steak, salmon, go ahead and ask the guest to cut through the middle and check the temp. Teach your staff to know what a medium rare should look like. If it doesn’t like right, regardless of the guest’s response, offer to fix it. It doesn’t have to be a crisis. “Oh, that steak looks a little rare, would you like me to have it cooked up a bit?” Make the offer is the important thing. Most guests don’t follow through, but they notice you paying attention to their needs.

2 Bite Rule

If you time getting your drink refills out correctly, you should arrive back at the table after everyone has had a few bites of their meals. Ask if everything is okay one last time. Tell them you’ll keep an eye on drinks for them. Then say goodbye so they can eat in peace. Please, don’t interrupt your guests while they are eating. Sure, ask if they want another alcoholic drink. Don’t ask if they want more tea, water, or soda. They’ll stop you when they don’t more. It’s annoying to them to be interrupted for you to ask if they want water. This is the last pitch for dessert, and more money. Usually we do something like “Here’s those drinks. Once again, does anyone need anything else before I leave you alone to eat? I set aside a slice of cake and pie for y’all to make sure we don’t out before you’re done eating! I’ll keep an eye on refills for you, and I won’t bug you again until you’re done eating. Enjoy!”

At lunch shifts, this is where we drop the check. “I’ll leave this here for you just in case you are in a hurry. There’s no rush, though, I’m here all day!”


You see an empty plate with silverware on it? Go pick it up and take it back to the kitchen. Do this consistently, and by the time your table leaves, clearing the table involves picking up 4 glasses and napkins. We ask one more time about dessert. “Should I go ahead and get that pie and cake out for you? Maybe a coffee or nice glass of port?”

If they pass. Drop the check. If they order, deliver it, and drop the check with dessert.

This next bit is VERY important. Dropping the check does not mean your job is done. No matter how long that table is there, keep drinks full and the table clean. Yes, campers suck. But when done right, campers pay really well.

Clear and set the Table

If your concept uses bussers, this is their job. If not, it’s yours, and you should do it quickly. There’s no trick to this. Just do it and do it fast. Your guests are judging you subconsciously for every detail of your unit. A dirty table is a huge negative to them.

Why do I Care?

You may be asking yourself this. Or if you approach your staff with this information, they may ask you this question. The answer is simple. Money.

Let’s say your per-ticket average is $50 and you average 10 tickets per shift. That’s an even $500 in sales. Add an app and dessert to only 20% of your tables for a shift. Say that your apps average $12 and your desserts average $8. That’s an extra $20 to those tickets. That’s an extra $40 in sales, or nearly one extra ticket per shift. As a manager, imagine if your entire staff pulls that off. Following these steps as described here will almost guarantee a 20% tip on every table. My staff would get to the point where they expected a 25% tip after getting this system down. Why? Guests were happy with the experience, and they thanked the server for it. I routinely would get tipped 25% – 30%. I was often surprised to get a 20% tip. Let’s assume, though, that your staff is averaging 15%. Yeah, that’s a lowball, but bear with me. If they do what we’re discussing here, they would earn an extra $6.00, turning their $75 night into a $81 night. Sure, that doesn’t look like much on paper, but remember that every number in this example is really low. In my experience, we sell apps, cocktails, and desserts to just about 60% of our tables when doing this. We’ll often sell two apps and two desserts to 4+ tops. I tell my staff that doing this increase both their sales and their tip average, easily bringing that $75 night to a $125 night.

And of course, you as the manager love the increased sales. Your labor cost is lower, your guests are happier, and your life is easier.

Feel free to copy this. Share it. Write it to fit your needs. It isn’t some exclusive information only I should have and charge for. This is service 101, and everyone benefits when you use it!