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Nov/09
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NY Times list of dos and don’ts illustrates divide between guests and service industry

Currently making the rounds on Twitter is an article from The New York Times by Bruce Buschel, the main thrust of which is a list consisting of 100 dos and don’ts for restaurant staff. The response has been equally vitriolic and congratulatory, and it seems to be split fairly evenly between industry types and guests, respectively.

The former tend to take issue with Buschel for not understanding how much shit they put up with while the latter seem more than happy to share their dining-out horror stories. To be sure, there are plenty of commentators who occupy the middle ground on a sliding scale and I would lump myself in with them but I think the heated response to this article points to the frustration both sides feel towards each other which is just as much about a lack of respect and understanding as it is about different standards of service.

While I’m all about taking Buschel to task for his “modest” list (not to mention his lack of experience in the industry) he does raise some good points. Rules are good but what’s often missing from a strict interpretation of said guidelines is giving the server the necessary leeway to tweak them as befits each situation.

With that in mind, I’m going to go through Buschel’s list, point by point, and offer my take. (I’m also going to do my best to refrain from incriminating myself re: my current place of employment but I might slip up from time to time. Anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant knows the difference between not giving a shit and mindlessly following the company line; sometimes you gotta work with what you have.)

1. Do not let anyone enter the restaurant without a warm greeting.

Anyone walking into a new place can feel a bit out-of-place and while a chorus of hellos can be a bit disconcerting, even a bit of eye-contact and a smile can make a difference. But really, why be phony?  Anyone with half-a-brain can see through that corporate bullshit.

2. Do not make a singleton feel bad. Do not say, “Are you waiting for someone?” Ask for a reservation. Ask if he or she would like to sit at the bar.

I think it’s perfectly acceptable to ask if they will be expecting anyone else. This can usually be done as a precursor to clearing away any extra table-settings but I suppose if the restaurant was a bit more formal, you could ascertain this at the host stand and have the table ready for the guest before they are seated.

3. Never refuse to seat three guests because a fourth has not yet arrived.

I’ve never seen this happen but I don’t live in NYC.

4. If a table is not ready within a reasonable length of time, offer a free drink and/or amuse-bouche. The guests may be tired and hungry and thirsty, and they did everything right.

Sure.

5. Tables should be level without anyone asking. Fix it before guests are seated.

Ditto.

6. Do not lead the witness with, “Bottled water or just tap?” Both are fine. Remain neutral.

A lot of places require their servers to offer bottled water first. This is one instance where I will offer all three options (still, sparkling or tap) but I do think guests should be aware that this is often a sticking point with owners.

7. Do not announce your name. No jokes, no flirting, no cuteness.

Again, a lot of owners expect their staff to introduce themselves, whether they want to or not. I tend to play it by ear. Some guests seem like they might want to know my name, others don’t. Some like jokes and flirting too.

8. Do not interrupt a conversation. For any reason. Especially not to recite specials. Wait for the right moment.

It might be my upbringing but I hate interrupting people. Sometimes, you have no choice.

9. Do not recite the specials too fast or robotically or dramatically. It is not a soliloquy. This is not an audition.

Sometimes, guests won’t even want to hear about the damn specials. While not quite a request situation, I’d be more inclined to ask the guests if they want to hear about them.

10. Do not inject your personal favorites when explaining the specials.

Again, I’d play this one by ear. Some guests really like to be guided like that and others don’t give a shit. One thing I will not do is pretend everything is good. Some dishes are better than others and my tip’s usually bigger when I save a guess from making a shitty choice.

11. Do not hustle the lobsters. That is, do not say, “We only have two lobsters left.” Even if there are only two lobsters left.

I agree that it’s a bit fucking gauche.

12. Do not touch the rim of a water glass. Or any other glass.

Sure.

13. Handle wine glasses by their stems and silverware by the handles.

Ditto.

14. When you ask, “How’s everything?” or “How was the meal?” listen to the answer and fix whatever is not right.

Ideally, the guest should be able to bring anything that’s wrong to the attention of the server but many people won’t bring anything up. A good server is continually providing table maintenance and if they’re paying attention, there are plenty of options to ascertain whether everything’s alright.

15. Never say “I don’t know” to any question without following with, “I’ll find out.”

Absolutely.

16. If someone requests more sauce or gravy or cheese, bring a side dish of same. No pouring. Let them help themselves.

If they want to drown their steak in shitty gravy, that’s their prerogative.

17. Do not take an empty plate from one guest while others are still eating the same course. Wait, wait, wait.

I couldn’t agree with him more. Unless they ask me to remove it, those plates should stay on the table till everyone is done.

18. Know before approaching a table who has ordered what. Do not ask, “Who’s having the shrimp?”

Basic, basic, basic shit. Everyone knows you should never auction the food but the guests need to stay in their own fucking seats.

19. Offer guests butter and/or olive oil with their bread.

My restaurant requires us to only offer butter when it’s requested. Naturally, I flout this rule whenever possible. Some people like butter.

20. Never refuse to substitute one vegetable for another.

What kind of parents did you have? Eat your fucking veggies.

21. Never serve anything that looks creepy or runny or wrong.

Doesn’t this one fall under common sense?

22. If someone is unsure about a wine choice, help him. That might mean sending someone else to the table or offering a taste or two.

I’d go so far as to say that every server in the restaurant should be able to pair most of the dishes on the menu with the wines that are available. Hell, they should be able to sell wine to most guests off the top of their head without having to resort to handing them a list. Tastings should be offered unreservedly though.

23. If someone likes a wine, steam the label off the bottle and give it to the guest with the bill. It has the year, the vintner, the importer, etc.

If she’s cute and you have time, sure. Realistically, write that shit down and pass it on.

24. Never use the same glass for a second drink.

If you’re pouring at the table, this is not a problem.

25. Make sure the glasses are clean. Inspect them before placing them on the table.

This should be part of any checklist prior to opening for business. Same with cutlery.

26. Never assume people want their white wine in an ice bucket. Inquire.

I find the bucket to be kind of old-fashioned. Many whites shouldn’t be served ice-cold anyway. Some old folks really dig this but it’s strictly by request.

27. For red wine, ask if the guests want to pour their own or prefer the waiter to pour.

How am I going to sell them that next bottle if they take forever to finish the first one?

28. Do not put your hands all over the spout of a wine bottle while removing the cork.

Same as with a glass.

29. Do not pop a champagne cork. Remove it quietly, gracefully. The less noise the better.

Agreed.

30. Never let the wine bottle touch the glass into which you are pouring. No one wants to drink the dust or dirt from the bottle.

Who’s serving a dirty bottle of wine?

(Side note: By this point in the writing of this article, I’d begun drinking. Make of that what you will.)

31. Never remove a plate full of food without asking what went wrong. Obviously, something went wrong.

Maybe she’s an anorexic and I’m a big jerk for asking?

32. Never touch a customer. No excuses. Do not do it. Do not brush them, move them, wipe them or dust them.

Unless they want you to.

33. Do not bang into chairs or tables when passing by.

How about the restaurant puts together a floor plan that makes sense?

34. Do not have a personal conversation with another server within earshot of customers.

It’s way more fun to hang out on the line anyway.

35. Do not eat or drink in plain view of guests.

Maybe owners should start feeding their staff.

36. Never reek from perfume or cigarettes. People want to smell the food and beverage.

Valid unless the guests are smelling just as bad and they usually do.

37. Do not drink alcohol on the job, even if invited by the guests. “Not when I’m on duty” will suffice.

But how am I supposed to get through my shift with a smile? Alcohol makes me more fun!

38. Do not call a guy a “dude.”

Unless he deserves to be called a dude. But if Esquire thinks the word should be retired, I’m with them.

39. Do not call a woman “lady.”

A bit confrontational unless you do it right. I don’t say it often but when I do, it makes perfect sense.

40. Never say, “Good choice,” implying that other choices are bad.

But some choices clearly are! If you insist on ordering the risotto after I lavish praise on the choices of the other members of your party, you are an idiot and deserve everything you’ve got coming to you.

41. Saying, “No problem” is a problem. It has a tone of insincerity or sarcasm. “My pleasure” or “You’re welcome” will do.

I can make the latter two sound just as insincere if I want to.

42. Do not compliment a guest’s attire or hairdo or makeup. You are insulting someone else.

I prefer to think of it as giving them an opportunity to do better next time.

43. Never mention what your favorite dessert is. It’s irrelevant.

Oh you’re right, pardon me! I just currently work there, the latest in a long line of restaurants with a wide variety of cuisines and I obviously have no idea what I’m talking about. I have yet to meet one guest who doesn’t appreciate honesty from a server.

44. Do not discuss your own eating habits, be you vegan or lactose intolerant or diabetic.

I must admit that I don’t like talking about my eating habits, my dead grandmother or my sex life with guests (unless it could potentially involve them later that night).

45. Do not curse, no matter how young or hip the guests.

Some guests like it when I swear. I make them feel younger. Also, I make the hotel seem less stuffy when I swear in front of our younger guests.

46. Never acknowledge any one guest over and above any other. All guests are equal.

Whomever’s paying the bill is my best-friend-of-the-moment unless she’s worth a double-take and isn’t seeing the former.

47. Do not gossip about co-workers or guests within earshot of guests.

Again, the line is the best place to do this. The back-of-the-house staff will definitely want to get in on this.

48. Do not ask what someone is eating or drinking when they ask for more; remember or consult the order.

What piggy wants, piggy gets.

49. Never mention the tip, unless asked.

Foreigners are getting much better at realizing that North America doesn’t pay its wait-staff quite as much and we rely on tips for a living but I’m also happy to educate the odd hold-out.

50. Do not turn on the charm when it’s tip time. Be consistent throughout.

If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you.

51. If there is a service charge, alert your guests when you present the bill. It’s not a secret or a trick.

The only way it could be a secret was if it was printed in invisible ink. If you can read, you’re going to notice there’s an auto-grat. If you’re a drunk little shit who doesn’t read the fine print, you just got what was coming to you.

52. Know your menu inside and out. If you serve Balsam Farm candy-striped beets, know something about Balsam Farm and candy-striped beets.

The chef better damn well let me taste it then.

53. Do not let guests double-order unintentionally; remind the guest who orders ratatouille that zucchini comes with the entree.

I’m their server, not their mum.

54. If there is a prix fixe, let guests know about it. Do not force anyone to ask for the “special” menu.

Most restaurants require their staff to let every table know about their specials. Me, I ask my tables if they’d like to to hear about them. I don’t want to waste our time reciting information they don’t want to hear about.

55. Do not serve an amuse-bouche without detailing the ingredients. Allergies are a serious matter; peanut oil can kill. (This would also be a good time to ask if anyone has any allergies.)

Anyone who really has allergies will volunteer the information and those who don’t deserve to be on the shortlist for the Darwin Awards.

56. Do not ignore a table because it is not your table. Stop, look, listen, lend a hand. (Whether tips are pooled or not.)

Unless I’m busy in which case my coworker should be doing a better job at handling their shit. While we’re on the subject, nothing is more annoying than a guest hailing down every staff-member in the joint to make the same request. If your server’s doing their job, they should be in the general vicinity and able to handle any requests you might have.

57. Bring the pepper mill with the appetizer. Do not make people wait or beg for a condiment.

Certain condiments (ketchup, sugar, etc.) should be ascertained before the dish is brought out but if you really don’t think the kitchen knows how to season a dish, you can ask for the fucking pepper at which point I’ll happily bring it to you.

58. Do not bring judgment with the ketchup. Or mustard. Or hot sauce. Or whatever condiment is requested.

Nah, I’ll just laugh about it with the guys on the line after I bring it to you.

59. Do not leave place settings that are not being used.

Fucking obvious standard of service. Any server who doesn’t bring extra settings before the dish is placed or neglects to clear used items after a course doesn’t know what they’re doing.

60. Bring all the appetizers at the same time, or do not bring the appetizers. Same with entrees and desserts.

Sometimes we fuck up. A simple explanation to the guest when the plate’s brought out will suffice.

61. Do not stand behind someone who is ordering. Make eye contact. Thank him or her.

I like to stand in one position at the head of the table and work my way around, ladies first.

62. Do not fill the water glass every two minutes, or after each sip. You’ll make people nervous.

The water glass should be refilled when there’s a third left.

62(a). Do not let a glass sit empty for too long.

I’ll do my best.

63. Never blame the chef or the busboy or the hostess or the weather for anything that goes wrong. Just make it right.

When I’ve only got two guys in the kitchen making food for me and my coworker plus the bar and a banquet or two, you can bet I’ll quickly explain to the table the reason for the delay in service.

64. Specials, spoken and printed, should always have prices.

If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be eating out.

65. Always remove used silverware and replace it with new.

See, the small fork, yeah that one, is meant to be used with your appetizer and then you work your way inwards. If you do your job right, you’re gonna have enough cutlery to last you the entire meal. Don’t worry about the spoon for your ice cream, I’ve got it covered.

66. Do not return to the guest anything that falls on the floor — be it napkin, spoon, menu or soy sauce.

Finders keepers. The above go in the garbage. The drugs and money are mine.

67. Never stack the plates on the table. They make a racket. Shhhhhh.

No server should be carrying more than three or four plates at a time. Two go on your arm, one gets stacked and the other carries the cutlery.

68. Do not reach across one guest to serve another.

I wouldn’t have to if the floor plan allowed me to reach everyone conveniently.

69. If a guest is having trouble making a decision, help out. If someone wants to know your life story, keep it short. If someone wants to meet the chef, make an effort.

But I thought my opinion was irrelevant? As for life stories, I like to look at it as I might if I was talking to some girl in a bar. Be brief but interesting and leave them wanting more.

70. Never deliver a hot plate without warning the guest. And never ask a guest to pass along that hot plate.

Common sense.

71. Do not race around the dining room as if there is a fire in the kitchen or a medical emergency. (Unless there is a fire in the kitchen or a medical emergency.)

I’m gonna walk as fast as I have to get shit done but I’m not gonna panic either.

72. Do not serve salad on a freezing cold plate; it usually advertises the fact that it has not been freshly prepared.

Where are these cold plates coming from? Most times, plates are too fucking hot or they’re wet.

73. Do not bring soup without a spoon. Few things are more frustrating than a bowl of hot soup with no spoon.

Like I said, every server should be setting up their tables before they bring out the plates.

74. Let the guests know the restaurant is out of something before the guests read the menu and order the missing dish.

When possible sure but guests are really good at skipping steps of service and a server needs to be able to think on their feet.

75. Do not ask if someone is finished when others are still eating that course.

Superfluous. The plates will be cleared when everyone’s done.

76. Do not ask if a guest is finished the very second the guest is finished. Let guests digest, savor, reflect.

What is this, some kind of Zen approach to dining? Am I supposed to remind them to chew thirty times as well? Fuck off.

77. Do not disappear.

Unless I need to take a shit, eat, flirt with that chick at the bar or tell a story to the host, you bet I’ll be right there.

78. Do not ask, “Are you still working on that?” Dining is not work — until questions like this are asked.

A simple “Have you had sufficient?” will suffice.

79. When someone orders a drink “straight up,” determine if he wants it “neat” — right out of the bottle — or chilled. Up is up, but “straight up” is debatable.

See, with vodka you’re either in the chilled camp or you like it room-temperature. This is a good point and I might actually start doing this.

80. Never insist that a guest settle up at the bar before sitting down; transfer the tab.

Sure.

81. Know what the bar has in stock before each meal.

That’s assuming the bartenders know what they’re doing.

82. If you drip or spill something, clean it up, replace it, offer to pay for whatever damage you may have caused. Refrain from touching the wet spots on the guest.

Sometimes, I love working at a hotel where I’m not liable for pretty much everything. For the rest of you, a straight-up boss should cover any damages incurred by their staff.

83. Ask if your guest wants his coffee with dessert or after. Same with an after-dinner drink.

Fair enough.

84. Do not refill a coffee cup compulsively. Ask if the guest desires a refill.

Ditto.

84(a). Do not let an empty coffee cup sit too long before asking if a refill is desired.

I’m trying to be patient but Buschel comes across as quite the anal twit, doesn’t he?

85. Never bring a check until someone asks for it. Then give it to the person who asked for it.

Some restaurants mandate check placement which sucks for their staff. I know when my table wants their check; I get a kick out of having it right ready for them and the guests like it too.

86. If a few people signal for the check, find a neutral place on the table to leave it.

The center of the table’s a terrific place to drop it. I let them fight it out. If someone’s actually eager enough to seek me out, I always give them the opportunity to pay and it’s usually worth my while.

87. Do not stop your excellent service after the check is presented or paid.

A little extra water or coffee never hurt if you can spare the time.

88. Do not ask if a guest needs change. Just bring the change.

I like to add “I’ll bring you your change right away.” Three-quarters of the time they wave me away and this saves me time.

89. Never patronize a guest who has a complaint or suggestion; listen, take it seriously, address it.

If your complaint is bullshit in which I will let you say your peace, apologize and then go have a laugh with the guys on the line about it.

90. If someone is getting agitated or effusive on a cellphone, politely suggest he keep it down or move away from other guests.

Like hell. Unless they’re screaming into the phone, I’m going to leave them be.

91. If someone complains about the music, do something about it, without upsetting the ambiance. (The music is not for the staff — it’s for the customers.)

If the staff got to pick the music, the guests would probably be a whole lot happier. Why does every owner think that soft jazz is the perfect accompaniment to dinner? I wish more guests would complain about the music; the management might actually stop playing Top 40.

92. Never play a radio station with commercials or news or talking of any kind.

If a restaurant can’t afford an iPod, they shouldn’t be open.

93. Do not play brass — no brassy Broadway songs, brass bands, marching bands, or big bands that feature brass, except a muted flugelhorn.

Fuck right off.

94. Do not play an entire CD of any artist. If someone doesn’t like Frightened Rabbit or Michael Bublé, you have just ruined a meal.

Discretion’s always key but sometimes one artist can build and elevate the vibe. I like Motörhead but I don’t play Ace of Spades. Conversely, Tom Waits’ Closing Time is always a good idea.

95. Never hover long enough to make people feel they are being watched or hurried, especially when they are figuring out the tip or signing for the check.

Give ‘em space.

96. Do not say anything after a tip — be it good, bad, indifferent — except, “Thank you very much.”

What can you say really? Move on to the next bunch.

97. If a guest goes gaga over a particular dish, get the recipe for him or her.

Only if they ask for it.

98. Do not wear too much makeup or jewelry. You know you have too much jewelry when it jingles and/or draws comments.

I like heavy eyeliner on women. They can put on as much as they like. Jewelry’s annoying though.

99. Do not show frustration. Your only mission is to serve. Be patient. It is not easy.

I EXIST ONLY TO SERVE.

100. Guests, like servers, come in all packages. Show a “good table” your appreciation with a free glass of port, a plate of biscotti or something else management approves.

Why involve management in this one-on-one interaction? They’ve got their bottom-line to think about.

Bonus Track: As Bill Gates has said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” (Of course, Microsoft is one of the most litigious companies in history, so one can take Mr. Gates’s counsel with a grain of salt. Gray sea salt is a nice addition to any table.)

He would know wouldn’t he? The guest is not always right but we, the industry, generally have to be the kind of pussies who let them think they are. It’s not like the satisfied ones are any more right (“That’s the best steak I’ve ever had!”); but they’re not quite as annoying.

And that’s the list. Whether Buschel means well or not, he comes across like an elitist dick who wants to open a restaurant to correct all of the perceived injustices servers past and present have inflicted upon him. Like so many folks who’ve wanted to own a restaurant, he goes too far and comes across as the kind of classist motherfucker who views his staff as mere stepping-stones to help him achieve his “vision” instead of helping them to be the professionals they should be.

Obviously, a lot of other people have had their say about the list and I’d like to include their take here. Over at Waiter Rant, Steve Dublanica also goes through the entire list in two parts and while he’s funny, he also has plenty of good points. I’m Your Server, Not Your Servant’s Patrick Macguire turns it on its head and offers 64 things he thinks customers should not do. Laura Reiley of tampabay.com also lays it on the customer.

Even though I just had my say, I’m not done yet. I’m going to be putting together my own list. There’s no saying how big it will be but we all know that putting the heat on guests and staff is not where it’s at. Let’s lay the blame where it really belongs; with the fucking owners and the fools they hire to manage their staff.

(Photo taken from zorger.com.)

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  1. Sam Harrigan
    8:10 am on November 18th, 2009

    Reading through this list just makes my blood boil. Buschel is quite the frickin’ prince, huh? The congratulatory comments on his blogpost just reinforce my belief in the idea that EVERYONE should have to wait tables for at least one year of their life. See how they like sticking to all these rules.

  2. japhet
    1:25 pm on November 18th, 2009

    His arrogance manages to make even the sensible solutions on his list hard to stomach. Anyone who’s gonna open a restaurant should have some experience from the ground-up.

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