I have a college degree in poetry. Since getting said degree I have been a sommelier, a social event manager, a filmmaker & a startup founder. I have yet to publish a poem, save NYU’s Gallatin Review in my senior year. Poetry (and the written & spoken word in all forms) has ensured that I can articulate my thoughts and feelings to the world, no matter the job title— a priceless and invaluable art.
But well before I was a poet/sommelier/event planner/filmmaker/founder, I was a waitress.
I started waiting tables when I was 16. PJ’s Pizza, Jupiter, Florida. Carmine’s Ocean Grill, Palm Beach Gardens, then Jupiter Crab Company before hitting the big time in NYC at Blue Water Grill, Park Avalon & Ruby Foo’s (known otherwise as the B.R Guest empire, for anyone who’s familiar.) Aside from a nine month stint as Minnie Mouse at Disney World (which has it’s own laundry list of invaluable life skills acquired) I’ve always waited tables. Hosted. Bartended. Managed (not my favorite), and trained.
I’ve gone so far as to suggest that if (when?) the shit goes down in my life, if I had one choice of how to pull in the rent, waiting tables would be it.
Back in the day, I totally underestimated the awesomeness of the direct correlation between personality + ability and the amount of cash in my pocket at the end of a dinner shift, as well as the amazingness of being able to fold a bunch of napkins into perfect little tent origami, put them in a plastic bag, and walk out the door without having to think about that place until I came back for my next shift. Some days as a startup founder I’d trade my life for some sidework. Shine some silver, fill some sugar caddies, replace receipt paper in the POS. Ahh, the good old days.
So besides the fact that (like all good youth) I completely neglected to see the beauty in the simplicity of what waiting tables was, and would rethink much of the huffing and puffing I did about shining cocktail trays or refilling Heinz bottles, I did take away a lot of amazing lessons that I can still rely on when ‘selling.’
Make friends with the kitchen
The best and smartest servers know how to befriend the kitchen— the sous chef, expediter, guys on the line, and the head honcho. Why? Because they can either make your life a living hell, or pull you from the flames after you’ve set yourself on fire. Befriend the ‘kitchen’. Be nice to whoever’s building stuff for you. Respect them. Learn their language. Though the couple at table 24 might not ever see their faces, they can sure make you look like you’re wearing an ass hat if they want to.
Master the menu.
Does this chopped salad have capers? Do you cook the greens with bacon fat? You have to master your menu. Know every in and out of your product or service, because guessing could mean the difference between a happy table of lunching ladies & anaphylactic shock over a plate of clams casino. It’s your job to know everything about your product, service, platform, whatever. (caveat: if you don’t know, say so. Tell your customer you’ll quickly get the answer for them from the ‘kitchen,’ in which case, refer to the point above).
Know your customer & rememeber… you’re still the help.
It’s your job to check them out as the hostess is seating them, and read every bit of body language. Couple on a first date? Married couple on date night #4,329? Business dinner? Girls’ night out? You need to know your customer so you can play chameleon, tweaking your sell to suit their personality, their needs, their experience. BUT… as Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque taught me— don’t ever forget that you’re still the ‘help.’ You need to connect and relate like a friend, but serve like a server. They’re the customer, and you’re still selling to them. You need their business. Make them feel like it.
Sell the 2nd cocktail.
Pay attention. This is one of the best pieces of advice I ever learned. A new table is seated, and you offer them cocktails. They peruse the menu, you deliver said cocktails. They order their dinner. Appetizers are served. As they near the end of their appetizers, their cocktail is about 1/4 full. This is the critical moment— sell the 2nd cocktail!If you wait until they finish ALL of the drink, or until entrees are dropped, chances are you’ll lose the sale.
Why? Psychology my dear… and timing. If they finish the entire first drink and see an empty glass, they’ll be conscious of their alcohol consumption and decline another drink. If the entrees hit the table, they’ll feel like they’re already halfway into dinner, so they can go without another drink because their brain is already on coffee & dessert. The moment that cocktail is nearing ‘E’ is critical to you closing the next sell. What does this have to do with you? It’s about having a hook, and keeping your customer engaged, knowing how to introduce the next tier, next element of your platform at just the right moment. It’s not so much a skill as an art, but essential to retaining customer engagement.
Don’t get tunnel vision
It’s a Saturday night and the place is packed. Your section is full, and you’re completely in the weeds. Don’t get tunnel vision. Don’t get hung up on one plate that needs to get cleared over here, or one drink that needs to be delivered over there. Take the view from ten thousand feet and see how & where you can consolidate. Don’t get stuck in the weeds (ie. features). When selling, don’t sell what you do, sell why you do it. Don’t get stuck down the rabbit hole of ‘this feature does this, and that widget does that.’ Nobody cares. They want to know that you get what they do, and why they need your service or product.
Drop the check
What’s the one thing that can wreck and entirely good experience at a restaurant? Waiting for the check. Nothing’s worse than when you’re ready to leave and your server (who was in your face fifty times while you were trying to eat your dinner) is nowhere to be found. Drop the check. Close the deal. Know when your client/user is ready to wrap it up, and take charge of the moment. If you let them wait they’ll leave with a bad taste in their mouths instead of the sweet memory of cosmos & chocolate lava cake.
I’m convinced that waiting tables should be a required life skill, right up there with How to Balance your Checkbook & Basic Time Management (none of which are offered at university, Ivy League or otherwise, as far as I know). When I interview people, it’s one of the first questions I ask them— ‘Have you ever waited tables?’. But you can usually spot the vets out there in the world. They wear a certain badge of honor for having survived the experience, and are all the better for it. They make for better people, better teammates, better humans. But if I could offer a single piece of advice from the ‘work world’ to the service staff? Less office dating.
Posted on Medium