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Waitstaff Confidential

You Know How You Leave a Restaurant and Talk About The Servers? The Servers Talk About You, Too.

Illustrations by Hawk Krall

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 3/2/2005

We’re being watched. From the second we sit down at a table in a restaurant, our server begins assembling information about us, accumulating observations about our manners, our looks, our self-confidence, and our level of comfort. Sometimes at high-end restaurants, where the difference between an average check and very good check (and the corresponding tips each one brings) for a table of four can run to the hundreds of dollars, information-gathering begins even earlier. News about a particularly impressive clothing label will make its way deliberately from the coatroom to the serving station.

Every local waiter and waitress who contributed his or her thoughts and impressions to this article acknowledged how essential this information-gathering is to his or her performance; how this information is processed and employed is what separates one server, or sometimes one staff of servers, from another. Self-descriptive phrases such as “professional people-reader” cropped up constantly. The single most conclusive bit of evidence diners contribute in the first moments with their waiter, according to interviewees, happens very early. Tables that come to attention when the waiter first appears and willingly establish eye contact are considered promising, while groups that won’t look up or continue conversations are sized up as potential duds.

Your table’s response to “Can I get anyone a drink from the bar?” will put you squarely into a “probably good” or “probably bad” category. You’ll be liked a little bit better if you order a round of cocktails or appear to take interest in the wine list. (More drinks mean a bigger check, which means a bigger potential tip.) Not only will a round of cocktails mark your table as potential players, it further establishes your level of sophistication. (Given the choice, however, between a lucrative table that is both demanding and obnoxious and a moderately spending table of sweet-natured, appreciative people, most servers I spoke to said they’d prefer the latter.)

Profiling based on behaviors is one thing, and many diners will probably remain indifferent to or unconcerned about what conclusions their waiter makes about them. But there’s another, more invidious, form of profiling—recognized, but by no means endorsed, by all the waiters I talked with—and it has to do with who we are more than how we carry ourselves. In the world of waiting tables in Baltimore, women are widely thought to be cheapskates, African-American and non-native Americans (particularly Europeans) are perceived as chronic undertippers, and Jewish diners are sometimes viewed as being difficult and demanding.

The servers I spoke to all acknowledged at least having heard about these stereotypes. The men and women making these judgments are mostly veteran servers; a majority had been working in their current position for at least three years. Diverse in their pre-serving experience, education, and politics, they represent in microcosm the staffs of a majority of local restaurants. What distinguished one type of waiter from the next was whether he or she chooses to let such stereotypes matter. A few servers admitted that it affects their performance; the great majority said they try to take each table as it comes. A few others protested that it is something they try never to think about.

Conversations with teams of waiters at four Baltimore restaurants also revealed an impressive amount of self-selection. Birds of a feather flock together on restaurant staffs—snarky waiters tend to assemble on certain staffs, waiters disgusted by intolerant attitudes on others. Management matters most, though. Waitstaffs that believe that owners are respectful of both their staffs and their patrons love coming into work; staffs who work for capricious and mean-tempered owners leach out more negativity, and, for them, each shift is a struggle.

The staffs I spoke with work at a high-end downtown, white-tablecloth restaurant known for its impeccable cuisine, a midrange casual spot, a swanky foodie destination, and a casual neighborhood joint that attracts a regular crowd.

 

White Tablecloth

There tends not to be much staff turnover in this successful, well-regarded restaurant. The waiters, who wear tuxedos and are formally trained, are loyal to and proud of the restaurant they work for, its menu, wine list, and ambiance, and believe that they work in one of the city’s best restaurants. Their political views tend toward the conservative. Although most of the waiters here pursue other business on the side, they all consider themselves professional waiters and enjoy talking about their tableside skills.

The patrons that come here, for the most part, tend to be experienced diners, sophisticated about food and wine, and for the most part reward their servers with handsome tips. For these waiters, bad diners fall into two distinct categories: the truly obnoxious and the insecure. Although they use different techniques and methods, each waiter describes how important it is to establish early control over each table.

One waiter likes to take a quick cocktail order so he can return to the table and announce that the bartender is making their drinks as he’s launching into the recitation of the evening’s specials. “The way I do it is to let them now [know] exactly what I’m going to do at the beginning of the meal,” he says. “Subliminally they’ll understand that this guy knows what he’s doing, and I’m not going to fuck with him because he’s got control of the menu. Our cocktails are being taken care of while he’s tableside, so there’s two people on staff working for us, and in the meantime, a busser’s come and filled their water, so they know they’re being taken care of because three people are taking care of them.”

If he doesn’t establish this control early, there might be dire consequences later: “Late in the meal [service], the last thing you need when you have a full section is a table taking control of you, because then you’re in the weeds. Because once they know that they own you, that’s it—you’re their server, rather than they’re my table.

Control breaks down into several key areas, and time management is principal among them. Tables that commandeer the time and constant attention of their server can disrupt the pacing of courses for a whole section. A server in firm control over his or her table can effectively discourage special requests, which keeps the kitchen staff happy, as well as help diners make better decisions. (The more expensive bottle of wine is not always a better choice; guiding diners to a great value can help insure return business and positive buzz.)

For all of the waiters here, the recitation of the specials, or off-menu items, is their primary opportunity to establish credibility not only for themselves but for the restaurant as well. “The way you’re describing them, the way you’re talking to people, giving them these wonderful descriptions, looking them right in the eye, that’s when they know they’re at one of the best restaurants in town,” one puts it. Although they acknowledge, too, that most customers barely listen to the specials.

Not every table submits to the waiter’s control, however, and for those customers other strategies come into play: “You’re going to have a type of guests that doesn’t really like to be bridled, and if they don’t take the bridle, you’re going to have to play with them a little bit. But sometimes you’ll find that those customers are more willing to spar with you a little bit, and if you spar back, they’ll say, ‘OK, not only does he know his stuff, but he can be a fun guy, so I’m going to lay off of him.’”

Information about diners is accumulated early, sometimes before they’re even seated. If the bartender overhears a conversation among businessmen at the bar about a lucrative deal that’s just been signed, that information will make its way to the waiter. If a couple is overheard discussing plans for an upcoming family birthday, they might find themselves treated to a tour of the restaurant’s private dining rooms.

But most information is gathered by the observations and intuitive assessment of waiters who consider themselves “professional people-readers.” Customers who appear self-confident and relaxed are viewed promisingly, and every waiter interviewed for this article here and every other restaurant agrees that a problem table identifies itself virtually immediately, often with their inability or unwillingness to make eye contact with the waiter or simply by having sour dispositions. “Waiters pick up on insecurities,” one says. “Some guests think that belittling a waiter is part of the experience, they think [it’s] what a rich person does.”

More evidence arrives when drink orders are placed. An early round of cocktails is a good sign, and attention paid to the wine list is another one. A bad one—tables that ask for extra lemons and limes for their water but then don’t use them. “Why did you run me for them?” one waiter asks.

Scorn for customers at this restaurant is reserved mostly for cluelessness and pretentiousness. Among the least-loved patrons and patron behaviors are:

  • Customers who stay too long. “Waitstaff hates when you’re the last fucking table in the goddamn restaurant. Put that down about 10 times. Unless you’re going to spend a ton of money, they don’t want you there. Don’t ask if you’re the last table there, because you usually are.”
  • Atkins eaters, particularly when they order the eight-course tasting menu, six courses of which include some form of starch, and ask for everything to be reinvented.
  • Customers who don’t want to sit at the table they’re shown to.
  • The customer who’s just returned from a trip to Europe and thinks he knows everything.
  • The customer that wants to be loved, whose opening remarks to the waiter are, “Relax, enjoy us.”
  • Customers who come in with their friends and use the wine list to show off to them.
  • Customers that hold the waiter at the table while they’re making up their mind.
  • Inappropriately emotional customers: “Do not have personal arguments and cry at the table. Don’t have cancer and cry. I’m not an oncologist and I’m not a psychiatrist.”
  • Customers who go to fine-dining establishments and want to order their entrées only after having their appetizers delivered—it screws up the timing of a carefully calibrated meal.
  • “Verbal tipping,” aka customers that heap praise and thanks throughout the meal only to leave a bad tip.
  • Customers with peculiar food antipathies, including those with strange allergies. Or any allergies other than seafood. Most customer allergies are considered to be inventions. All special requests concerning allergies are nevertheless honored.

“A table of women, when they sit down, I know I’m good if I get 15 percent,” one server says, giving voice to a hackneyed stereotype. ”They won’t order a bottle of wine, but they’ll end up drinking eight glasses. Men know how to have fun when they are sitting down just by themselves.”

When serving African-American customers, the servers say, they may feel compelled to give them extra attetnion, offer their table complimentary appetizers or desserts, and, above all, insure that nothing they do with their service will arouse a perceived slight. A cardinal rule is not to seat African-American customers in a room by themselves. Among all the staffs I spoke to there was an understanding of and sympathy for the discomfort that some African-American diners feel when they’re dining in a resoundingly white restaurant. Some waiters here acknowledge that they probably, although subconsciously, change their performance for a table of African-American diners. Others insist that they give the same level of service at every table.

The waiters here, as well as at other restaurants, make a distinction between providing good, informal service and providing entertainment and friendship. These waiters appreciate tables that ask them informed, pointed questions—“What are the house specials?” rather than “What’s good here?”—but weary of tables that want the waiter to be their new friend.

If diners really do want to chum up with the staff, one waiter advises this: “Save the conversation for dessert when we have more time. Come early or come late. Don’t come on a Friday or Saturday.” The staff here encourages weeknight dining as a general rule, and Tuesday and Thursday diners are perceived—here and elsewhere—as more sophisticated and engaging patrons than those that come in on Fridays and Saturdays.

The staff here acknowledges a few luxuries of their work environment:

  • A tip-pooling system encourages teamwork and minimizes selfishness. Everyone pitches in to help out a struggling waiter and bad tips can be effectively shrugged off.
  • A kitchen that never makes mistakes. The rare occasions when a customer doesn’t like what he or she’s been served are typically considered to be a failing of the customer. Knowing that their food is going to be good, waiters can negotiate solutions from a position of strength.
  • Owners that trust and back up their staff. “There’s a confidence it gives you that you know you’re not going to be completely bitched if you make a [judgment] call at a table. That liberty really allows you to be confident—we’re given the liberty to solve the problem tableside right then and there. And we have comp courses to solve the problem.”

 

Casual Dining

This once hugely popular restaurant has seen a steady decrease in patronage over the past year, a drop-off that the outspoken staff largely attributes to increased competition and the lack of an imaginative response on the owner’s part. The waiters and waitresses here tend toward the snarky, the smart-alecky, and the opinionated, and while they’re loyal to the management, they’re suspicious of the ownership and don’t feel respected and fully trusted. The staff members here like one another and claim to benefit from their easy camaraderie. They’re struggling, though, with a bad apple—a staff member, they contend, “who rocks the boat all the goddamn time, a constant complainer.”

Even so, staff turnover here tends to be minimal. The waiters are allowed their individual temperaments and they readily acknowledge that they “get away with murder.” The check totals here don’t average nearly as much as Restaurant No. 1, and since business isn’t as good either, the staff’s expectations are lower. Their expectations for their diners are lower, too, and they seem more tolerant of inexperienced diners.

Still, appraisals of incoming tables are made instantaneously, and waitstaff rely on these appraisals to help them tailor their service. “It’s important to know where they’re coming from, whether they’ll be receptive to interaction,” one server says. “Some people want to be your best friend, some people don’t want you to exist.”

One waiter deploys a standard opening line, which he picked up from a former colleague, to gauge his table’s temperature. “I’ll say, ‘Hi, folks, can I start you off with a tasty adult beverage?’ It’s corny, but people like corny stuff. They usually laugh at it . . . and, of course, behind their back I’m gritting my teeth because they found it funny. If they don’t laugh, I stop the funny stuff. That’s all this job really is—it’s barometric.”

While most customers who stop in for dinner “know where they are and don’t have unreasonable expectations,” one server notes, “some people are just never satisfied, and a lot of times that has very little to do with the service or the food itself.” Problem customers here are identified quickly. Even the worst tables are endured with perseverance, but a bad table can sour a waiter’s entire evening.

There was the customer who said he couldn’t eat garlic but went ahead and ordered something with, as the server describes it, “tons of pesto. When the pesto guy figured out that pesto had a lot of garlic in it he put the blame on me, and then he looked at everyone at the table and rolled his eyes, like, ‘I’ve had enough of this incompetent waiter.’ And that’s when I wanted to hit him, because when you get a customer who treats you like you’re not a human being, you want to drag him out on the street and show him you’re a human being.”

This restaurant’s bête noire customer is “the Frog”: “That man is nothing but a pet peeve. The Frog always comes in with a different girl. He acts as though we’re his servants, we’re his nannies, and he interrupts you constantly to ask you inane questions. He’s a finger-snapper, too.”

But the overarching pet peeve is a common one: “Tables that say they’re ready to order but keep you hanging there—‘Frank, what are you getting?’, as though it mattered, as if you’re going to digest Frank’s food. Tables that start asking questions just to keep you there. You go away and come back, and they start right back in with, ‘What are you getting, Frank?’”

Male and female waiters here and elsewhere are united in their preference for male customers, with this notable exception: Male waiters tend not to mind waiting on women they think are beautiful.

When the waiters here speak about these stereotypes, though, they’re careful to identify them as such, and they’re quick to stress how open-minded they are about individual tables. They claim to rely more on behaviors than types. They’re cautious about engaging in any kind of profiling, believing that diners are as adept at reading their behaviors, moods, and attitudes as they are theirs.

One waiter acknowledges that his ability to transcend preconceived ideas about diners depends on the kind of night he is having: “It depends on my mood, and when I get to the end of the evening, it depends on the kind of night I’m having.”

Prized customers are those who spend a lot of money and tip well: “Good customers order a lot of alcohol and they’re out to have a nice time with each other. They’re smooth sailors.” This waitstaff enjoys giving good service and educating diners about what the menu has to offer, but is not happy about customers that want a more intimate relationship: “I’m not here to entertain you.”

When offered the choice between a big-spending but difficult, or even rude, table and one that spends less but is a pleasure to wait on, everyone here chooses the latter: “They don’t have to spend a lot of money, just to treat you like a human being,” one says. “It doesn’t matter if they spend a lot of money [if they’re rude], they’re going to ruin your night.”

But by far, the best parties here—and at other restaurants as well—are those that double-tip. This happens when gratuities are automatically added into the bill for parties of five or more and, inadvertently or not, the customers leave an additional tip. (All interviewees insist that they clearly mark the automatic gratuity—one restaurant releases a perhaps accidental tip to the server after 10 days.)

“I think double-tipping is God’s way of giving the server something back that he deserves,” one server says. “It’s not right. It’s not technically the right thing to do or morally great. But most of the time when it happens that server really needs it.”

 

Trendy Spot

The good-looking and articulate waitstaff here socializes and, in some cases, sleeps with one another. Absent a manager, the front-of-house staff is largely self-policing and self-regulating. Here, too, there’s little staff turnover—the restaurant is doing well, patrons tend to be informed, and the owners, although almost universally considered to be insane, are respected for allowing the waiters to do their thing.

The waiters and waitresses here take great pride in their skills, and are unhesitant about expressing their views and opinions, using considerably less diplomatic language than staffs of other restaurants I spoke to.

“I hate tables of older women,” one says, “because they try to undereat and underspend each other.”

The waiters at this restaurant also have negative things to say about Jewish customers: “They’re horrible. We call them the 08ers.” The term is a reference to the 21208 ZIP code, considered when the phrase first came into currency—and it’s been in use for at least a quarter of a century—to be the enclave of the area’s Jewish customers.

The waitstaff at this restaurant also feels that African-American customers chronically undertip. “We get stiffed a lot,” one says. “I got stiffed last night. People don’t realize that we make $2 an hour.”

And then there’s the litany of phrases used to describe bad tips from non-native diners: “I got Berlined. I got Paree’d. I got Bangkoked.” Ignorance of American customs is held suspect: “Don’t try to pretend you don’t know how to tip. These people have lived in the country longer than I’ve been alive.”

And, most recently, there is a new group of diners that earns groans and complaints: People who have seen Sideways and think they know everything about pinot noir.

But the most hated group of all at this particular restaurant? “We hate people from Hopkins—so cheap, so rude,” one spits. “The hospital and the university. They’ll put down that they’re from Hopkins on the reservation. Cheap, rude, and obnoxious.”

The solution for dealing with perceived problematic customers is different here than with the other staffs consulted. Each waiter or waitress is held to have a particular X-Men-type capacity or patience with one particular group of customers. One waiter has a special knack for tables full of jocks.

Bad tables announce themselves immediately here, too: “Some people come out for the purpose of being complainers, and you can pick up on it immediately. It’s the worst when people won’t look at you, like you’re beneath them.” When a table appears to be hopeless, or when it looks to one waitress as though a stereotype will prove itself true, she confesses to giving a little bit less: “I serve them, but I ignore them. I don’t offer anything extra. I don’t smile. They won’t get bad service.”

As elsewhere, the single most frustrating patron behavior is indecision and idle questions. Good patrons ask good questions like “What do you recommend?” or “What’s your signature dish?” Good patrons don’t forget to tip the bartender before heading from the bar to their table. And good patrons tip 20 percent, after taxes and including the wine—some “buy a $100 bottle of wine but not tip on it.” Still, customers’ failure to tip properly is usually chalked up more to ignorance and obliviousness than anything willful or mean.

Here, as everywhere, the waitstaff loves it when customers tip in cash, even when paying with a credit card—the income remains unreported and no service charges are deducted, as they are in some restaurants.

Amid their bluster, the staff members repeat that bad experiences are exceptions and that they all pride themselves on being good waiters. The staff members at this particular restaurant pool their tips and believe that it results in better teamwork and coordination. It also helps to weed out poor performers. They also readily admit to being chronic complainers—they don’t like their bosses but like working for them, and they know they’re fortunate to be working someplace where the kitchen turns out good food.

 

The Neighborhood Joint

The largely regular clientele here is perhaps due in part to the hands-on owner, whose Zen-like approach to conflict appears to infect his staff. The servers here are given free rein to satisfy customers. Special requests are always obliged. The customer who insists on a double serving of steak for her steak salad—without paying extra—is granted it. “And she keeps coming back with four people or six people,” one server marvels. “That little investment, that $2 or $3 investment, brings in six people.”

Members of the waitstaff here tend to be veterans of other, more toxic restaurants, and there’s something about their attitudes that suggests having been reformed or reprogrammed. They heatedly disdain the idea of profiling, but do they ever catch themselves doing it?

“Not at all,” one says. “Absolutely not at all. People read each other”—meaning that customers would be able to tell if they’ve been profiled. Another insists, “I wasn’t raised that way.”

And when a demanding customer pushes, instead of pushing back, the waitstaff here, guided by the ownership, complies. Some customers “demand maybe a little bit more,” one says. “But when they get it they compensate you at the end of the night. We have some people who are going to want more of this and more of that—you have to go the extra mile.”

Even the phrase “verbal tipping,” commonly understood by other waitstaffs to mean tables that undertip after showering their server with praise, is unknown at this restaurant. It all sounds like the innocent protestations of idealistic newcomers until the subject of “upselling,” the time-honored techniques waiters use to run up a higher check total, reveals their seasoning. “I was told a long time ago, if someone leaves with a dollar in [his or her] pocket, you haven’t done your job,” one waiter says. “Offer those appetizers, those little sides, push wine, the extra drink.”

And positive profiling is allowed: “My favorite type of people—in their early 40s to early 50s. They have the money at that point in their lives.” And here, as everywhere, early table behaviors are noticed and waiting styles adjusted. A good table? “You can pretty much tell within 30 seconds—if they are really into buying top-shelf drinks and wine.” A bad table is easily detected, too: “I call them ‘born to bitch.’ It’s just a personality. Kill them with kindness. I’ll make a joke—‘Ya wanna fight?’ Tell them your name. You have to take control of a table.”

Another server adds, “If something does go wrong, the most important thing is to smile and tell the customer what happened. And never say ‘no.’ I don’t care what they want, what they order. There’s always a way that something can be done for that customer in order to make them happy. You gotta be willing to give in.”

As with the other restaurants, self-selection plays an important part in developing the staff. “Waiters that don’t fit in,” either because they’re unwilling to always give in to the customers’ demands or because they cling to their ideas about cultural stereotypes, “don’t last.”

“People know when they come in here they’re going to get a long, friendly meal. We’re really lucky. Most of our customers are really good.”

 

The servers I talked to love to talk about waiters and most of them loved being waiters—something about going home with a lump of cash in their pocket and the freedom it gives them to pursue other avenues of interest the rest of the time. Many of them are writers and artists, others have other part-time jobs.

How worrisome are their attitudes about stereotyping? For one thing, how often they surface in the course of a typical shift is hard to gauge (they did constantly when I waited tables years ago), as is how preconceived profiles of customers truly effect performance and attitude.

The modern restaurant was invented as a place for people to be seen comporting themselves correctly in public, and they remain places for us to observe each other. And waiters understand that they are under scrutiny, too. A server at one restaurant decries the increased savviness of his customers.

“It used to be that we were watching them,” he says. “Now, with the Food Network and customers being so savvy, they’re watching us. They want to see what we’re doing. I hate that.”

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