100 Dos And Don'ts For Waiting Tables

Read the first half of Bruce Buschel's "100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do" for the New York Times here.

Bruce Buschel is opening his own restaurant and has compiled a list of dos and don'ts for his waitstaff. Buschel shares the little nuances waiters can adopt that could mean the difference between a great tip and no tip at all.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Restaurant servers have it tough. They have to please a lot of people, many of whom are not always polite. And if they fail, their tip is at risk. So, what makes a successful server? Bruce Buschel thinks he has the answer.

As he gets ready to open a seafood restaurant of his own, he's published the first 50 of 100 things restaurant staffers should never do in the New York Times "You're the Boss" blog.

We also want to hear from you. Diners, what do you expect when you eat out? Servers, how do you win over your customers? Give us a call at 800-989-8255, or email us at talk@npr.org. There's a link to Bruce Buschel's tips on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Bruce Buschel joins us now from the studios of public radio station 88.3 FM in Southampton, New York.

Thanks for joining us.

Mr. BRUCE BUSCHEL (Author, "100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do"): Thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: So you've written the first 50 tips, with another 50 to come next week. Are these all equally important? Or do you have some that you think are crucial?

Mr. BUSCHEL: I didn't put them in any particular order. They were in chronological order, starting with when you first enter the place. If somebody performs any of these services really well, that makes it important. If somebody doesn't do a good job in any one of the 50 or 100, that probably steals a little bit from the experience.

ROBERTS: So some of these are pretty obvious: greet people when they walk in, you know, don't interrupt a conversation. Some are - you might get a little pushback on - for instance, don't tell people what your favorite dessert is. Some people might want a dessert recommendation.

Mr. BUSCHEL: If somebody wants a dessert recommendation, they can ask for it. But I would hesitate to just put in my - when I'm speaking about three or four of them, and I say, oh, we have great desserts tonight, and my favorite is - unless somebody asks, maybe that's stepping overboard a little bit.

To go back a second, you think that some of them are very obvious. For example, don't interrupt. I've had a lot of bad feedback from servers, that that's impossible, that you can't stand around and wait for people to stop talking. Some people don't stop talking. So�

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: I've had dinner with those people.

Mr. BUSCHEL: You know, the trick, I don't think, is an absolute. I think it's just to pick up the vibe of what's going on. If somebody's about to propose marriage to somebody, that's probably the wrong time to say and our specials of the evening are - my name is Tony.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUSCHEL: So, you know, there's a certain amount of subtlety involved that you have to look and feel and maybe read some body language.

ROBERTS: Well, there's also the do-not-recite-the-specials-too-fast-or-robotically-or-dramatically. It's not a soliloquy. This is not an audition. I assume this is particularly a problem in Manhattan.

Mr. BUSCHEL: I assume that it is. But sometimes, you know, if the specials are long list, by the third, fourth, fifth one, somebody at the table is going to say, what was the second one again?

ROBERTS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BUSCHEL: And you're going to hear them a couple of times, I think. So there's a certain casualness. And you look around and you make eye contact with the people at the table and you make sure everybody knows them before you go on to the next one. And also, you should always give a price, whether the specials are written or whether they're being recited. Try to give a price with each of them so that somebody's not really surprised at the end of a meal.

ROBERTS: You also covered one of my pet peeves, which is do not clear a plate when other people at the table are still eating the same course.

Mr. BUSCHEL: Mm. That seems to be a favorite. Now, I have to tell you, I really feel this is not so much a waiter or a waitress but usually a busboy or a bus person. And their job is to clear away an empty plate, and they just look around, and they're not in tune with the rhythm of the meal. And they see an empty plate and they go and they get it. Of course, a good management should tell them not to do that. But it does interfere with what's happening at that moment.

ROBERTS: I also like one of your recommendations, particularly because I like the way it's phrased, which is never serve anything that looks creepy or runny or wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUSCHEL: Well, isn't it surprising that somebody can put something down in front of you and you just look at it and you know there's something wrong here? There's something missing here. There's something leaking here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Oh, God. Do you think that means the servers are scared of the chef?

Mr. BUSCHEL: You know, chefs have a really bad rep, which is usually well-deserved. But I think everybody is there for the guests. I think everybody wants it to be as good an experience as possible. Everybody does better financially. Everybody has a better time. And I think if you approach somebody and say, chef, somebody says this is not - or even if I pick up a plate and I said, jeez, there's something wrong here, you have to find some way to communicate with your coworkers.

You can't go - that's another one. That's another pet peeve of mine that's on the list. Don't blame the chef when you're talking to the guests, because that's just an easy way out. Oh, we can't change the vegetable. The chef goes crazy. Well, you know, you're going to have to do something about that, because there are certain condiments - there's spinach, maybe people have allergies and they really can't have that even touching their plate. So, chef or not, you have to figure out a way around it.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Erica in North Fork, North Carolina. Erica, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ERICA (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I think one of the most important things for a server is to judge whether or not the table wants to chat with you as a server. Some tables are very interested in knowing about your life, and other tables want to be left pretty much alone to have a conversation among themselves.

Mr. BUSCHEL: Yes. That can't be argued. You have to be intuitive. If people start to ask you a lot of questions, you ought to keep it pretty short and you may have your own guidelines on how much information you want to give out. But, yes, you should always be polite. If somebody wants to know, you know, where you're from or where your accent is from or what your name is, obviously, always be generous and courteous. But don't try to dominate, you know, the meal with, you know, the best joke you just heard.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Richard in Cleveland. Richard, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RICHARD (Caller): Yes, hi. I worked in a very high-end but high pressure restaurant in Cleveland's Theater District. And we had an operation or a little maneuver we called the Frank and Ralph. It was based on the Warner Brothers' characters of the sheepdog and the coyote who would punch the clock as friends but then try to kill each other the rest of the day. It was basically used for the table that had a time issue and they were getting worried, maybe unjustly so, about their meal. And we would basically stage an argument between the server and the manager right in front of the kitchen window, because they could - it was visible from the restaurant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICHARD: And it sounds crazy and it sounds really hackneyed, but it actually worked because many times the customer just wanted - you know, they really wanted to see that you were fighting tooth and nail for them to get to their show on time.

Mr. BUSCHEL: So let me get this straight. The staged fight was not part of the theater experience. It was the pre-theater experience?

RICHARD: No, no, no, no, no. It wasn't ever a physical thing. It was just definitely an argument, and not even sometimes an audible one, but just one where they could see that they were being referenced and you were, you know, you were trying to get their food to them as fast as possible, but the manager was getting in the way. And they just didn't know that the manager was in on the whole thing.

Mr. BUSCHEL: And that turned out well for the server, because the server was�

RICHARD: I'm sorry�

Mr. BUSCHEL: �fighting for them?

RICHARD: Yes, because we had a lot of people who were very anxious from the moment when they sat down.

Mr. BUSCHEL: Right.

RICHARD: They were looking at their watch right away. And those were usually the tables that this was applied to, because they just couldn't relax until they knew that you were doing everything humanly possible to get them their food.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: That's an interesting idea. It sounds like a lot of effort, when actually, you could just be getting them their food faster.

Mr. BUSCHEL: Yeah. Doesn't it? It sounds as if, yeah, more energy should be going to getting the food instead of staging the confrontations.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Tracy(ph) in Baltimore, Ohio. Tracy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TRACY (Caller): Good afternoon. I was wondering, in your experience, if you had any information on the difference between an - the waiter or waitress kneeling down to take your order. I find that to be kind of annoying how they may kneel down and write on the table. I know it's to be personable, but - follow up to that would be, has anyone done a study to see if that has actually increased tips, possibly?

Mr. BUSCHEL: I - in my experience and from the feedback that I'm getting, the answer is no, it's not helpful. No, it doesn't increase tips. It's kind of invasive into somebody's space. And it's a kind of a strange move for a server to be making, unless there's an empty seat and somebody invites them. But even then, I don't think they ought to - I'm not sure exactly what you mean by kneeling down. I doubt you mean as if to pray. You mean just kneel down�

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: They're sort of kneeling down to be at the seated diner's eye level while you take the order.

Mr. BUSCHEL: Uh-huh. Well, again, there is common sense at work. And if somebody speaks very softly, you might want to bend over a little bit. But I don't think you should go out of your way in a dramatic fashion to show off any part of yourself.

ROBERTS: We have email from Yaraswaf(ph) in Rochester, New York, who says an interesting psychology study a few years ago showed that waiters who politely touched their customers during the order process received a significantly greater tip at the end. You say never touch a customer. No excuses. Don't do it. Don't brush them, move them, wipe them or dust them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUSCHEL: I'll stand by that. And if anybody argues, I'll - no. I think it's not a polite thing to do. I think a lot of people can take it the wrong way. The study that's being quoted doesn't mention genders. I'm sure a lot of women think that if they touch a customer on the shoulder, their tip goes up. It may or may not be true. I just think that, again, you're invading somebody's space. I know recently, I was standing in a restaurant waiting at the bar and somebody came over from behind and actually physically moved me, grabbed my two shoulders and moved me. And I turned around and he said, the waiter has to get past.

ROBERTS: Huh.

Mr. BUSCHEL: So there are all degrees of touching. And some people may get excited and some people may be offended. So I think the best thing is just to not do it.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Laura in Kenwood, California. Laura, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LAURA (Caller): Hi. Thanks. I have two pet peeves. The first is waiters who return used flatware to the plate - or to the table rather than clearing it with a course. And the second is, I used to be a pastry chef, and I would -then when I would go out to dinner, someone say, are you still working on that? And I would think, gosh, I worked on this all morning, or I worked on food all morning and now I'm just enjoying it. So the phrase are you still working on that is one of my real pet peeves with wait staff.

Mr. BUSCHEL: That seems to be one of the most popular pet peeves. People don't like to hear the word work. They're not out to dinner. And the only thing that makes it become work is if they hear the phrase, are you still working. Then the whole thing changes its mood. And as far as - you know, a dirty piece of silverware, a used piece of silverware should be removed and a clean one should always take its place. It should never be left on the table or on the plate or any place. So that's kind of basic.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

My guest is Bruce Buschel. He's about to open a seafood restaurant in the Hamptons, and he joins us from radio station 88.3 FM in South Hampton, New York. He has a list on the New York Times blog �You're the Boss� of �100 Things Restaurants Staffers Should Never Do� - the first 50, at least. The next 50 are coming up.

We have an email from Anne(ph) in Minneapolis who says: Wait staff that are constantly asking, how is your appetizer? How is your dinner? How is your dessert? Is there a limit to how many times a server should ask if everything is okay?

Mr. BUSCHEL: Yeah, sure. I don't think it can be a number. Again, if you're vigilant and you're looking over at a table and you see somebody with a quizzical look or you see somebody looking around for something, you go over and ask them what seems to be the problem. And don't ever ask it if you're not ready to answer it or, you know, find out what's wrong and how to fix it. But yes, of course, it can be annoying if somebody keeps coming over every five or 10 minutes and asking you, do you like this? How's that?

Again, they should just kind of hover out of view, and like a magician, appear when they're needed and disappear when they're not needed. And I know that's extreme and wait staff does not like to hear that. But at its peak, that's probably what it comes down to.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Jim in Douglas, Iowa. Jim, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JIM (Caller): Yeah. I just - I get really tired of hearing a memorized, rote-type of speech. And I feel like wait staff should do everything they can to just try to sound a little bit original when they talk to you, as though it's not something that they just are really tired of saying over and over and over, because I don't like hearing it over and over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUSCHEL: That's putting somebody in a tough spot, if they have to recite the specials. Again, the specials ought to be handed out so that people can read them and they can contemplate and discuss it with other people. When somebody has to recite the specials, there's not much variation allowed. So, you know, they do it 20, 30 times a night. It's probably going to sound rote because it is.

ROBERTS: So are you writing this from the perspective of someone who's about to hire a bunch of wait staff as a kind of audition piece, or is this more from the point of view of a diner?

Mr. BUSCHEL: I'd say both. I'd say all points of view should be the same. It's all about creating a good time. It's win, win, win. I think it's easier when you're polite and you're courteous and you know what to do. I think your tips are better. The people eating there obviously have a better time. Everything goes more smoothly. I think I've gathered this list from years of dining. I have been a waiter. I was never a professional waiter. I was one of those part-time college waiters and summer waiters. It's just, you know, I think everybody sits around at a certain point and discusses, oh, I ate at this place. What did you think of it? I like the food, but you know what they did? So I think everybody has a list of pet peeves. And I just took, you know, the time and effort to jot them down because they are going to be an important feature of, you know, the business when it starts.

ROBERTS: And if you had a word or two of advice for diners, what would you tell them?

Mr. BUSCHEL: Hmm. Diners. Again, there are - there's a basic human interaction that always comes into play. To be polite, to be courteous is always a good idea. To ask questions if you have them and to - you can ask a waiter, I would rather pour the wine myself. Could you just please leave it on the table? Just speak up, speak your mind, but please be courteous.

ROBERTS: Bruce Buschel joined us from the studios of public radio station 88.3 FM in South Hampton, New York. His article, �100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do,� appeared last Wednesday in the New York Times blog.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. BUSCHEL: Thank you very much.

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.