Professional Hospitality

The archetype of the struggling actor/waiter has become almost obsolete. As waiters we still often struggle to excel outside of our hospitality jobs, but we’re not all actors anymore. The flexibility of restaurant work continues to attract artistic people, but, increasingly, the demographics within our ranks have changed and so has the nature of the job. We are now more educated; most of us have college degrees many on the graduate level or are post-baccalaureate candidates.

Today’s restaurant work is much more demanding than in eras past and hiring has become more rigorous. The level of knowledge and commitment that is expected of you in fine-dining restaurants makes it difficult for transients to make the cut. There was a time that you could get by on good looks and competent presentation skills. Now, you’re expected to master wine like a sommelier and menu with the expertise of a chef.

Part time restaurant work is less prevalent. Restauranteurs prefer hiring candidates with more stability, making the actor-types less attractive. Some restaurant jobs require even entry-level staff to work over 50 hours a week. In exchange for this commitment, salaries and benefits for tipped employees are becoming more prevalent in fine-dining as restaurateurs work to counteract turnover and encourage a more stable workforce. The result is that the hospitality industry is becoming more and more legitimate as a career and less the gypsy-like existence that has defined it in the past. The service sector is one of the largest growing segments in an otherwise sluggish economy and, particularly in fine-dining, there often aren’t enough qualified applicants to fill the demand for skilled labor.

Respect for our line of work, however, has a long way to go to catch up. There will always be a prejudice against those of us who don aprons—that our decision to serve others is borne out of desperation or short-term opportunism rather than long-term vision or career-mindedness. Does anyone ever ask you at your office job what else you do on the side? That’s funny because we probably make more money than you and people ask us that all the time.

First Impressions

The first interaction with your server can set the tone for the entire experience. Many servers can develop prejudices about you based on your behavior at the outset that will portend negative consequences for service throughout your meal. Try to set a collaborative tone—a friendly vibe requires minimal effort and will pay you back in spades with more attentive service.

Here is an example of a common interaction at the beginning of the meal that can be problematic and how best to fix it:

Server: “Good evening. May I start you with a cocktail from the bar or do you have any questions about the wine list?”

Guest: “We haven’t really had a chance to look.”

Though it may be delivered with the most innocent intentions, “We haven’t even looked” translates to your waiter as “We’re on our own schedule, so don’t waste your time.” Even if you consciously intend to delay the proceedings, dismissing your server in this way could unintentionally send the message that you devalue his services or cast him as the enemy of your good time. Establishing an adversarial relationship will likely lead the server to disengage from your table even more. If the server feels like he is wasting his time because you repeatedly brush him off, he will act accordingly. If someone made you feel unwanted, would you keep trying to please them? Don’t make the mistake of sending out the message to the server that the best way to please you is by leaving you alone. At some critical point, you will need something and it will be too late.

Try one of these approaches instead–they should still communicate unpreparedness but with more optimism that you will cooperate soon:

Server: “Good evening. May I start you with a cocktail from the bar or do you have any questions about the wine list?”

Guest: “I think we’ll probably need your help. But would you mind giving us a few minutes to look over the menus?”

-or-

Guest: “This drink list looks great. I think we’re going to need more time to study it. We should be ready soon.”

You don’t need to patronize your server, but taking a more cooperative tone helps establish solidarity. Be yourself, but make them feel like you’re in it together. A little extra sensitivity will go a long way toward improving your first impression. Remember: your server carries a lot of baggage from coping with unruly guests every night and you carry a lot of baggage to the table from dealing with incompetent waiters all the time. But can’t we all just get along?

Check, please!

Thank you for visiting THE RESTAURANT MANIFESTO, your guide to dining more successfully.  Check back soon for daily content, musings on life in restaurants and articles that will help you become a better diner.  THE RESTAURANT MANIFESTO will feature daily content from industry professionals including “tips” that will lead to more fruitful dining experiences.