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Zen and the Art of Waiting Tables

Updated on June 14, 2011

On the surface, waiting tables is a simple job. Dig a bit deeper, and you'll find a job that is much more complex and involved. One that requires discipline, preparation, respect, a sharp mind and genuine personality. Improvement of these aspects of waiting tables will begin to transform the work you do, into an art form. Perfection of these aspects makes you, the waiter or waitress, a zen master in the art of waiting tables.

With anything in life, including waiting tables, there is always room for improvement. From working at grungy saloons to luxury beach resorts, I have learned a lot. In my too-many-years waiting tables, I've picked up some helpful tips and tricks. Buddha said "there is only one time when it is essential to awaken. That time is now." So, my young grasshopper, accept the following advice with the grace and sincerity it deserves, and begin your journey on the path to great service now.

Tips and tricks on waiting tables

Know and practice the 7 P’s.

The 7 P’s can be applied to all aspects of life, including waiting tables. Your grandfather might know the 7 P’s from his days in the military: Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Prior planning makes giving good service much easier.

For one, know the menu. This includes things like ingredients, wine pairings, rules about substitutions, daily specials and the like. Bring any condiments or extra plates to the table before the food arrives and before they have to ask. By anticipating the customers needs and planning ahead, your level of service will go from good to great.

Two words: turn and burn.

The phrase is used in many industries, including the service industry. To turn a table refers to when a customer or group of customers leave, and the table is reset for the next group of customers. The faster you can seat the guest, take the order, deliver the food, drop the check, and clear the table, the faster you will fill that table with new customers. As you work, repeat this mantra to yourself – turn and burn, baby. Turn and burn.

Be genuine. Be nice.

If you deliver good-tasting food on time and keep drinks full, you will receive a tip. What you really want, is a good tip. Learn to read your customers. Be genuine and nice to the guest. If they are a fun and loud group, or an inquisitive couple, then take a few minutes to talk with them. If they are quiet and reserved, give them good service, but don't interrupt them.

Be genuine. Be nice. Besides, it’s much easier.

Work smarter, not harder.

Waiting tables can be easy if you are smart about it. When taking orders, write everything down and repeat it back to the customer to prevent mistakes. Before delivering the order, check if it’s correct and bring any condiments or dressings they might ask for. Be more efficient by combining tasks when possible. If one table asks for a refill, check with all other tables also. If you can get refills for all your tables at the same time, your time at work will be much simpler. If you aren’t busy, offer help to any and all employees. I guarantee they will offer you help when you need it in the future.

Remember: the customer is always right, even when they're wrong.

"Hatred is never overcome by hatred." Buddha knew that arguing, becoming angry, and pointing fingers never solved anything. Mistakes are a common occurrence in a fast-paced restaurant, and the truth is, the majority of the time it’s not your fault. But regardless of whose fault the mistake is, accept the blame, apologize, learn from it, and do what you can to fix the problem.

Respect... your dishwasher.

The dishwasher is one of the most valuable yet most unrecognized people of the kitchen staff. Without this person, the restaurant wouldn't function.

There's a great story of a disrespected dishwasher, working in the mountains of Colorado. His story is like that of many dishwashers, both in his native land of Argentina, and all across the world. His days were filled with long hours on his feet, scrubbing with rubber gloves for minimum wage. Once his shift would end - with pruned fingers and eyeballs stinging from splashes of dish soap - he would walk home in the snow with his head hung low, and shed a tear. For everyday he worked, he was literally spat upon. Never once did his co-workers give him a simple “hola,” nor even a single nod of the head. Despite this abuse, he washed their dirty dishes and maintained a cheery smile and accommodating work ethic. But, however strong on the outside, his bruised ego deservedly cried for respect on the inside. His name was Juan. He was a good man. He was my friend.

Respect your dishwasher.

Treat every table as a new business opportunity.

When it comes to ordering food, many people are very indecisive. They need your help. Become the pushy used car salesmen you hate and tell them what they need; power windows and heated seats, or in your case, added bacon and avocado. Tell them the pasta tastes great with grilled shrimp and a fine chianti (because it does). Sell them the expensive alcoholic drinks, appetizers, and desserts. Every little thing you sell increases their bill, and increases your tip. Concentrate on each table as an individual sale and give them your best service. Your work will be rewarded.

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    • jdaviswrites profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Davis 

      9 years ago from California

      Sun-Girl - Thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed.

    • Sun-Girl profile image


      9 years ago from Nigeria

      Interesting an very informative which is well shared.

    • jdaviswrites profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Davis 

      10 years ago from California

      Peter Owen - very true. Thanks for the input...

    • Peter Owen profile image

      Peter Owen 

      10 years ago from West Hempstead, NY

      customers respond to a cheery waiter who comes across as caring about them. Proof is in the tip.

    • jdaviswrites profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Davis 

      10 years ago from California

      Kotori - There you go my get it. I love suggested readings! Thank you, I will check it out.

    • Kotori profile image


      10 years ago from Chicagoland

      I agree! Always respect your dishwashers, janitors, and secretaries. Without them, nothing runs. Great article. Well-written. I have also been a waiter, although now I am a teacher, and I have discovered that the two positions are not so different. The "customer" is still always right! Suggested reading that explores the deeper meaning of waiting tables: Hope was Here, a novel by Joan Bauer.

    • jdaviswrites profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Davis 

      10 years ago from California

      esatchel -THANK YOU...for reading and for the comment.

    • esatchel profile image


      10 years ago from Kentucky

      I have never worked in a restaurant, however, I am a nurse and I know that patients in hospitals also eat at restaurants. Therefore, I know that quickly earning the trust and respect of people from a wide variety of backgrounds that you don't know individually, AND treating them all respectfully and as if they are the only people you are tending to takes a great deal of skill and understanding of our fellow human. These are skills everyone should aspire to. We should ALL respect the dishwashers in our lives.

    • jdaviswrites profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Davis 

      10 years ago from California

      attemptedhumour - so you were a server many moons ago? this is a long time, but the roots of good service hold firm and run deep like those of the great cherry blossom tree, my son. Thanks for the insightful comment...

    • attemptedhumour profile image


      10 years ago from Australia

      Hi I used to be a drinks waiter many moons ago and the same principles applied. When i was about thirteen I went to my dad's work for the first time. He was the manager of a coach firm. The owner drove a Rolls Royce. My dad addressed him in a friendly, but respectful manner. When the phone rang he was professional, efficient and polite. When we went out the back he spoke to the Mechanics in a friendly helpful way. He cracked jokes with the elderly man sweeping the floor. Although he addressed each person in a slightly different manner, he treated everyone with the same amount of respect. I never forgot that lesson and never will. Thanks I enjoyed your run down of the importance of professional, friendly, smart and efficient service.


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