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Become a Professional Server in 3000 Words

Updated on November 8, 2015

Certified Corporate Mobile Trainer

A clean, welcoming establishment can be wealth of success.
A clean, welcoming establishment can be wealth of success. | Source

A Brief Introduction from the Author

Hi, I'm Steve and I am a lifetime service industry professional. I have been serving for about twelve years and training other servers for five of those. I have the tools to make great servers from great people-people.

You may have re-read that last sentence but I assure you I did not mistype. What I mean is that if you are not a people-person, then this is not the right business for you.

You don't necessarily have to like people in general, but in the hospitality business you have to expect the unexpected from your guests, and execute the request with a smile.

So, since we are all people-people, lets move on. I'm going to divide the serving process into 7 simple steps that are designed specifically for the individual who has never served before. As I lay out each step, I will provide tips along the way that will turn you into more than just a food-fetcher.

I learn things from other servers all the time, so I believe there will be something here for servers of all experience levels.

The 7 steps are comprised of the following principles or steps of service:

  1. The Greet and drink sale
  2. Drink delivery and appetizer sale
  3. Appetizer delivery and table maintenance
  4. Two minute or two bite checkup
  5. Entrée delivery and drink sale/ prebus
  6. Dessert and/or coffee sale and pre-bus
  7. Coffee/ dessert delivery and Bill presentation

That's it! I will break these down into slightly more detailed explanations and provide some helpful feedback along the way. Hang on for the ride and I guarantee you will make a ton of cash becoming a server, or you will increase your tip percentages immediately if you are already in the business.

Hints, tips, and advice:

  • SMILE! This is your first chance to blow their mind, do it in style.
  • Be confident. After all you're an expert on the menu.
  • Suggest something specific. Not "What would you like to drink?", but, "Would you like to try our watermelon-basil cosmo?".
  • Judge without being judgmental. Meaning that you need to tailor your approach to every table, try to pick it all up in a glance and sell them appropriately.
  • Lemons, napkins, and condiments- This seems like a silly thing, but will weed you when you get busy (getting in the weeds, or being weeded means you are too busy to stay ahead). If the table orders waters, always ask if they want a lemon. Two things are addressed here: First, if they do not want one, you are cutting costs and chipping in to the success of the restaurant and the brass will notice your attention to detail someday; Secondly, if you don't ask, they will just want one once you have brought it out, then YOU have created more work for yourself.

Cantina Laredo in Summerlin, Las Vegas, NV

A clean, inviting restaurant will put guests at ease immediately.
A clean, inviting restaurant will put guests at ease immediately. | Source

1. The Greet and Drink Sale

This is the point where you really make the most impact to your guests. The greet is where the deal can be sealed in your favor. Bombing this doesn't mean you can't recover, and you may not, but the relationship that you will share for that 45 mins to an hour begins right when they see you walking up to the table.

Be clean, tucked-in, and prepared. Have at least 4 pens in your apron (mine always match- it looks clean and professional), a note pad, and a cheat sheet with the specials written on it. Also use the cheat sheet to remind you of what is 86'd - or out of stock.

Approach the table within a minute of it being seated. You want the guest to have a chance to look at the menu for drinks and appetizers, but longer than a minute and time slows down in a guest's mind. Seconds become minutes and minutes half hours. They need you.

I say something like "Hi my name's Steve and I'll be giving you great service. How is everyone tonight?" I say it with genuineness, looking everyone in the eye to show I mean it. Exchange pleasantries and get down to business, they must be thirsty - lets talk drinks!

Suggest a good one, a personal favorite or a top seller. Consider that you will make an average of 18 percent from everything you sell, the objective is to suggestively sell them something that will increase their bill total and your cut simultaneously. If they ask for water, politely ask them if they would like still or sparkling. In their mind you have narrowed the options to just bottled waters, which are not free like tap water. If they ask for tap, you'll be glad to get that for them.

Fun Fact

The term 86'd, as in "We're 86 pork loins." or "That guy is 86'd." comes from the the Delmonico's steakhouse. Menu item number 86, the rib-eye, was always sold out. The phrase grew into an everyday slogan for selling out of something or making it disappear.

Let's Ask the Audience

How long would you wait without service before saying something?

See results

Hints, Tips, and Advice:

  • Remember, increasing the bill increases your tip! Sell / pitch appetizers they will love.
  • If your restaurant doesn't run specials, make one up! Use the word 'highlighting' to sell a regular menu item, at regular price.
  • When recommending a menu item, try to stay in the middle price range. This tells the customer that you are not trying to sell the most expensive item, rather the BEST item.
  • This is when table maintenance comes into place. Remove empty glasses, trash, plates, or unused silverware and menus. This is known as pre-bussing.

2. Drink Delivery and Appetizer Sale

Whatever they order, make sure it goes into the computer or whatever system is in use to relay orders so that the product is made quickly. As I said, these first few minutes are the ones in which you can win them over for life.

Get their drinks out as soon as possible and name them as you put them down. This ensures the guest that you treated each order with the same importance, and it gives the guest the chance to object if they have gotten the wrong thing.

While the customer is taking their first sips of the newly received beverage, engage them with a clear description of a delicious appetizer. Say something along the lines of, "We are highlighting the Ahi tuna appetizer today. This is a filet of sushi-grade tuna, coated in sesame seeds and seared. We serve this with spicy wasabi and a ginger relish.". That is 85 percent more likely to sell a dish than, "The specials include the Ahi tuna and the ribeye dinner.".

The guest will say yay or nay to the appetizer, and if they decline continue on to sell the entrees. The same principles of suggestive selling used to pitch an appetizer apply to the sale of an entrée, and a great server will be intimately familiar with the dishes. Nothing lends more confidence to the customer and credibility to a server than an accurate and thorough knowledge of the items he or she is selling - Learn the menu!

Dining Out Should Be Fun!

Anticipate the guests needs.
Anticipate the guests needs. | Source

Hints, Tips, and Advice:

  • If you are running food for another server's table, be sure to treat them just as you would your own tables. If they ask for something, do not hunt down their server in order to tell them, it is faster and looks a lot better for you to just get what they need yourself. It demonstrates to the guest a high level of professionalism and an environment of teamwork.
  • When you take a dinner order, be sure to read everything back to the guest before leaving with the order. This ensures there will be no mistakes on your end, and it makes the customer accountable for their choice. If there is an element to the dish that not everyone likes, mention it to the guest, they may thank you for giving them the choice of putting it on the side. Something such a really spicy garnish, an unusual ingredient, or just something that other guests usually take off, are things you should mention to your guest. They will be grateful that you looked out for them even though you were not compelled to do it.

3. Appetizer Delivery and Table Maintenance

Depending on the size of your restaurant and the understanding between servers and support staff, you may be the one who delivers, or runs the food to the table, or it may be ran by someone else. It is at this point that the server should be present to inquire of their guests whether they need anything else.

This is a great time to suggest another drink if the previous one is two-thirds of the way gone. If the customer declined to get an adult beverage during the greet, offer them one now that they have had a chance to think about it. Be specific and offer a particular beer on draft, a specialty cocktail, or a glass of wine that would compliment the appetizer.

This visit to the table should also be taken advantage of in order to prebus and straiten things out. If the beverage napkins or coasters are soaked and falling apart, replace them with new ones. If non-alcoholic beverages are below halfway, bring a refill.

**IMPORTANT**

Make sure the entrees are ordered!! If you forget to ring in the entrees they will never come out. By the time you realize why it will be another 10-12 minutes to get the dishes out, bringing the total wait time to at least 18-20 minutes. No appetizer will keep them busy that long. In the business these are known as Pocket Tickets and the cooks won't like you for it because they have to stop what they are doing to make yours on the fly (high priority).


Hints,Tips, and Advice:

  • While you are checking on the food quality, this is the chance to show the customers you have their back. Try to put yourself in their shoes and anticipate their needs. Are their french fries on their plate? They probably want ketchup. Is there a steak, how about some steak sauce and a steak knife? Are there enough napkins for everyone at the table to have one?
  • Again, wording is everything, do not ask if they are till working on that. To eat your food is not effort, or work. Try, "Are you still enjoying that Mahi, ma'am?".

4. Two Minute or Two Bite Checkup

Always check back with the table briefly after two bites or two minutes, making sure they like the appetizer. This gives the guest a chance to tell the server if there is something wrong. Perhaps it is cold in the center, cooked to an improper temperature, or just too spicy/ bland, ect. There are hundreds of reasons why a customer may not like their dish, this gives them the opportunity to express it.

Do not use the old, tired phrase, "How is everything?" or, "Is the appetizer okay?" Your food isn't okay, it is phenomenal. Ask them "Is the ceviche amazing or what?" This attention to detail will win you beau-coup points with your guests.


Presentation is King

It is said that people eat with their eyes first..Make it look edible.
It is said that people eat with their eyes first..Make it look edible. | Source

Hints, Tips, and Advice:

  • Using pivot points to know who at the table had what is the best way of avoiding a bad practice known as 'auctioning', where a server stops everything at the table in order to call out dishes. "Who had the chicken parmesano?"

This is a rude interruption and a great way to cause more work for yourself as a server. Surprisingly, a lot of guests forget what they ordered and oftentimes you will be left holding something that nobody will claim. Even though someone ordered it, they will say they had the chicken marsala. And since you don't even know who ordered the parmesano, you are in no position to correct them. Now it looks like YOU screwed up...

Use Pivot Points! Assign a number to each seat and write that person's order under that number.

5. Entree delivery and drink sale/ prebus

If you put the order in on time and depending on the restaurant you work at and the organization level of the kitchen, food should arrive at the table within a specific window after being ordered. The industry average is ten minutes for lunch dishes and twelve for dinner. Of course, during extremely high volume, these numbers can and will exceed their average times, but not too much more.

There is a system known as 'Pivot Points' which, when used, allows a server or food runner to know who had what without asking. This is another opportunity for you to provide silent service and make the guest feel important. At a table, the chair that is closest to the front door would be seat number one. Continue in a clockwise order to assign numbers to the remaining chairs. When you take an order, write it down under that person's respective seat number, or pivot point. When the food is brought out by you or another (assuming they understand the pivot point system) they are able to silently distribute the meals to the appropriate customer.

Offer a drink and Prebus

Be sure to return for the mandatory two bite or two minute checkup to ensure food quality and satisfaction.

Suggest the dessert by name, leading with an adjective- it is a mouth-watering Cappuccino Fudge Cheesecake. Not just chocolate cake..

Dessert and post-meal drinks such as coffee, cappuccino and espresso, and Sambucca can increase a check average by 20-30 percent! Suggest them to EVERY table!!!
Dessert and post-meal drinks such as coffee, cappuccino and espresso, and Sambucca can increase a check average by 20-30 percent! Suggest them to EVERY table!!! | Source

Hints, Tips, and Advice:

  • I have enjoyed more success by describing a dessert to a guest than by standing at the table quickly naming them while I count them off on my fingers. Rather than asking if they would like a piece of key lime pie, just describe it. Say, "Our key lime pie is made locally using real key lime, a caramel graham cracker crust and a raspberry drizzle. Would you like to share a piece tonight?"
  • When customers order coffee, tell them that it may be a couple of minutes in order to brew a fresh pot in case the existing is cold or otherwise not fresh. This buys you a couple of minutes elsewhere and lets the guest know you will only serve them a quality product.

6. Dessert and/or Coffee Sale

It will be pretty clear when everyone is done with their dinner because people have the tendency to either push their plates away from them as a sign or they pick at it without actually eating. At this time the server should be clearing away plates and describing a dessert.

Pick a dessert that everyone loves, and suggest it at EVERY SINGLE TABLE.

This point cannot be stressed enough. It is proven that people are more likely to buy something if offered than they are to ask for something they had not. Additionally, the more tables you offer dessert to, the more you increase the odds of a sale. Either way you win, and the customer loves their dessert.

If the guest says they don't like chocolate after you describe the chocolate mousse, describe the mango leches cake.

Whether the guests orders a dessert or not, ask if they would care to have a cup of coffee or a cappuccino. Oftentimes the idea of coffee never occurs to diners after a meal but people of all ages respond positively to the suggestion. If a guest says the food is putting them asleep or in a 'coma', jokingly, tell them you have hot fresh coffee ready if they would like a cup?

7. Dessert / Coffee Delivery and Check Presentation

From this point it is all smooth sailing. Bring out the dessert or coffee, and lay the bill on the table in whatever check presenters the restaurant uses. Suggest that you take the check whenever it is convenient for them, then collect any debris or dishes unused.

Come back within 2 minutes to process the payment. Leave a pen if the guest pays with credit cards, make sure it works. This is the conclusion of your dinner service. By this I do not mean you are to ignore them, but the real work is out of the way and you can breathe a sigh of relief because you did great. They love your attention to detail and your genuineness- especially your menu knowledge- and will definitely request your section next time they come.


You've done your part for the guests, now learn what will be expected of you for the restaurant.

There are two aspects of being a server that have to be taught and practiced. The first, and most important is guest relations, and the second is teamwork and running obligations known as side work. This is the servers contribution to keeping the restaurant moving smoothly and can sometimes be challenging when you are busy. I will address this aspect in next week's article -

"Restaurant Teamwork: Pulling Your Weight"

How did I do? Have I instilled you with the confidence to proceed?

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