There is not a person in the restaurant business that has any doubts that the service their guests receive is at least as important as any other aspect of their operations. No matter how compelling the concept, how perfect the location, how amazing the food and how well thought out the beverage selection, a disinterested, unorganized, incompetent or unwelcoming front of the house staff will spell certain doom for any restaurant.

Good service never just happens. First, an operator must understand exactly what constitutes good service in his or her establishment. Then, they must relate that understanding to their staff through a consistent, codified and effective training program. Lastly, the systems, procedures and concepts the staff learned during their training have to be regularly reinforced through observation, appropriate critique and persistent guidance. We would never (I hope) hire a cook because he or she looked and acted like they could do the job, and then let them loose in our kitchen, not really paying much attention to their work, giving them the benefit of the doubt and hoping for the best. But this system, such as it is, is not that far from what often passes as an acceptable way to hire and “manage” front of the house staff; primarily in restaurants with what is know as “miserable” service.

The first link in the chain of providing good service is understanding just what good service is. During the course of a typical shift, a waiter’s responsibilities cover a wide variety of interrelated tasks. They can be broken down into three basic roles: being a good host, being a good technician and being a good salesperson. The better each individual on your staff masters each of these roles, the better off everyone involved (owners, management, staff and customers) will be. Each of your waiters will be naturally gifted to play some roles more easily than others. It’s your job to make sure that you give all of them the information they need, in a way that makes sense to them, so that they can do as good a job as they are able in each situation. You must also set up systems and establish clear expectations that allow them to do their best. If it’s not clear to them just what they should be accomplishing, or it’s impossible for them to do so because you have, even inadvertently, stacked the deck against them with systems that don’t work, the great service you’re intending to provide will not become a reality.

The first role that a waiter, or indeed any front of the house staff member, must master is that of a host. Here, I don’t mean “host” in the typical restaurant sense of the person who greets a guest at the door and takes them to their table. I mean host in the sense of a person who makes it their responsibility to see to it that each of their guests feels comfortable, well taken care of, respected, important and generally happy to be the host’s guest. The simplest way to describe the behavior that will lead to your guests feeling this way is to say that your front of the house staff should, “be nice.” Depending on which of your staff members you tell that to, you may be opening a can of worms you’d rather avoid. In his book, Good Behaviour, Harold Nicolson said, “The development from egoism to consideration for others is the foundation of all good manners.” This sentiment is a good place to start in training your staff to be good hosts with great manners.

They should always remember that it really is all about the guests, and everything your staff does should be done in that spirit. Stress the importance of paying close attention to the guests at each individual table from the first minute they walk up to greet them. Explain how they need to size up why these particular guests are there, what their priorities seem to be, and how they, as waiters, can give them what they want. Some guests will want a lot of interaction about the food, the wine, the weather. Others will want the minimum input possible while still getting the basic service all guests require. Other things, however, can be considered universal needs of all guests. First and foremost, every guest in your dinning room wants to feel special and important. To that end, your waiters should be instructed and reminded that when a guest speaks to them, they must always listen carefully, without judgment, and with a sincere desire to understand what the guest is after and how they can help them get it. If they’re not sure what a guest is saying, there is no harm in politely asking them to repeat it rather than guessing incorrectly. And even a subtle rolling of a waiter’s eyes at any point is a sure way to ruin the meal and guarantee that it is that customer’s last one in your restaurant.

Your staff should also be made aware that one of the best things they can do is to make each of their customers look good to the others at their table. If you have an effective wine training program in place for your staff, there is a good chance that your waiters will know more about wine, or at least the wines on your list, than your average guest does. It is imperative that they use that knowledge for good, rather than evil. Wine recommendations should be made with confidence, never arrogance; and any request made by a customer should be applauded with the appropriate amount of enthusiasm and respect.

Staff should never miss the opportunity to sincerely thank guests for sharing their thoughts, concerns, recommendations and interests, or for being given the chance to serve them. Regular customers should be greeted by name and thanked for being back so soon. An exception to this would be if a guest was at dinner with his wife, but had just been in for lunch with his girlfriend. (This would come under the general heading of paying close attention.) In the same way that you have managers in your kitchen constantly keeping track of what the cooks are doing, there should be managers in the dinning room keeping an eye on how each waiter, bartender, busser and host is behaving. Frequent, constructive feedback is a must in any ongoing training program.

The best way to instill this practice of attentive, courteous, altruistic conversation in your staff is to regularly engage them in conversation that is attentive, courteous and altruistic. The more pervasive this behavior is in your establishment, even extending to and through the kitchen, the more it can work its magic. Your staff should always be encouraged to practice this same behavior with each other, so that it becomes second nature to them in every situation. Lead by your example.

The next role your front of the house staff must play, concurrently with being consummate hosts, is to be great technicians. By this I mean mastering all of the nuts and bolts that constitute the mechanics of service. Within each restaurant these mechanics will be very similar and consistent, from table to table, shift to shift, day in, day out. Because of the linear, relatively consistent and finite nature of the path that starts at greeting guests at the table and ends with thanking them for coming in, the type of training that works best for this part of your staff’s job will also be more linear and codified. While getting your waiters to be “nice” and attentive can be accomplished through conversation and setting the tone with your own behavior, having them master the technical part of the job can best be accomplished by insuring that they have a thorough, practical knowledge of systems, procedures and products. A combination of clearly written manuals and an effective, on-the-floor training program is key.

Before you spend resources developing a great training program for your front of the house staff, take some time to observe and scrutinize the service paradigm you currently have in place. There are several basic styles of service teams, each one of which is appropriate for one type of restaurant or another. Depending on the complexity of the food and beverage offerings, physical layout, volume, guest expectations and other factors, one of these service styles, or a variation thereof, will work well.

The most basic system is to assign one waiter to a station of between three to six tables. That waiter will be responsible for most if not all of the guests’ needs. They’ll take the food and beverage orders, get them to the kitchen, serve the food, and so on, ultimately presenting the check, making change and saying, “Thanks for coming in!” A busser is frequently employed to serve and refill non-alcoholic beverages, clear plates and clean tables at the end of a meal. As long as the menu is fairly simple, the dining room not too large, and expectations not over-the-top, this system works just fine.

Other restaurants, due to some combination of increasing complexity of offerings, more service difficulties due to layout or volume, and higher guest expectations, have a multi-server system in place. Here it is typical to have a front waiter who communicates with the guests and kitchen, a back waiter who is primarily responsible for delivering the food and drinks, and a busser to clear and clean. It goes without saying that these delineated job descriptions should never be used by staff as an excuse for not doing whatever might be needed at any point in time to make any guest’s experience a better one.

As a restaurant approaches higher realms of fine dinning, the service staff will get commensurably larger and more specialized. Here we might find a maître d’, sommelier, captains, front waiters, back waiters and bussers. The point is, each of these systems is great when it matches up with what is required of the service staff in question. In scrutinizing the system you have in place, be honest about whether or not it’s appropriate for your situation. No matter how much you train your staff or how hard they try to succeed, if the system you have set up is inadequate in any regard (stations that are too big, not enough service bartenders, not enough waiter stations, etc.) you and your staff will be fighting a losing battle.

Let’s assume that you have objectively and honestly examined your existing service system and either found that it works well, or have made any necessary changes so that it does. Now it’s time to look closely at each separate position in your service team (host, front waiter, bartender…) and write a simple, clear, concise and complete description of just exactly what the people doing that job need to get done, and how they need to do it. To get the best results, rely on a combination of your big-picture observations and your top staff’s from-the-trenches opinions and experiences. Besides garnering valuable information, your staff will appreciate knowing you value their contributions and experience, and will be more willing to better participate in training new employees.

These specific job descriptions should be included in each appropriate employee service manual, which each employee should be given a copy of. Besides detailed descriptions of each duty, it’s a good idea to also have brief checklists made and posted in appropriate locations, outlining the tasks as everyday reminders once the initial training is complete. Visuals are also a good idea. Because the majority of people relate to pictures more easily than they do words, providing things like a diagram of the dinning room indicating table numbers and various stations, or a drawing of how a waiter station should be set up will be worth the time and effort.

It is useful to break each job description into three basic segments: opening duties, service and closing duties. For each segment of each job description, write a chronological list of the duties that any person doing that job will need to get done, including any details that you (or your staff advisors) deem pertinent. A waiter’s opening duties might include filling salt and pepper shakers, folding napkins, putting linens on tables, etc. A bartender’s might include cutting lemons and limes, filling chests with ice and doing a starting inventory. Whatever they include, be sure that the lists you write reflect what actually needs to take place, and that one of the items on a manager’s list is to check to see that all the items on the other lists are getting done in a timely fashion. A similar list should be written describing the closing duties for each position.

Although your guests probably don’t realize it, the quality of their experience is very much dependant on how well the staff performs their opening and closing duties. Service time, however, is of course paramount in their minds, and so it must be in yours, too. One of the best, though simplest, tools to help insure smooth service is to supply your staff with an explicit order of service, which will apply to a large degree at every table they serve. Not only will this clearly define expectations, it will also serve as a practical reminder during their shift. After a period of time, the order will become second nature to your staff. After a little more time, they’ll start to stray from it, and it will be handy to have the list to reel them back in. An order of service will vary greatly from one restaurant to another, but a simple one might look like this:

  • Within 1 minute of the guests sitting down, take drink orders. Place drink orders.
  • Serve drinks within 2 minutes. Tell about specials.
  • Offer to take food order within 5 minutes. Take orders, place orders.
  • Deliver first course, check drinks.
  • Check table within 5 minutes to see if done with first course. Check drinks.
  • Clear first course, check drinks, fire entrées.
  • (Continue this process through presenting the check, leaving change, saying “Thank you”)

In no way do I mean to imply that simply following an even well conceived order of service is all it takes for a waiter to do a great job. But it is a very good road map for them to start from.

One of the most important things that separates a decent waiter from a great one is their knowledge of the food being offered. Depending on the complexity of your menu, it might be a good idea to have your chef write explanations of the regular menu items and include them as part of the waiter’s training manual. It should include things like pronunciations, cooking methods (seared, poached…), degree of spiciness, relative amounts of cream or butter contained in the dish, and anything else that you think your customers might like to know. As helpful as this is, there is no substitute for having the front of the house staff regularly sample the food they serve. If done correctly, it’s also one of the best ways to encourage camaraderie between the front and back of the house. Scheduling a quick tasting of even one item each night for the dining room staff just before opening is a great way to boost morale while increasing your waiters’ knowledge and enthusiasm for the food they serve. The chef (or maybe even the cook who came up with that night’s special) can explain how and why the dish was cooked the way it was, give a little history, talk about how an item will be out of season soon, or whatever is appropriate. Appetizers, desserts, or any other “optional” courses should not be neglected. This kind of regular tasting is also an excellent tool for increasing sales.

Helping your waiters develop a working knowledge and appreciation of wine is as important as consistently increasing their food knowledge. For wine training, follow the same basic plan of using a combination of written materials and regular tastings. If you have a sommelier on staff, you’re set. Let him or her organize a program of study materials and regular staff tastings that will teach your staff the basics of wine making, geography, varietals, tasting, and food and wine pairing as it pertains to your wine list. If you have no one on staff that could do this, there are organizations and individuals who offer this kind of training. Be sure to include any kitchen staff that shows an interest. It will pay for itself in guest satisfaction and increased sales.

Many restaurateurs consider the kind of wine education described above as too expensive in terms of time, effort and money for what they get out of it. Others feel it’s a relatively easy way to set themselves apart from the competition, offering their customers a more complete, professional and enjoyable experience, while simultaneously boosting their sales of wine and food. I agree with the latter group. But even for those in the first group, if wine is offered in their restaurants, they must at least train their waiters how to serve a bottle of wine without hurting themselves.

Less “sexy” than some of the topics discussed above, but still crucial components of every staff’s training is becoming fluent with the POS system, understanding basic safety and sanitation, and being able to serve alcohol responsibly. Every employee in the dinning room should take an approved alcohol service certification course. It’s also a good idea to have all managers become certified in food handling safety.

The last role a waiter has to play is that of a salesperson. The two biggest tools you can give your staff to help in this regard are to do everything possible to help them master the first two: being a good host, and being a good technician. If your waiters succeed in making their guests feel comfortable, appreciated and respected; confident that they won’t drop the ball; and convince them that they know what they’re talking about when they answer a question or make a suggestion, extra sales will come. Beyond that, your staff should never hesitate to make suggestions that they honestly feel a guest will really enjoy. This requires that they make the effort to pay attention and actually try to figure out what might float a particular guest’s boat. This is different than asking every guest if they’ve saved room for dessert or if they would, “like fries with that?”