Tips & Tricks from My Time in the Restaurant Industry
Emma Sullivan, February 16, 2018
I have done many a stint in the service / retail industry. One of the things we lament, as service industry workers, is how little people know about what goes on behind the scenes, and how much easier our (and customers') lives would be if people were more 'in the know.'
To this end, I've written this blog with the intent of answering some common questions from an 'insider' perspective. Read on for etiquette rules, tricks for getting a table, etc. Be warned: once your eyes are opened, you can't go back!
- "There's no one in the restaurant. Why can't I get a table? Is the host just lying to me?"
No, your host is not lying to you, and they are not being mean-spirited. In most cases, one of a few things is going on. The restaurant could be booked up with reservations. Restaurants generally save a table for 1-2 hours before each reservation. Alternatively, it might be early or late in the evening at which point restaurants reduce the number of staff - they might be slowing down table seating so that the seated tables can get great service from the smaller number of employees.
Tip: If you're just coming in for quick drinks or happy hour, let the host know. Something like "I realize that you might be holding a table for a reservation. We are only here for drinks and can promise to be out in less than an hour and you are welcome to come ask us to get going if we haven't left in that time. Knowing this is there any way we can get a table?" If this doesn't work, try your luck with the waitlist or go somewhere else.
- "I don't have a reservation. When's the best time for me to come in and get a table?"
If at all possible, make a reservation. I can't tell you the number of times I've had parties of more than 8 people come in at 7 p.m. on a weekend, expect to be seated immediately, and then be shocked when quoted a 1+ hour wait time.
However, if you don't have a reservation, or if the restaurant doesn't take reservations, I would stick to earlier in the evening (think before 5:30 p.m.) or later in the evening (after 9 or 10 p.m. depending on the restaurant's closing time) and avoid lunch hour - 12 p.m. Most weeknights or off-hours, you'll be fine getting in without a reservation. If it's a special occasion, don't take any risks. Plan at least a week in advance - longer if you have a large party.
- "I had a reservation, why do I have to wait?"
Restaurants usually book tables of two for 1.5 hours, tables of four for 2 to 2.5 hours, etc. with the time reserved increasing according to the number of people on the reservation. Usually, this leaves more than enough time for the people to dine and leave before the next reservation. However, there are always outliers (I once had a table that sat for 4.5 hours and didn't order anything after the first hour). These outliers are almost impossible to plan for, especially on a busy night.
Chances are, we're just waiting for the table before you to get up and leave. Or, we're in the middle of setting your table up and getting it ready for you. Restaurants really value reservations (because they make our lives so much easier) so I promise the restaurant staff is more anxious than you are to get you the table you reserved.
- "How much should I tip?"
This obviously varies by state and region but generally if you're a respectable person you should tip between 15-20% for good service and above 20% for exceptional service. Want an easy way to calculate a 20% tip? Double the tax!
Tip: Don't forget! Calculate your tip based on the total bill BEFORE tax.
- "The food was cold, I shouldn't leave a good tip, right?"
Wrong. Your tip goes to the server and they in turn tip out the kitchen and the bartender. If your food is terrible but your service is good, don't penalize your server for something they can't control - they still did all the work serving you! Instead, calmly let them know what was wrong with the food and they'll work to get it corrected for you.
- "Why can't I sit at that table?"
That table might be reserved. If you're on the waitlist, it could also be being held for someone ahead of you on the waitlist who's on their way back after getting notified. That table might also be in a section that currently doesn't have a server and won't until it's busier in the day and there's more staff on the clock. That being said, it's totally okay to request sitting in a certain area (I recommend it!). Just know that you might not always get it.
- "You can totally just split this bill between 10 people, right?"
Right. But, please note that this is actually a lot of work for your server. If you know you're going to split your bill more than 2 ways, let your server know at the beginning of the night so that they can organize it before you start ordering. This will save them a headache and save you some time.
- "Excuse me, can you take our photo?"
I'd be happy to take your photo - I want you to love the time you spend at our restaurant - and a great picture commemorating the experience will only be good for us, especially since it's probably going on social media. However, please don't ask me when I'm running around looking stressed or if I have food in my hands. I'll take a better picture for you anyway (and probably take several photos to give you options) if I'm not in a hurry to bring food to someone who's been waiting twenty minutes for it and looks hangry.
A few final tips:
- People in the service industry love friendly, loyal customers. It's not just about leaving a good tip - a good tip will get you nowhere if you're condescending and rude. Be friendly and engage with the person serving you - chances are you'll hear a great story or make a new friend. If you are one of these wonderful people, we'll go the extra mile whenever you come in to wine and dine. Sometimes it's just exceptional service, sometimes it'll mean free samples of extra food, your favorite booth by the window, or an ability to 'squeeze in a reservation' even when the restaurant is officially booked out. "You reap what you sow," or however the phrase goes.
- Service industry staff move around more than you think they do and it's actually quite a close-knit circle. A lot of the people I know work several jobs in multiple restaurants in Downtown Bellevue and have worked in other Bellevue restaurants before the ones they're currently at. Because of this, news about great customers spreads really quick (and the same goes for bad customers).
As someone who has worked as both a server and a host, I'll issue a universal plea for kindness and understanding. If something isn't going your way, we're probably more stressed about it than you are - we know our pay is on the line. (Remember it's someone's son, daughter, or grandchild serving you). At the same time, don't sit idly by fuming if something is going wrong - be upfront about any concerns and see what the restaurant can do for you. A good dining experience is in your hands more than you think it is!