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Not Getting Great Restaurant Service? It Might be Your Fault.

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Is bad service at a restaurant your fault? Image from youtube

Guest Post by Lauren Volper

I started my service career at sixteen years old. Seventeen years later, and I have since managed to spill coca-cola on Sigourney Weaver at a diner in Poughkeepsie, New York, serve wine to E-40 at a bar in the Oakland airport, and shake a martini tableside for Sir Richard Branson in the lobby lounge of a hotel in San Francisco. I have collected countless receipt paper love notes, called 911 on a man having a heart attack at the table, and 86’d someone for flossing their teeth at the bar. I am no newbie to fielding diverse situations with a sense of ease, agility, and exemplary judgement. Today, I work full-time as a server in Hayes Valley and am the founder of a startup called WineUp. As an urban hustler, master observer of people, and fellow frequenter of restaurants, I am passionate about sharing my insider industry information.

There are several reasons for the decline of service in San Francisco, as restaurants struggle more than ever now to employ and retain qualified, knowledgeable, and passionate service professionals. Restaurants are having to cut staff accordingly to budget for the dollar increase in minimum wage that took effect this summer, accounting for one obvious strain. All short-staffing and occasional bad management reasons aside, from a servers’ perspective, people are just harder to wait on then ever. We want to provide you with good service, but sometimes people make it so. God. Damn. Hard.

Here are steps you can take to receive the royal treatment when you dine in San Francisco:

Ask the server for their name and use it

Her name tag says “Bartender Haley”. Image from yelp

If nothing else, they will think you are going to put them on blast on Yelp, so if they care a modicum about their job or reputation, they will go the extra mile to see that you are taken care of. If they tell you their name without you asking, don’t call them “excuse me”, call them by their name, as servers are startled by “excuse me’s” all day long, they have built an aversion to it, especially when it is followed with a request for something. You are much more likely to get stellar service if you say your server’s name at least once. “Names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language”, Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Order in rounds, not individually

We understand that you want to talk, catch up, conduct business and enjoy your experience. We want to help you enjoy your time and provide efficient service. That being said, please communicate your order effectively and efficiently. Do your best to order drinks and things you need while your server is already giving you their undivided attention. In other words, if you are a party of four, try not to order individual drinks at a time; sending the server pinballing back and forth, in a redundant fashion. Order all your courses at once if possible (aside from dessert), and your server should pace it accordingly. There is something I find unsettling about seeing a table full of appetizers and menus taking up half the table real estate. We despise a cluttered looking table just as much as you like sitting at one.

Pay attention and give your server eye contact

You would be surprised how much this helps. We all have our “favorite” tables of the night. Usually these are people that are more engaging, and polite. We get treated pretty dismissively most of the time, and we are used to it, but if you want preferential treatment, you are going to have to treat us like we are important too. That means, look up from your phone, and answer us if we are asking you for clarification on something. Move your iPhone Plus, so we do not have to place the hot plate on it. It feels great to be treated with care and respect, and a huge sign of respect is simply acknowledging our presence.

Make a reservation

OpenTable, SeatMe, Yelp, and restaurant websites are all ways to make a reservation in seconds. Put a note on your reservation like “celebrating”, “date night”, or “quiet table preferred”, and you increase your chances of getting your needs met and expectations exceeded. If you are winging it, that’s understandable! Download the OpenTable app on your phone, and while you’re walking around menu shopping – look up the desired restaurant on the OpenTable app, peruse the available reservation times, book your table, and then kill time having a drink or an appetizer somewhere else while you wait for the reserved table time. Do not expect to get a table on a Friday night without a reservation at eight pm, put up a fight at the host stand, and take up space in line with people that do have reservations. Your poor planning and unrealistic expectations does not constitute an emergency on our end.

Sit at the bar

If you are just one person or do not have a reservation, sit at the bar. The bar is the oldest hack in the business; you are almost always going to get better service if you have found a seat right in front of half the things you need and the person who is making your drinks is right in front of you. If you do not have a reservation, you can simply pony up to the bar, make new friends, and enjoy some free entertainment while you are there. Put your name on a waitlist, relax and enjoy a cocktail or an appetizer; many times people opt to stay at the bar even when their table is ready because it is where all the action is.

A note about birthdays 

If it’s a birthday/anniversary, tell your server by finding them aside and let them know beforehand so we can make attempts to provide special service and surprise and delight your dinner guests. DO NOT say after 5 drinks, with heightened vocal fry “it’s my f-frienss birthday, can we get a free dessert or something”. They are yourfriend, not ours, and we don’t know what your friend likes – do your research ahead of time and choose something – don’t leave that up to us, otherwise we will just give away a scoop of sorbet, and a scoop of sorbet does not a birthday make.

Communicate all the things

Servers, bartenders, management staff WANT you to have a great experience. The reason why we do what we do, aside from it can be very good money, is we thrive on making people happy and opening them up to new experiences.

– If you have allergies, tell us! Not every server is going to ask you if you have an allergy just because you say “no bun” with your burger. On the topic of allergies, don’t lie about having allergies – ESPECIALLY if you are with a group of people. The kitchen is obligated to change gloves, and employ special process around avoiding your “allergens”, this will slow down production of your entire tables’ food.

– Tell us if you have to leave by a particular time. Staff will alert the kitchen to prioritize your food if you tell us your time constraint, but only if you tell us nicely in advance and have realistic expectations. We will not help you if your expectations are unrealistic. If you are a group of four, want to order a 3 course meal, and get out in under an hour on a Friday night – your server might laugh.

– Realistic expectations and communication are ESSENTIAL to your heightened experience! DO NOT mull over the menus for an inappropriate amount of time, order the ribeye well done, and then half-way through your dinner when your server has 7 other tables during the rush – ask them to box everything up for you because you suddenly realize the time. This is unfair, and you have caused the strain on every table in restaurant because we all focus our attention on yourneeds, and forfeit the needs of 30 other paying guests in the restaurant.

– If you would like to pay for the meal, tell your server BEFORE we drop the check. DO NOT put your server in the middle your fighting fistfulls of cash and credit cards! We don’t want to pick a credit card for you, and we don’t want your fighting hands near our bodies. I have been punched in the boob this way. Don’t punch servers in the boob, we don’t like it – despite popular belief.

– Also, I recall a time where I was hustling with three jobs, taking classes at community college, and counting change to pay rent on my New York apartment, and a gaggle of men came in clambering over the check with their heavy black credit cards when and I had just eaten a few tablespoons of peanut butter out of a jar for lunch. I remember thinking – geez, one day I would LOVE to fight over a check and actually mean it, not secretly wish I lost. Your generosity among friends is a grand gesture, but among the strangers serving you, isn’t always well received…just think about it.

We don’t really care how much money you spend if you are nice. But…

Do NOT be that couple that stays for 2 hours and only orders appetizers and one drink each on a Friday night. Have an awareness of your money-spent-to-time-at-table ratio. Servers need to make a living, and if we sense that you are not aware of this fact, it does not make us bad servers for not refilling your water glass eight times, it makes you a high maintenance squatter. If you dotake a table for a couple hours, and do not order full meals, it is not a bad idea to slip the server a green handshake in good faith on top of the check tip. Money still talks, always.

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