Steps of Service

Meet and Greet

i.      This is your chance to make a great first impression.  Always approach a new table with a smile.  This is easier said than done, but with a little practice it can become second nature.  After all, these people who are sitting at your assigned table in your assigned section are the ones who are paying your bills.  If they chose another place to eat that is less money in your pocket and more in someone else’s, so logically you should be happy that they chose to eat with you.   The first step is to say hello, see how everyone is doing today, and smile.  Everyone will have their own style of doing this unless you work in a very corporate establishment that wants everyone to say the exact same spiel.  Introduce yourself by name.  This may or may not sit well with you but using your name actually enhances your image with your table.  This makes it easier for your table to get a hold of you through other staff if they know who to ask for, and in some instances YOU become more important to THEM and YOU can have people come back to your restaurant to see YOU because YOU gave them great service!

Drink Orders

i.      Immediately following the meet and greet ask people for their drink order.  If you work in a place that automatically brings water to the table you can get started by bringing them water yourself.  Most places have the busser bring water to the table, but this sometimes takes longer than desired.  If you greet a table and the waters are not there yet, let your table know that water is on the way and ask them if they would care for a cocktail in the mean time.

ii.      Always ask your table if they want a cocktail, especially if it is during dinner time.  Don’t ask them if they would like something to drink as this encompasses all drinks available.  This is part of suggestive selling that your managers like to stress. By using simple changes in words, you can increase the likelihood that someone at the table will order a cocktail as opposed to a soft drink or other beverage.  Notice that no specific cocktail is suggested.  99.99% of the time, you will not know what your table likes to drink or how they drink.  Suggesting a specific drink like a red table wine for someone who is a gin and tonic kind of drinker will pigeonhole their thinking.  By suggesting a table wine, they may not think that you have a full bar and instead of them ordering their usual cocktail, they may just order a soft drink.  Using “cocktail” opens everyone at your table to think of their favorite kind of beverage and they will order accordingly. Waiting tables is all about numbers.

iii.      The typical cocktail price point on the low end of the bar is usually at least double what a soft drink or juice would be at a restaurant.   Cocktails are an easy up-sell to a table right from the get go.  (See Exhibit A – Chart of cocktail prices vs. soft drink prices and income difference over a 1 month period). However, sometimes people may already have a cocktail they purchased from the bar before they sit down (only happens when people are on a wait) so this suggestion doesn’t always present itself.  In that case, acknowledge that you see they already have some cocktails/beverages and that you would be happy to refill them should they want another one.  After getting a drink order it is a good time to let the table have a few minutes to look over the menu. Ring in your drink order and don’t return until you have their drinks ready to deliver.


i.      When you bring back the drinks it is your opportunity to suggestively sell your customers.  This is the usual point where you offer to start the table off with an appetizer or salad before their meal.  Offering this before your customers place their entrée order is beneficial in two ways.  One, it will increase your check average the more people order appetizers and two the customers will feel that the service is quick and efficient.  By placing an appetizer order before the entrée, it allows those appetizers to get started right away and decreases wait time for your customers before they begin eating.  By placing the appetizer order in early it you’re your table know that you are giving them essential “care” and you will decrease the amount of time that table is in your section.

ii.      Think of it this way, if you waited to get the appetizer order and the entrée order at the same time, you will have to deliver the appetizers then wait to order your entrees as well.  Holding food is an area of many mistakes.  You can forget to send the food through, or you have to time things with the kitchen, the list can go on and on.  If you already have appetizers working before you take their order you can send in entrée orders right away.   Entrees in a normal restaurant take between 15 and 20 min to prepare and serve.  Appetizers can take just a few minutes to over 15 minutes, by giving yourself a buffer of time before ringing in an entrée your table will perceive that the service is prompt because the appetizer will be at the table shortly after you have taken their entrée order.

iii.      We will get to the entrée portion of the steps of service in a moment. First, let’s go over what should happen when you deliver their appetizer(s).  This is a good time to see if the table needs anything.  Always take a scan of what everyone is drinking and ask people if they would like refills or another round of any kind of alcoholic beverage.  Some people tend to down their first beverage and you may have an opportunity to sell another drink to them at this moment.  You can increase your check average by this simple offering.  Let’s imagine that you did this offering at every table you served and only twenty percent of those tables ordered another drink at that time.  If you served 10 tables for one shift and only two of those tables ordered another round (let’s even imagine that only one person was ordering another cocktail) you may be increasing your sales per day by $6-$15.  If you worked 4 shifts a week and you worked 50 weeks a year you would increase your annual sales to a range of $1,200-3,000 per year.  In this case even if you averaged a 10% tip average you will gain about $120.00-$300.00 more in tips per year.  It may not sound like much at this point, but I certainly could use an extra $300 in my pocket!

The Entrée Order = Ask for Drink Refills

i.      The entrée order should take place shortly after appetizer orders were placed with the kitchen.  It may not seem like much time but most people quickly come to a decision about what they would like for their main course after they know what is coming for an appetizer.

ii.      When taking the order, make sure you confirm what the guest is telling you.  Repeat and read back the order to each guest as this will help you avoid mistakes and misheard requests.

iii.      If a customer has any kind of allergies or concerns about what is in some item of food, be sure to get your manager involved to talk over anything with your guests.  Your manager will appreciate the heads up and they have more clout with the chefs to talk over any of your customer’s concerns.  Your customers with psychologically note that you understood how important it was to them and they may reward you when you get their payment.

iv.      The entrée order is also a good time to check for refills and/or more cocktails.  Some patrons will not be finished with their cocktails when you take the appetizer order so this is a good time to get to those who are on a normal drinking speed.  Remember the calculation done in the appetizer section?  The same rules apply at every drink offering.  This is also a good time to ask if your customers will need anything like condiments, utensils, or anything else they might need.  Scanning is going to be one of your best tools.  Notice any garbage, empty plates (varies on the place but some restaurants have automatic appetizers that may require picking up dirty dishes) Pick up any empty glasses and ring in their drinks and entrées.

Entrée Delivery = Drink Refills (yet again)

i.      Before you deliver the entrée(s), you must make sure that the table is ready for the entrée(s).  Make sure you remove any appetizer plates or other dishes to make room for the main course.  Nothing is more uncomfortable than a pile of dishes at the table that the customer must navigate around to enjoy their meal.

ii.      Some restaurants require their servers to carry a crumber which is a pen like tool that helps the server sweep any crumbs off the table (usually in fine dining).  Removal of the appetizer plates is a good time to utilize this tool.

iii.      Now that the table is clear it is time to present the entrée orders.  Presentation is everything.  Make sure that the food looks immaculate.  You want your customers to come back and a poorly organized plate of food will leave a bad impression.  If something doesn’t look right, or the food does not look prepared the way that the customer specified let the kitchen know that there is a problem.  ALWAYS inform your manager of any problems with food presentation.  If the manager looks things over and believes that everything is fine then you have just covered yourself should there be any discrepancy with the table.

iv.      Many servers get into “trouble” with their customers or the upper management because they try to hide problems or take care of things on their own without informing their superiors. This leads to distrust and sometimes makes matters worse off than they have to be.

v.      Getting It Right

  1. After making sure everything on the plate looks like it should it is time to run the food to the table.  A lot of restaurants deliver their food to assigned seat numbers so make sure you are confirming where everything is going before you get to the table.   If that is not the case, communication with the table is essential so that people get the right entrees.  Giving people the wrong entrée can lead to a disgruntled customer and potentially affect your tip at the end of the meal.  It does not matter if you do everything right sometimes.  Sometimes people at the table are making the mistake and grab the wrong entrée.  As much as this is annoying and sometimes frustrating, customers do not always care about what you did right, they only care that something is wrong.  This is an opportunity to show them how much you do care.  As you will see later, waiting tables is a game of perception management.  As long as the table perceives that you are going the extra mile, then you are.  So, in order to handle a problem like this you need to communicate with your manager right away and get them the correct plate.
  2. Made to order is what they expect and if something does not come out that way then you will be noted as being an incompetent waiter.  Are you? Most waiters I know are very smart people and most are seeking higher education, don’t prove them right.  Everybody makes mistakes as we are all imperfect as humans, but how you handle your mistakes is what will set you apart.  Even after years of experience, I seldom have everything go perfectly, but I strive for perfection every shift.  Sometimes I have just as many mistakes as my server colleagues, but how I handle them keeps me out of the dog house.
  3. The entrée should always be at the right temperature.  Nothing is more unappealing about a restaurant that serves a lukewarm soup, or a cold piece of meat.  I once went to a place that served wings that were still frozen inside!  I never went back.  You want people talking about the good food and the good service at your restaurant and their enthusiasm is the best form of advertising.   The more people hear good things the more likely that people will frequent your restaurant even on the slow days.

vi.      Once the entrées are down on the table it is a good time to see if anyone at the table needs anything else.  As you can see, you want to constantly be asking the table about their needs.  Last time I checked, mind readers do not exist (although some folks think that everyone should know what they want at all times) so make sure you are “checking in” on your tables needs.  This is also a good time to do another scan of everyone’s drinks.  Offer to get refills and/or another round of cocktails at this time.  If your tables are low on water make sure you or someone else who is designated to fill water immediately goes over to fill up their glass.  This prevents your table from asking to have this done.  If you can deliver before they ask—you win.  This goes with the perception that you may be a mind reader.   The more a table asks for complementary items (this does not mean free, it means “should go with”) the lower your perceived value as a waiter becomes.  This is what is meant by being on top of things.  If you know that many people prefer a steak knife with a chicken entrée, bring it before they ask for it.

vii.      After everyone looks satisfied with their needs, always leave with a nice remark.  I usually say “enjoy!” or something to that effect.  This let’s your table know that you want them to have a good dining experience while eating their food.  It may not seem like much of a gesture, but people subconsciously note these things as it is part of the whole dining experience.

The 2 min Check Back

i.      The two minuet check back is customary in every restaurant.  This is the time that you check in with the table to make sure everything tastes the way it should and everyone is happy.  Nine times out of ten this is the case, but there will always be a table that has a problem.  Like we said earlier, nothing ever goes as planned and this is another area where problems arise.  The two minute check back was designed to make sure you have everything right.  Sometimes customers forget that they want a side of extra sauce or an extra plate, etc.  Sometimes YOU forget to bring something and this is your opportunity to correct YOUR problem.  Whatever the case may be, the two minute check back lets your table know that you want everything to be satisfactory at their table.  In some cases this can be a great time to scan and ask if anyone would like a drink refill or cocktail.  Sometimes people realize that a nice Shiraz or a fruity cocktail would go nice with what they are eating.  You can also suggest something to drink at this time. If all is well, let the table enjoy their meal/conversation/down time and stay out of their hair.

ii.      The Art of Reading Someone’s Mind

  1. This is a good time to pay attention to body language. The majority of communication happens in a non-verbal manner. Many customers feel timid, they are aware the pain they can be perceived as if they have special needs. Instead of telling you about these needs verbally, you can see it in their eyes and hear it in the tone of their voice. When you sense this try to narrow down what the problem is. Move from general to specific questions in a noninvasive manner until they tell you the problem or you communicate it otherwise. One strategy I use is to make eye contact with the whole table when discovering the problem, this can help include less timid diners in the process. Many times another, perfectly satisfied, guest will inform you that Micheal’s steak was a little undercooked or that Samantha would like an extra side of gravy for her mashed potatoes. When you can’t get a verbal answer it is best to go to the manager and describe what you think the guest is unsatisfied with and how you think would be the best way to address it. This way the manager is informed making them more likely to correctly diagnose and cure the problem.

Clean as “THEY” Go

i.      You want to make sure that your guests are always comfortable.  When you see that an entrée/appetizer/drink or anything else is done being used, remove it from the table.  Clean as they go is the best expression we could come up with.  Some restaurants require you to leave plates on the table until everyone is finished eating but any side dishes or glasses can be removed as they are finished.  This presents a clean and enjoyable atmosphere for your guests.

ii.      A note about big parties, most of the time large parties are celebrating some kind of special occasion.  The cleaner the table looks in their picture the better the memory for them.  You don’t want your guests to be leaning in over a bunch of empty plates when they are taking a picture that will go in their memory books.  A lot of times the table will ask you to take their picture for them.  In these cases try to get a picture when the table is clean or right after the food is delivered.  This will give them a memorable picture and not an embarrassing one.

iii.      Another reason to constantly be cleaning your tables is turn-around time.  If you have less to clean when your table leaves you can get your table seated with a new round of guests quicker.  This may not seem like it could matter but it does especially when your restaurant is on a wait.  The more tables you serve the more money you will make.  If it takes an extra three minutes per table you are waiting on to turn over, then you are losing 15 minutes for a five table section to turn over.  Fifteen minutes can be the difference between getting another round of tables before you get cut from the floor or not.  So, if you have five more tables a night, and each table tips you a low average of $3.00 each, you just increased your income by $15 a shift.  Multiply that by 4 shifts a week and that is $60.  $60 times fifty weeks is $3,000.00!  A little effort can go a long way in the service industry so take the time to keep everything clean.  To help you remember, just do the ABC’s of waiting.  (A)lways (B)e (C)leaning!

After Dinner Drinks

i.      After all entrées are finished and you have cleaned everyone’s plates, it is a good time to see if anyone wants to have another cocktail or after dinner drink.  Although you may not have many takers on this, there are a few people who will have a drink after their meal.  Most places want you to offer dessert or coffee but we believe that it is better to offer that later.  With another cocktail, you will be able to still offer coffee and dessert but you will be increasing your sales by a few dollars more than if you just offered the dessert or coffee.   A cocktail as we saw earlier usually cost more than coffee (at least it should) and is often more relaxing than a cup of coffee after a meal.  Also, after dinner (the usual cocktail hour) many people will still enjoy a dessert with a cocktail or glass of wine instead of coffee.


i.      After you have offered after dinner drinks, you should now offer dessert, coffee and tea.  Make sure you are doing this at the same time as the after dinner drink offer, but not before.  You want to make sure your table is anticipating another cocktail before they think about getting dessert or coffee.  Those items are usually less expensive than a cocktail so you want to have your guests conditioned to think about a delicious cocktail first.  Most people don’t like to change their mind or bother the waiter/waitress about something they already ordered even when you are standing right in front of them.  Make sure you have a dessert menu ready for people to read.  At some restaurants it is customary to drop a dessert menu when you clean up the table’s entrée plates.  Other restaurants have a dessert display tray.  If a tray is required, make sure you offer after dinner drinks before presenting the tray.  That way you can take an order for drinks and already have them rung in before you give them the option for dessert.  This goes back into the psychology of ordering for the table.  If something is already being made, it is less likely that a table will change their mind about their order.  That doesn’t mean that it will never happen, it is just less likely.  The dessert order should be presented with your one or two favorite items.

ii.      Remember, everyone has different tastes and you are just making a suggestion.  The best way to have people order dessert is to direct them to their liking.  Always proceed to tell people that other people like them really enjoy this type of dessert or that type of dessert.  A good catch phrase is “If you like chocolate, then you will LOVE this!”  Always use the word “love”.  Love with desserts implies that they will have an experience beyond just the sweetness of the food.  It is amazing how much more of a reaction you can get by subliminally suggesting the kind of experience people will have and it will enhance their dining experience.  Movie advertising uses the same method.  Just look at your local news paper for the movie listings or watch a commercial that shows the quotes from critics and movie goers. “More fun than a roller coaster ride!” “This movie delivers!” “The scariest movie in a long time!” Build up the expectation and people will believe it!

iii.      When you deliver the desserts, coffee, or tea you should make one last check to see if anyone would like anything else.  Sometimes there will be a request for extra sauce or extra spoons, forks, etc.  This is one more chance to make a good impression.  Always be prompt with their requests.  When people are waiting at a table, the time moves a lot slower than you perceive it to be moving, so requests can feel like an eternity to your guests.

Have the Check Ready!

i.      If it is appropriate, drop the check when you drop your desserts.  Or if it is not, drop the check as soon as possible.  If it is after dessert plates are cleared, then have the check ready to do so.  Having your table wait to pay will have a negative effect on their experience. Most people do not like to lounge around to wait for their bill.  On weekend nights like Friday and Saturday, people are going to be ready to get out on the town and will not want to wait long for their check.  Always present the check with a smile.  People will feel better that they came to your restaurant and appreciate the gesture.

ii.      You want your last impression to be a good. A smile will reinforce the great experience they have already had.  Let the table know that you will be by to pick up the bill shortly or if you work in an establishment that has a cashier, you should let the table know where the cashier is located.

Pick up the Check ASAP!

i.      The quicker you pick up their payment, the quicker you can move that table out of your section for the next waiting guest.   Even if you work in a place that does not have a long wait, having a clean and ready table in your section will give you preference when the hostess chooses where to seat the next table.  In some restaurants, there is a rotation for seating tables, but if you are next in the cue and you have a dirty table, you will lose your chance at serving another table.  Now this works in favor for some lazy servers who don’t want to wait on a lot of tables.  These people are usually the ones who complain the most about not making any money.  Let them be the ones who are wasting their time complaining and not making money.

ii.      The longer you take to return the check to the table the lower your tip will go down.  Make sure you promptly return the check so that your guest can get on their way.  We have seen it time and time again; people will start to get frustrated the longer it takes to get their check back.  You can give the best service in the world, but it will not matter if you forget to get their credit card or change back in a timely fashion.  Those are items that belong to them and people do not like it when you hold on to their needed possessions very long.

iii.      Remember to return the check with a smile and welcome your guest back to your restaurant.  If you see your guests leaving and you happen to be near the door, make sure you say goodbye.  After all, your guest just paid your bills and there is nothing that says they HAVE to tip you.  Make sure they feel good about their purchase and service when they leave.


12 thoughts on “Steps of Service”

  1. i just became a mngr. at a small town bbq pit. ive never been mngr but have been a server 0ver 11 yrs the place i walked into blinded just as a server will be using this as a course for hires here on out.. this place is known for the bad service and i now will turn it around! ***very useful***

  2. I’m about to start a training/re-training program at my waterfront sports bar…this is the best written steps of service I’ve seen online thus far.

  3. These are really good but I’m a Chef at a restaurant in NYC and don’t give the servers much input on how my food is prepared or plated. They’re not permitted to touch the food/plates in any way.

  4. These are fairly good tips, and are useful in many public restaurants. I am a supervisor in a private dining establishment, and the last thing I want to do is drop that check as soon as possible, I do not want my members feeling pushed out the the door. I always ask, ” Is there anything else I can get for you this evening, or are you ready for your check?” Better safe then sorry 🙂

  5. Zeca Godo,I worked for many restaurants and I have experienced this,if a waiter follow these steps its clear that beyond making their money they will also contribute in developing the tourism industry I expect to train my fellows working in macaneta asp.

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