A SERVER’S GUIDE TO THE HOLIDAYS
The service industry is a pretty unpredictable game, but one thing most can count on is December always being busy. With over four decades experience on the floor, Louise Owens from Texas, shares her thoughts on how best to navigate the holiday season as a server and come out the other end feeling merry.
What Makes A Great Server
After 40 years in the hospitality industry, from working the floor to opening a cocktail bar in Dallas, I’ve learnt that some things never change. Great servers have a knack for connecting with customers and reading their audience well.
Some people are born like this, others have to work at it, but the role of good service in a venue should not be underestimated – especially during the holidays. This is a period where many of those through the door may be first time visitors and a good server can be the difference between a return visit or not.
Do the Research
Service doesn’t begin and end when you walk into work. The best at any role are committed to researching and improving themselves outside of the confines of their work and this is no different with servers.
A great friend of mine, previously maître d’hôtel for many of New York’s top restaurants, often carried (and quoted) his ‘bible’, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, at work.
I thought it was hilarious he carried that old book, but I had a lot of respect for his commitment to strengthen a side of the role he struggled with – approaching strangers and making connections quickly. He found what worked for him and made efforts to improve himself professionally. As a result, he enjoyed work more and was rewarded with better roles. This isn’t necessarily restricted to books – I’ve worked with many who have invested personally by learning new languages, signing up for drama classes or bettering their product knowledge by studying in programmes outside of work.
Improving your performance isn’t only restricted to internal efforts, though. Knowing your city or surroundings is always a great way of offering better service. Prepare for your shift by a quick search to see nearby events on that night (bonus points if they’re tailored to your clientele) and commit to knowing thy neighbourhood and the place your venue holds in it.
To really excel at this job, it’s all about the understanding the context; your venue, your area, your audience and the role you play within that mix. For example, when I moved back to Dallas from NYC and started serving again, I had to reacquaint myself with the city – new restaurants, new stores, new people – to respond to customer enquiries with a personal input.
I went out of my way to hit everywhere in the city as a tourist again, so I would be in a position to offer the insider tips and tricks a local should have access to. When tourists asked me about an attraction on the other side of town, for example, I would be able to recommend the best time to skip the queues, share how there is a better spot for photos around the corner and recommend hitting the little ice cream store down the block after.
Nine times out of ten, if they follow your recommendations and have fun, they’ll return for a night cap and a big thank you. Equally, providing tips or recommendations for residents raises your stock and makes the visit to your venue a lot more valuable.
Your authority and recommendations are gold dust for out of towners and residents alike, make sure you’ve done your research and are providing reliable, informed advice.
Get the FOH out of here
Communication is key to success in any venue during the festive season. The problem is the responsibility to keep communication lines open often falls to management alone.
Pre-shift and during shift, an open line of communication with the kitchen and Back Of House (BOH) is imperative to the Front of House’s (FOH) success – and this works both ways.
Understanding any issues faced by the BOH team or fully grasping what they’re doing and why they’re doing it will better inform you in serving customers. It’s more than just knowing the seabass is on special – it’s knowing where the seabass is sourced from, why it’s been paired with asparagus, how it tastes and why Zacapa would make a great after dinner digestif with this dish. Customers want to know that now.
A team that works closely and cohesively always delivers a better performance for their patrons. To ensure customers receive the best service possible, team meetings can really help get everyone in the FOH team on the same page and can help establish a line of communication with BOH. A quick overview of the day/ night ahead before service or at shift change can really set up for success, as it gives everyone the opportunity to align and confirm the objectives for that day/ night.
Think Fast, Think Festive, Act Slow
During the holidays, customers are more likely to upsell their own experiences at your venue and you can simply assist this to boost your tips. Taking a second to get a good read on your table’s situation will better inform you to react appropriately. Recommending a more premium spirit to celebrate that special reunion amongst friends doesn’t have to be pushy, but can be informed, considerate and catered for your audience.
Complaints are inevitable in this industry. During the holidays, they can be even trickier. When a complaint does arise, if you can fix it; fix it. If it’s not something you have the authority to fix, then notify management immediately. Salvaging a sticky situation must be done in the moment, not the next day.
Remember to pace yourself through the festive season, though. Things can get crazy but taking an extra few seconds to write an order or double-check that table number before heading for the POS will save a whole heap of trouble down the line. Compose yourself and don’t forget to have fun with things, too. After all, it’s the holidays and we’re in this business for a reason.
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