Alongside teachers and nurses, restaurant servers are some of the most overworked and underpaid members of the labor force. During any given shift, a server acts as equal parts party host, mind reader, salesperson, acrobat, customer service rep, and encyclopedia. And on top of all that, they survive on tips, which means they’re always looking for ways to get better.
Whether you’re new to the apron or a veteran of the game, you can always find new ways to hone your serving skills. In this post, we’ll share:
Technical tips for being a server, like learning the steps of service and mastering the menu.
Ways to improve your hospitality skills and level of service.
Warm hand-offs that improve the guest experience and guarantee a future visit, like introducing yourself.
8 Steps to Being a Good Server
Before you can start dazzling guests with your ability to pair anything on the menu with a suitable beverage choice, you need to master the basics. The following steps outline the foundational skills you need to be a good server.
Step 1: Study and Memorize the Steps of Service
If you’re not already familiar with the steps of service, start studying. The steps of service are the 12 most common interactions between restaurant staff and guests during a meal. Set against your restaurant’s average table turn time, the steps turn into a checklist where each interaction must be completed within a certain time after the table has been seated.
Though the specifics will vary from restaurant to restaurant, here’s an example of what the steps of service may look like:
Within 90 seconds of the guests being seated: Greet table; take drink orders.
4–5 minutes seated: Deliver drinks; take meal orders.
9 minutes seated: Drop off condiments, cutlery, napkins, and other supplementary items; check if refills are needed.
Food delivered; Ask “Is there anything else I can bring you?”
2–4 minutes after food delivered: Check in on quality of food; ask about refills.
Turning tables is key to making more money, but there’s a fine line between turning tables and rushing guests — this is where the steps of service will help you. Following these steps, you’ll stay on par with your restaurant’s average table turn time, keep the flow of customers going, and maximize your potential gratuity.
Step 2: Learn the Menu Inside, Out, and Backwards
Many restaurants require that new servers take home and memorize the menu during their first week on the job. Even if your restaurant doesn’t mandate this, it’s a good idea to do it anyways.
Memorizing the menu — both food and drinks — will vastly improve the quality of service you’re able to extend to your guests. Flip the script for a second: Say you go out to eat or grab a drink with friends and you ask your restaurant server for a personal recommendation, or the ingredients included in a menu item.. How would you feel if your ask was met with mumbles, a confused look, and a “let me go ask my manager” — annoyed? Your guests will be, too, if you don’t learn the menu.
As a restaurant server, it’s your job to not only know the menu inside, out, and backwards, but to be able to make recommendations for guests, share all the available add-ons, and answer basic questions about common ingredients or allergy risks. Memorizing the menu will also help you save time by eliminating the need to run to the kitchen or bar with questions or to the POS to see if the requested add-on is available. Knowing the menu will help you maintain or potentially reduce your table turn time, seat more guests, and accommodate more checks in a shift.
Restaurant technology can help maintain the hum of service by adding counts to items — this helps servers avoid ordering something that is out of stock, then having to return to the table to disappoint a guest with bad news and wait while they choose something else. BONUS: The back of house will be grateful for the lack of disruptions in service!
Server Side Work Checklist Template
This Excel document template will help you create a Server Side Work Checklist for your restaurant, and train staff more effectively.
Step 3: Learn How the POS System Works
Ah, the restaurant POS system: the gateway to placing and fulfilling guests’ orders. Whether your restaurant runs on a cloud-based POS or a legacy POS, it’s important that you know how to use the system quickly, efficiently, and without error.
Some restaurants go the extra mile by requiring new hires to do a timed POS test during their first week on the job, where they’re given example orders to correctly input into the POS (including modifiers) in a reasonable amount of time — bonus points if you can correctly figure out how to split a check or flag an order with a food allergy!
Understanding how to correctly use your restaurant’s POS system will ensure that every single one of your guests gets exactly what they ordered, without waiting too long. Giving a lot of rush orders to the kitchen because you didn’t enter something correctly or forgot an item entirely creates a back-of-house bottleneck, and ultimately hurts your bottom line — the kitchen must satisfy your last-minute ask along with the orders already in progress, potentially throwing off table turn time and lowering the amount of guests you usually accommodate in a shift.
Step 4: Learn Your Restaurant’s Allergy Protocol
Roughly 32 million Americans live with food allergies, with eight major food allergens — wheat, soy, milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, and crustacean shellfish — responsible for the majority of food-allergy-related reactions. Statistically speaking, it’s incredibly likely that you will have one or more guests dining with food allergies during any given shift, and even more likely that you use one of the above-mentioned major food allergens in your recipes.
As a result, the majority of restaurants nowadays have strict food-allergy processes in place to safely accommodate diners living with food allergies. Restaurant servers should not only learn their restaurant’s allergy protocol but also be forthcoming in asking each and every table seated in their section whether anyone is dining with food allergies. This will reduce the potential for contamination in back-of-house operations and keep every guest safe and satisfied with their dining experience.
Toast, for example, has an “item detail” feature that can be used to call out the presence of common food allergens in a menu item’s ingredients list.
Step 5: Complete Any Necessary Certification Courses
Many states, counties, and cities require that restaurant servers get food handling or alcohol serving certifications prior to starting on the floor. On your first day at a new restaurant server job, ask your manager what, if any, certifications you must possess to do your job; what your time frame for completion is; and whether you can start taking shifts while you’re completing the required courses. This last part will differ depending on where you live.
Though not required everywhere, an alcohol serving certification is a great idea for anyone interested in becoming a better server. Programs like Serv-Safe’s Alcohol Course teach restaurant servers and bar staff important information, like:
Whether servers or bar staff must be a certain age (typically 16, 18, or 21) to serve alcohol to guests.
How much alcohol is in a glass of wine vs. a pint of beer vs. a shot of liquor.
What ABV stands for.
What BAC stands for.
How alcohol consumption impacts different types of people.
What alcohol impairment looks like.
The dangers of over-serving a guest.
Serving alcohol to guests is a normal part of being a restaurant server, so it’s important that you know how to help your guests enjoy responsibly while keeping you, your guests, and everyone else in the restaurant safe.
H3: Step 6: Wear Non-Slip Restaurant Shoes
Restaurant servers walk miles upon miles during a shift and double that during a double. Restaurant shoes that protect your piggies from spills and splatter, stop you from slipping all over the kitchen, and do not leave your dogs barking at the end of the night are worth their weight in gold.
Check out our list of the best options for restaurant shoes if you’re on the hunt for a pair that gives you arch support, protects you from sharp objects, and prevents you from falling on your butt when you’re frantically buzzing about after being triple sat with five-tops.
H3: Step 7: Get a Checkbook for Your Receipts, Tips, and Orders
If your restaurant doesn’t use handheld POS technology, you’ll want to get a checkbook or check presenter — i.e., the little black booklet you give to guests at the end of their meal with their bill inside — to hold your receipts from completed transactions, cash tips, and a pad of paper on which to record orders.
Pro Tip: Decorate your checkbook so it’s recognizable. It’s easy to mistake a server’s personal checkbook for one given to guests. If you lose your book, you’ll lose out on a shift’s worth of tips and make it incredibly difficult to cash out when you get cut.
H3: Step 8: Buy a Ton of Pens
In a restaurant, there is no hotter commodity than pens. Even though you ask them not to, your guests will steal them (intentionally or unintentionally) and you will eventually find yourself empty-handed with a nine-top who all want separate checks. Stock up on pens — seriously, like a doomsday-level amount of pens — whenever you have a chance.
Training Manual Template
Use this restaurant training manual template, a customizable Word Doc, to provide your staff with the rules, guidelines, and clarity they need to do their jobs efficiently.
7 Tips and Tricks to Up Your Serving Game
Now that we’ve covered how to be a good server, let’s move on to the soft skills you can adopt to improve the level of service you extend to your guests.
Though front-of-house staff earn less than salaried positions on paper, the money in their pockets at the end of a double shift tells a different story. In the majority of American restaurants, servers and bartenders are considered tipped wage workers, meaning their wages are largely funded by tips and gratuity from their customers (as opposed to their employers).
One of the most unique things about this pay structure is that servers can see the fruits of their labor in hand at the end of a shift. Tipping culture can be very lucrative, though it’s important to note that race and gender biases impact the size of a front-of-house employee’s tip, according to recent studies.
If your restaurant uses a gratuity-based employment model, there are a number of tricks you can use to get better tips. Here are seven proven ways you can improve the level of service you give to each guest, and in turn increase the amount you take home at the end of each shift.
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1. Introduce Yourself to Every Guest (and Write Thank You on Every Check)
Any server will tell you they have at least a billion tasks running through their mind at any given moment during a shift. Though it can be hard to manage so much competing information, priority numero uno has always been, and always will be, creating a top-notch dining experience for every guest.
This means you cannot revert to robot status by just taking, entering, and fulfilling your guests’ orders. Making the effort to connect with guests can have a drastic impact on your tips, your sales, and your restaurant’s overall performance: loyal, repeat customers generate ten times more revenue in their lifetime than new customers; they're also a lot of fun to hang out with during your shift.
You don’t have to divulge your life story every time — simply introducing yourself can do the trick: A 2009 study found that servers who introduced themselves by name to their tables saw a 23% increase in their tip. Writing a quick “thank you” on the check also helps — a 1996 study found that writing “thank you” on guests’ checks increased tips by 13%.
Nothing tops off a fun night out like a good laugh, either: Another study found that tips go up by a whopping 40% when you tell a joke to your guests. This may also help them remember you for future visits, creating a regular customer and a regular stream of income for you.
2. Learn How to Upsell
Upselling is a strategy front-of-house staff use to recommend a higher-priced item based on conversations they have with guests about likes, wants, and preferences. To upsell effectively, you need to ask discovery questions (questions that teach you more about the guest), genuinely listen to their answers, and respond with a relevant recommendation based on the information they gave you.
Instead of selling a thing — like a glass of wine, appetizer, or dessert — try upselling an experience, which is often more effective. Here are some examples:
Instead of: “Would you like some wine with your meal?”
Try: “The Malbec would pair perfectly with your steak; it will seriously enhance the flavor and texture of the filet. Should I bring a glass out with your meal, or would you like me to bring a taste now?”
Why this example works: You’re adding value to their entree by recommending a wine that enhances the tastes and textures they’re already interested in.
Instead of: “Would you like to start with some appetizers?”
Try: “The frisée salad is my favorite way to start the meal, it’s light but complex with quinoa and roasted pumpkin seeds, but it won’t fill you up before your entree. I ordered the roasted tomato soup for lunch today and it was delicious — our Chef has been tweaking it for weeks. Can I bring you a taste of either?”
Why this example works: Sharing a personal experience with a menu item can encourage guests to give it a try. Today’s restaurant-goers check reviews before trying a restaurant or a specific menu item; consider this your in-person Yelp review.
If you have yet to try a certain menu item, see if another member of your team has and is willing to give you their opinion to pass off as your own. Take it from a vegetarian who sold an impressive amount of wings while working at a sports bar — this works.
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3. Always Tell Your Guests the Specials
Never assume your guests know what they want until it’s entered in your POS system. Even the pickiest of eaters will be curious about specials, new menu items, your favorites, and any other recommendations you can offer that would enhance their dining experience. Remember: You know your restaurant’s menu better than they do, even if they’re a loyal customer. You have plenty of time between the moment they sit down and the moment they place their order to upsell them or convince them to give a certain menu item a try.
You’ll notice that in the suggestions above, the upsell ends with an assumption that an appetizer or wine will be ordered. The more you normalize these things, the more likely your guests are to go along with it. And, as any server knows, tips increase the more items a table orders.
Some members of a group may not order anything at all, but by talking through the options and learning about their interests, you create a lasting connection that could result in a repeat visit, a great online review about the service, or even a visit from a friend or family member of theirs who heard them raving about their experience.
4. Handle 'Campers' with Care
Campers, squatters, whatever you call ‘em, they’re the bane of every restaurant server’s existence. A camper is a guest who chooses to stay at their table for a long period of time after the payment process is completed.
Though it’s great to see guests having such a good time that they want to stay, they inevitably throw off the flow of table turn time. While Server A may be stuck waiting for a table to pack up and head home, Server B may be double-seated, sending them into a frenzy while a long line forms at the door.
Campers cost the restaurant and servers money. As a result, servers may — either inadvertently or explicitly — try to encourage the guests to leave. This can be awkward, and sometimes perceived as rude.
Everyone has a different way of handling campers, so you’ll need to figure out which one works best for you, your personality, and your relationship with your guests. Honesty has worked pretty well for me in the past — something like, “Hey folks, I’ve loved having you here, but I need this table for another waiting party.” A little transparency can go a long way!
5. Leave A Token of Appreciation
Handing out small tokens of appreciation (like a candy, mint, or fortune cookie) is a very simple way to increase tips.
The video below (start at 1:48) explains the results of a study where servers were instructed to give diners a mint at the end of their meal.
When one mint per diner was given, tips increased about 3%.
When two mints per diner were given, tips increased about 14%.
When a server gave one mint, started to walk away, then said "For you nice people, here's an extra mint," tips increased about 23%.
It’s clear from this example that the benefits of a personalized connection between server and guest cannot be overstated. Providing a bag of mints each shift is a small price to pay to increase customer satisfaction and, as a result, staff tips.
6. Ask Your Manager for Consistent Feedback
The best restaurant POS systems will be able to track each restaurant server’s sales performance. This helps management identify who the strongest team members are, who could use a little help, and who could benefit from some additional hands-on training.
Improving your performance requires that you know your baseline. Talk to your manager to set up some time to go over your current performance. By tracking this data over time, you’ll be able to see how you are improving and identify specific areas that could use some extra attention and effort. The data may tell you that you’re having difficulty selling craft beers, or that you consistently upsell early in your shift but that these efforts die off after 9 p.m.
Work with your manager to identify one or two growth areas you can work on improving over the next quarter or six-month period. Set some goals, and then track your performance regularly.
7. Seek Out Hospitality Skills Training Opportunities
If you want to give your guests the best experience possible every time, staff training cannot be a one- or two-time thing. You’ll need to adopt and promote a philosophy of lifelong learning in your restaurant — this applies to information about your restaurant’s menu, as well as on-the-job skills training.
Wine tastings, menu item tastings, and education on how to pair is essential; so is training on improving table turn time, how to properly greet a table, how to handle rude customers, and how to artfully encourage campers to leave (see above). Talk to your managers about starting a guest speaker series during your pre-shift meals; making an online hospitality skills platform, like Typsy, available to the whole staff; or asking if you can attend a food show or industry event, like Toast’s Food for Thought.
Becoming a Better Restaurant Server is Easier Than You Think
Ready to become a better server? Download Toast’s free list of 30 Ways to Become a Better Restaurant Server below to start earning better tips today.