Train Your Team With a Server Side Work Checklist

Keeping everyone accountable just got easier.

Who wants to work at a restaurant with dirty silverware or no glasses? Who can make tips when a dining room is covered in years of dust? Who wants to finish their meal with a check presenter smeared with the fingerprints of past clients?

Nobody, according to Rose Bernhard, a server at Peter Havens in Brattleboro, Vermont. "Side work is the skin of any restaurant," she said. "It holds everything together."

So what is side work, exactly? Server side work consists of chore-like responsibilities assigned to each front-of-house member to be completed before the end of their scheduled shift. Side work focuses your servers on details like clean menus or full salt shakers, so you can provide a better experience to every guest who sets foot in your establishment. 

Your side work checklist acts as an agenda or to-do list for your front-of-house employees. With a checklist, your staff knows what needs to be done without being told — which means no more checking in before, during, or after their shifts to see what work’s been completed (or not). 

Checklists effectively streamline to-do lists, prevent staff from overlooking tasks, and reduce labor costs that can account for up to 20% of your operating budget.

According to studies in the healthcare industry, checklists can also decrease human error — in one example, the use of checklists in operating rooms lowered death rates by 47%. 

Even if you aren't performing open-heart surgery, checklists can still keep your staff accountable — especially when it comes to the more tedious parts of their job. 

How to Make a Server Side Work Checklist

A side work checklist doesn’t have to be an exquisitely designed piece of branding material, but it does need to be clear and easy to use. We recommend having a basic template you can return to week after week, so you don’t have to draw up a new checklist every Sunday before the first shift of the week begins. 

Tasks to include

To start, outline the tasks that need to be completed. Be specific — start with one particular area, like tabletop presentation. After that, work your way around the restaurant to create a masterlist of side work tasks. Here are some examples:

Table work

  • Wipe down all chairs/booths after work.

  • Clean tables after use.

  • Sweep under all tables.

  • Set tables once they’re turned.

  • Refill salt, pepper, condiments, and/or sweeteners.

  • Restock napkins.

  • Re-light candles.

  • Straighten table tents.

Behind-the-scenes work

  • Sanitize counters.

  • Clean around the restaurant’s POS.

  • Refill receipt paper.

  • Stock the drink station with cups, lids, and fresh coffee.

  • Wipe down windows.

  • Tidy up menus.

Not occupied? Lend a hand elsewhere

  • Assist other servers and bussers with their table or running.

  • If you have a large party coming in, start re-arranging the tables.

  • Help the host(ess) with seating if there’s a line out the front door.

  • See if the bartenders need an extra set of hands.

  • Ask back-of-house staff if they need something prepped or garnished.

Format your list

Now that you’ve listed all your tasks, you should check the formatting of your list.

  • Check for online templates to see if anyone has done the heavy lifting for you. (Intouch Insight offers a great template you can use to get started.) 

  • Combine similar steps or actions — or simplify complex tasks by breaking out essential steps.

  • Give your list a test run to see if things are in a logical order.

Refine your checklist.

  • Keep things simple. Atul Gawande, M.D., author of "The Checklist Manifesto," says, "A good checklist is precise, efficient, and easy to use, even in the most difficult situations." In other words, you don't need pages on how to refill a ketchup bottle. 

  • Be open to feedback. If your servers have questions, comments, or ideas, make time to listen. After all, they’re the ones doing the work.

  • Rinse, repeat, and refine. Think of improving your side work checklist as part of your monthly side work. If you left something off, go back and add it. If something isn’t logical, rethink it. Checklists can be updated easily, and can be a great tool — as long as you put in the effort.


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Servers Weigh in on Side Work

“I was really horrible at doing side work,” said Erin Rupert, who’s been a server at multiple restaurants. “When I served at Buzz’s Steakhouse in Kailua, there was a massive side work checklist.” 

Buzz’s was a fine dining restaurant, so there were many important side work tasks, including polishing the silverware when it came out of the dishwasher. This task was critical to ensuring guests wouldn’t see streaks on their utensils.

“Some people would sit and chill outside in the parking lot, we’d be busy, and I’d have to scour the restaurant for a fork to use for the next table,” Rupert said. “I think the side work checklist works because if you aren’t doing it, nobody else is going to do it. Side work isn’t fun, but everyone needs to be held accountable.”

Shaina Richards has been a server at three restaurants, and each handled side work differently. At one, there was no checklist and zero accountability for who was doing what task, so side work got competitive. Eventually, management instituted a policy that only servers who were cut for the night could do certain side work tasks — which meant that you could be cut at 8 p.m. and still be polishing silverware at 11 p.m.

“Sometimes servers would finish polishing just to leave for a second and find that someone stole their completed side work to put in their section and take credit for it,” Richards explained. “It was just a very toxic process and people would end up fighting over it all the time.”

By adopting a checklist, you create transparency among staff, servers, and management alike, so that everyone who gets their work done gets proper credit.

“I don’t hate or resent side work. I do resent people who leave without completing their assigned section. I consider it selfish,” Richards said. “Why push your responsibilities onto someone else? It also quickly reveals who’s a team player and who is not.”

Keeping Your Staff in Mind

A great side work checklist will make your servers' lives easier. By putting it in writing, you tell your team what you'd like them to prioritize and provide them a space to track progress. Servers can use the list to predict your needs and meet them quickly and efficiently — all during their scheduled shift. 

The ideal side work checklist will also be unique to your restaurant. You know how your team likes to get things done, so create a template that will work for them as well as it does for you. 

Drawing the Side Work Line

While side work is, in most cases, considered part of the job, it shouldn’t be the whole job. According to Jonathan Deutsch, Restaurant Business’ Advice Guy, employers should make sure side work accounts for no more than 20% of a server’s time — if the ratio goes any higher, the employee may be categorized as a dual employee, which makes wage calculations like the tip credit even more complicated.

If you expect your servers to perform side work, you should be open about it during the hiring and onboarding process. Side work may not come as a surprise for seasoned restaurant workers, but it might be something newbies haven’t encountered before. As long as you set the tone up front and keep side work simple, straightforward, and within reason, you’ll have a happy staff willing to pitch in and fill the condiment bottles. 

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