The Secrets of Restaurant Servers

What drives them crazy, how they boost tabs and other surprising morsels from insiders



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David Nelson is going full tilt on a Friday night. Weaving at a practiced speed walk through Kapnos Kouzina, the Greek restaurant in downtown Bethesda from Top Chef stars Mike Isabella and George Pagonis, the 33-year-old server makes a beeline to a table next to the front window. There he recommends a glass of syrah and makes a quick detour to a server station to input the order. Then he’s off to deliver dessert menus to a father and son, and to greet a party of seven that’s being seated. 

A moment later, he’s back to the first table to check if the woman likes the wine, which had been delivered by a drink runner. She does. There’s a stop at the two-top to take dessert orders—yes, he would be happy to see if the kitchen would modify one. A longer pause follows at the large table in order to make cocktail recommendations (“You can’t go wrong with the classics,” he tells one gentleman) and to take an appetizer order. This all takes less than five minutes—and Nelson will be keeping up this frantic pace for another 2½ hours.  

With 13 years of experience, Nelson has high hopes for the night. He is overseeing five tables, where he could serve about 40 customers over the course of his five-hour shift. Ideally, that would yield about $250 in tips. But in order to achieve that goal, while keeping his customers and his colleagues happy, he’ll need to use every trick and technique in the book.

***

Servers are the front line of a restaurant and a crucial part of the dining experience. There’s an adage in the hospitality industry: “Good service can make up for bad food, but there’s no amount of great food that can make up for bad service.” What may look like a simple, straightforward job of delivering food and good service is far more nuanced, requiring a slew of skills and an array of tactics that many customers may never realize are being deployed. 
A server’s work begins before arriving at the restaurant. “Physical appearance is a huge part of how people decide to tip you, how they’re going to treat you, and their attitude toward you,” says Nelson, who wears the restaurant’s uniform of a forest green button-up shirt, waist apron and jeans. “I want my shirt pressed and tucked in, and my beard trimmed.”  

Rivka Alvial, a 26-year-old server at The Daily Dish in Silver Spring, believes that self-confidence is key, so she spends extra time on her hair and makeup, especially on the busier nights. “If I feel attractive, the shift goes a lot better,” she says. “That benefits the customer.” 

Once service staff arrives at the restaurant, there’s a pre-shift meeting with the management team to learn which tables they will be tending. On this Friday night at Kapnos, Nelson serves tables near the front of the restaurant by the host stand. Before guests arrive, he surveys each table to make sure they were set properly, the glasses polished and the silverware shined. Then he straightens each table and chair so they are positioned at perfect right angles. “People might not notice,” Nelson says, “but they will feel like something is off if it’s not done right.”  

Specials are another topic at pre-shift meetings. These dishes often are created because the chef wants to get rid of an ingredient, highlight a seasonal component, or obtain feedback when the item is being considered for the regular menu. 

“That’s why I make the special the first food item I mention, so it’s at the forefront of their mind,” says Norman Taney, 68, a bartender at The Dish & Dram in Kensington who has been in the hospitality industry for more than four decades, including time as a server. 

Alvial chooses her words wisely to increase the chances of a sale. “I say ‘buttery’ or ‘delectable,’ things [that] will captivate someone’s attention.” 
Even if servers aren’t under orders from the kitchen, there’s a simpler and selfish reason for them to spike sales: The higher the tab, the higher the tip. If there’s one secret to ratcheting up the check, it’s booze. “Because you can only fit so much food in people, but they can drink and drink and drink,” Nelson says. 

That’s why every server has ways of boosting bar sales. Nelson recently had a party of women celebrating a birthday. Four were sharing a bottle of rosé that ran dry right before they finished their entrées. He brought out a second bottle before they asked for it and said, “Ladies, I don’t know how late you plan on continuing this party, but I do have the next bottle if you are ready for it.” 

Though they declined, it initiated a conversation around whether they should have more wine. Three women ended up ordering individual glasses, which added $60 to the tab. This meant roughly $12 more in tips for Nelson. 

It’s all about the subtle art of suggestion for Gabriella Geerman, 32, the general manager of Sushiko in Chevy Chase. “If they ask for a vodka tonic, I ask them if they want Grey Goose or Belvedere,” says Geerman, who worked as a server for eight years over the course of nearly two decades in the hospitality industry. “That way, they don’t even think about drinking the rail liquor, which costs less.” 

Another method of boosting overall sales is “turning and burning” tables, which means getting guests in and out as quickly as possible. At Kapnos, the average dining time for a party of two is usually an hour, while a four-top takes about 90 minutes. Parties of eight or more take two-plus hours. 

That’s why Nelson angles to get as many two-tops as possible in his section, giving himself a high chance of rotating through the largest number of guests. He doesn’t like large parties. “They can take up a table for a whole evening, which kills your total take-home.” 

Lingering at the end of a meal can slow down turn times, as well. If guests are wavering about whether to have coffee or a post-dinner drink, Nelson will suggest a nearby coffee shop or bar where they can continue their evening. 

Though Nelson sometimes wants to move his guests along to increase his earning potential, he is resolute about remaining polite and patient. “The graciousness has to be there, and you have to seem as if you’re being as accommodating as possible,” he says.

For Juan Guerrero, a 52-year-old server at Normandie Farm Restaurant in Potomac with more than 30 years of experience, this means memorizing his regulars’ preferences. “Some people—before they even sit down at their table— I’m coming back from the bar with a drink,” he says. “Sometimes they’ll be surprised that I remembered what they like, but they’ve been ordering the same thing for 10 years with me.” 

All the tab boosting, table turning and old-fashioned hospitality can pay off. Nelson has been making between $50,000-$60,000 annually for the past several years. At press time, Nelson was headed to Arroz, another Isabella restaurant that opened at the Marriott Marquis in D.C. this spring.

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