Introduction to Waiter or Waitress Training
"Hello. May I take your order?"

"Yes, I'll have item number seven."

"Would you like a salad or fries with that?"

"Hmm. I think I'll have a salad today."

"What type of dressing?"

"What do you have?"

"Italian, blue cheese, thousand island, or house."

"Do you have French?"

"No. But our house dressing is nice. Most everyone likes it."

"OK. I'll have that."

"What would you like to drink?"

"Iced tea."

"Lemon? Sweetener?"

"Lemon only."

"Thank you. I'll have that right up for you."

Becoming a waitress or a waiter is often as much an accident as it is a choice. Because most positions are on-the-job training, usually all that is required is an opening and a person to fill that opening. But what if you really want to know about the job and how to prepare for it? It might help to view the position from a more global perspective.

One of America's favorite pastimes is eating out. Typically, the food is different from your normal fare. More to the point, eating out requires that someone else decides what to cook -- the menu; someone other than yourself cooks it -- the chef; someone else takes the order for your meal -- the waitress; then brings the food to your table -- the expediter. Condiments are requested and provided. Drinks are refilled automatically. Dishes are removed promptly -- the busser. Sometimes this is followed by dessert and coffee, again the waitress. The last step is the presentation of the check, whereby the food is priced. Service is acknowledged with the requisite 15 percent or more if service is exceptional.

In the opening dialogue the waitress asks no fewer than six questions in her 60-to-90-second encounter with a perfect stranger. By default you will see that a waitress has to have a few specific skills in order to be an effective waitress:

  • Patience
  • Curiosity
  • Be a "people-person"
  • Communication skills
  • Divert/suggest


Let's take the above characteristics and evaluate them and you'll to see if waitressing might be a good fit for you.

Patience – Are you patient? Can you keep asking different questions until you have assessed properly what your current customer wants? Can you wait a moment for your customer to make up his mind? You must realize that not everyone is a mind reader and should know that after ordering a salad, you'll need to know what kind of dressing they require. Even though you may ask that very question 105 five times in a shift, your current customer may very well have something else on his mind.

Curiosity – This is related to patience, but is different. The dialogue at the beginning of the article is entirely devoid of the curiosity component. Why should you exhibit curiosity? For the single purpose of establishing that your customer is important to you. Next to their name, having someone interested in them is frequently one of the most important sensations a person can experience. Exhibiting curiosity establishes a connection between you and your customer. If you are serving in a fine dining establishment, you might ask if they are celebrating a special occasion. If you are serving in a café near a motel or tourist attraction, you might ask them if they are traveling. This does not have to be a long and drawn out conversation, but by exhibiting curiosity, you have your table feel important.

People Person – Do you like people? Do you like being around them, talking to them, interacting with them? If you have answered affirmatively to the patience and curiosity requirement, then you are likely a "people person." What you must do now is evaluate your skill level as a "people person." Fortunately this can be done on the job. By building your personal development skills, your waitressing skills will improve, as will your tips.

Communicate – Communication is asking questions, then really listening for the answer. Do not ask a question if you do not intend to hear the answer. To do this devalues the customer at your table and you may ruin your tenuous relationship. Communication requires reading body language and to have the ability to hear what is not being said. You are not a counselor or a marriage therapist, but you may sometimes feel like it. By communication, you must give and take information -- speaking and being heard on both sides of the table.

Divert/Suggest – How good are you at being able to avoid disappointment by having a suggestion at the ready? The opening dialogue's customer wants French dressing, which is not available. Without batting an eye, the waitress offers house dressing as an alternative and it is accepted. It is not always this smooth and easy, but your delivery needs to be.

If you answer affirmatively to all the above questions, that is a good indication you have what it takes to be a waitress. Do you have what it takes to be a good waitress? Why would you want to be a good waitress and not just an average waitress? Because a bad or less-than-average waitress makes less money; she will likely not stay in the business very long. We will discuss more about this later, but low or no tips = no money. No money, most people lose their incentive to work.

The Job:

Waitressing means you will greet and welcome perfect strangers to your establishment, and make them feel comfortable. You may be required to provide menus and drinks. Once they read the menu, you will need to answer questions about the food, its ingredients, and its preparation method. You will then take the order for appetizer, soup, salad, (dressing), entrée, sides, bread choice -- for each customer at your table. Some restaurants allow you to write the order down. Others require you to memorize (accurately) full orders for up to six people. The order must be given to the kitchen/chef. You must then balance when each portion of the meal comes out, preferably with the appetizer appearing first. You will then be required to locate and provide condiments, extra napkins, utensils for those that are dropped or are merely missing, keep drinks filled, check on customer satisfaction and quality of the food. It is your job to ensure that each customer at your table has what he or she needs.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Waiter and Waitress Training course?

Lastly, you will be required to do this for multiple tables, all at the same time.

The Hours:

People eat at all hours of the day and night. In order to provide for this need, some restaurants are open 24 hours a day. Others have set opening and closing hours. Breakfast establishments open anywhere from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., with the expectation that the workers report to work up to half an hour before their shift begins. Restaurants that are dinner-only open anywhere from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. and stay open as late as 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. Again, you will report to work slightly in advance of your shift to ensure that everything is in place before you open. Hours can be long, though more than an eight-hour shift requires overtime, something most employers avoid. The point is, you will be on your feet and running to and fro most of the time that you are at work.

The Pay:

This section will surprise most of you, and will shock some of you. The lowest pay for a waitress is half of minimum wage in your area. If minimum wage is $6.50 an hour, a waitress will make only $3.25 an hour. The low pay is made up by your tips. The better the waitress you are, the better your tips. If you are a rotten waitress, your financial remuneration will reflect this. In many cases, this is a self-regulating system. Waitresses are rarely fired. Their work ethic and performance will help them determine if they should continue in the profession.

The Responsibilities:

Much of the time you can choose to have more or less responsibility. Many waitresses do not want any more responsibility than waiting tables. Others aspire to being a Hiring Manager, a Floor Manager, Bartender, etc.

The Payoff:

For a job that requires little education beyond reading, writing, and an ability to communicate, waitressing can be an extremely lucrative job. Many people put themselves through college, pay rent, and keep up on a new car payment -- all paid for by being a waitress. Many women raise families on the money they make waiting tables. The better your work ethic, the better your "people" skills, and the more efficient you are -- in addition to the skills listed at the beginning of this article -- the more money you will make.

In 2008 I personally interviewed waitresses who have made $300 in tips in a five-hour shift. That works out to $60 per hour. There are people with master's degrees who cannot make that much money per hour.
The Serving Staff
Hiring Trends:

As a waitress looking for a job, you have a fair idea about the questions that will be asked during your interview and how to respond to them. What we will do now is turn the tables on you. The beginning of this section is taken from an interview with a hiring manager at an upscale restaurant. Here is the interview on what he is looking for in a potential server:

Me: What makes a good server?

Bob: A server is your biggest marketing tool. They are the face our customer sees. They must be good at presenting and selling the menu. They must represent our establishment well. No sloppiness. No losing pens. That's just unprofessional.

Me: What is the first thing you notice during an interview?

Bob: Appearance. Women must be neat, hair well cared for, nice make-up but no trashy nighttime looks. The guys, well I prefer shorter hair, but as long as it is neat and well combed. Facial hair is OK, as long as it is well groomed.

Me: What about tattoos and piercings?

Bob: Most of our customers are conservative. Tattoos have to be covered and only ear piercings are allowed.

Me: What about personality?

Bob: I look for someone who is high energy and enthusiastic, but not over the top. The hours are long and they have to know how to conserve their energy among their tables. I also look for a sense of humor. If I crack a joke and they get it right away, I take that as a sign of intelligence and quick wits. You need that. Again, I don't want giddiness or excessive laughter. That tells me they're trying too hard.

Me: Is there any one thing that will make you choose one candidate over another?

Bob: If the person I'm interviewing knows what they want and indicates they're in it for the long haul, I'm more likely to choose that candidate. If one just says, "I want to be a waitress, I need a job," she might work out just fine. But she's only in it because she needs work. The next candidate comes in for her interview and tells me, "I want to apply for a position as a busser. I ultimately want to be a waitress, then a floor manager or bartender, but I know I have to learn the tables, sections, menu, etc. so I'd like to start as a busser and work my way up." This candidate is 14-carat gold! When someone comes in and is willing to work any job to start with is my first choice.

Me: As your servers work for you, what do you like to see?

Bob: I need to see that they are flexible. If we get a rush and they have to work an extra hour, then I want them to do it without complaining. They have to be able to handle stress, without our customers noticing. A surly server is no good to me. He'll ruin the entire restaurant for the night. He'll get one warning. If he can't shape up he's out. The restaurant business is all about teamwork and cooperative effort. My servers all pitch in and help each other out. Standing around and waiting for someone who is swamped to bring your bread and salad is not teamwork.

Me: What kind of interaction do you expect among your staff?

Bob: We have a rule: Everyone is polite to everyone. I do not care if you're talking to our best customer, or our newest busser. You're polite, or you can work somewhere else.

Me: What do you look for in a server interacting with your customers?

Bob: Good servers are outstanding communicators. They learn to read the customers' body language and determine if they want to talk, or if they want to be left alone. They can tell if the table is in a hurry -- maybe they're going to a show -- then the server needs to accommodate them. Other guests want a dining experience and they'll spend two, three hours here. A good server will get enough in tips to make up for the lingerers. It's a good time to see more food and beverage.

Me: Do you look for experience?

Bob: Sure, sometimes experience helps. But more than that, I want someone who acts like the restaurant belongs to them and they're willing to do anything to please the customers and their co-workers in order to make each shift pleasant and positive.

Me: What is the most unusual hiring experience you have had?

Bob: I once had a guy come in -- long hair, beard a little scraggy, piercings, tattoos…you name it. If I were blind, I would have hired him immediately. He was sharp, intense, smart, funny. But he just didn't fit the look we expect, and I told him so. He offered a compromise. He offered to abide by our dress and appearance code and said he would work three or four shifts for free. If he worked out he'd be paid what he earned. If not, he'd go with no hard feelings.

Me: How'd he do?

Bob: He's our current floor manager. He's been here for six years now.

As you can see from the preceding interview, looking for a job is more than justyou looking for work. You must approach the job from the perspective of themanager or owner and ask your own questions.

Questions NOT to Ask:
When do your waitresses get a raise?
Do we have to tip-out if the busser slacks off? I know you need me weekend mornings, but is it okay if I come in late on Sundays?

These questions show that you are only interested in yourself and how much money you'll be making. People who are in a position to hire want to know that you'll do the job for them.

Questions TO Ask:
What are you looking for in a server?
What are the long-range plans for the restaurant?
If I start as a busser to learn your restaurant, is it likely that I can advance as my skills improve?

These questions show that you are interested in how the restaurant does overall and how you can help to improve its bottom line.

Job Lists:

Job lists are a checklist for you when you first learn your position at a given restaurant. Not every restaurant is run the same way, and a good restaurant will give you a job list to be checked off as you train.

There will be a section that says: "The Employee must be able to:" and then a checklist to be marked off as you master each task. The tasks range from being hospitable to guests, to knowing the Heimlich maneuver and company policies regarding pay, scheduling, break times, etc.
There will be sections that include Service Duties, Side Duties, Closing Duties, Handling Guest Checks, and Menu Knowledge.

The purpose of the job list is to give you a guide and a goal for what you must learn in order to excel at your job. If you are learning waitressing in an establishment that does not have a formal job list, there is a good likelihood that all decisions are at the discretion of the particular manager on duty, and there is little consistency. Most establishments that do not use a Job List have pretty frequent employee turnover.

Providing Great Service:

Providing great service is exactly that. Just about everyone who has ever been a server has had at least one experience as a guest in an eating establishment. You see things differently once you've been a server.

Smile - Great service starts with a smile. This is the easiest thing you can do. It sets the tone, puts your guests at ease, and makes you approachable. If the staff is too busy and harried to smile, the eating atmosphere is uncomfortable and you will have little repeat business.

Make Eye Contact – In America, making eye contact indicates trust. Look directly at your customer, not over his or her head or shoulder. Give your customer your absolute attention and let them know they are important to you by focusing on them. Do NOT throw words at your customer as you are running by with another order. You have just managed to make your entire table feel unimportant because you are hurried and harried.

Honesty IS the best policy – In every establishment accidents happen. It really does not matter how it happens, but be honest about it and if it is your fault, accept the blame. Just about every customer who has been told about an accident, and how it was someone else's fault, could tell that their server was lying. No one likes being lied to. As an honest server, you will rise high in their estimation if you admit your fault, and then tell them just how you plan to go about solving their problem.

Courtesy – This should go without saying, but I have recently been served without so much as a "Good afternoon,"or "Thank you for coming." Small verbal courtesies count for so much; they are not difficult, and reap huge rewards. Practice things like "please" and "thank you" and "please come again." You'll be surprised at the difference it makes.

Prompt Service – The mood of your customer reflects the size of your tip. By allowing your customer to sit unacknowledged for more than a minute or two is poor service. They will begin to feel negatively about you and your establishment, especially if this is their first visit. Even stopping for a moment to say, "I'll be right with you," is better than just rushing by without saying anything.

Problem Solving – Both servers and kitchen staff need to understand that problems must be solved quickly and with the minimum of fuss. Again, it does not matter whose fault something is; what matters is that the customer is waiting for his or her food, and the server fighting with the chef will not help matters. If you do not know how to handle a problem, consult your manager.

What NOT to Do in Service:

Clumsy – This is expensive no matter how you look at it. If you are a completely inexperienced server, ask for help and advice on how to handle plates and trays of food and drink without tipping things over. Because this is such a huge issue, you may be asked to show your serving style during your interview. It is a good idea for completely inexperienced servers to practice at home with plates and a tray.

Appearance – You must make a good impression on both the floor manager and on your customers. Do not wear a dirty uniform, or have unwashed hair or grubby nails. Don't forget to shower, either.

Attitude – A bad attitude will get you a job in the least favorable section of the restaurant and the worst hours and shifts. Even if your are fast and efficient, if your attitude is bad, you do nothing to make the customer return to the establishment. Go to the bathroom and CHECK YOUR ATTITUDE when you check your hair.

Get too personal – While your customers do want to be made to feel important, they do not wish to feel that they have to pull up another chair for you. Keep your conversations with them short, even if you know them. Your other tables will certainly notice that you are not spending nearly as much time with them and will feel left out.