While dining out you have probably heard the terms “Expo” and “Runner,” but have you ever wondered what those words mean in a restaurant setting? Essentially, the food runners (a.k.a Runner) and Expediter (a.k.a Expo) make sure that all your food comes out at the same time and in a reasonable manner.
That simple sounding task has a lot of moving parts:
The Expo position is one of the most stressful positions in the entire restaurant. This guy communicates between the kitchen and the front of house staff. In most restaurants if a server a has a question for the chef, she must go through the expo as the intermediary, not just as a power play, but to keep the flow of service smooth.
When a server rings in an order at a point-of-sale computer (a.k.a POS— I know. We really do call it a P-O-S, and when the system crashes in the middle of a Saturday and night and you have to get the knucklebusters out to run credit cards, it reinforces the acronym, but I digress….), when a server rings in an order on the POS in the dining room, a paper ticket prints out at the expo station in the kitchen. The Expo ticket has the complete order on it.
In the kitchen, the order prints on individual chits, divided by station. So, if your order is:
Table 20 19:12
1 Ribeye Steak MR
1 Caesar Salad – NO CROUTONS
1 Caesar salad
1 side of French fries
The expo gets a ticket that looks like the one above. The numbers below each dish referring to the guests’ position at their table, more on that later. In the rest of the kitchen, however, the line cooks only get tickets for the items that are relvant to their station. So the grill cook gets a ticket that reads:
Table 20 19:12
1 Ribeye Steak MR
The pantry station gets the salads, and the fry station gets the French fries. The table number, time stamp and the expediter keep the order coming out on time, so that the salads don’t wilt in the hot kitchen waiting for the steak to finish cooking.
Ideally, the expediter tries to make sure that appetizers hit the table within 8-10 minutes of the time the kitchen received the order, entrees should be out within 12-15 minutes after they are “fired”. Sometimes, however, if a table has ordered a thick steak well-done, the whole entrée order will wait until the steak is done. No matter what else was ordered, that course is going to take twenty minutes.
I always asked my expos to flag these tables for me when they come up, because twenty minutes can seem like an eternity when a guest is trying to make conversation with their sister’s new boyfriend and there is no food on the table.
So, the expediter keeps the orders coming up smoothly and makes sure that the special orders (remember that salad with NO CROUTONS?) go to the right tables.
Casual restaurants call them runners, fine dining calls them backwaiters, but the position is essentially the same. The runner/backwaiter is the person who physically brings the plates to your table.
Here’s the deal—the food should never be ‘auctioned’ at the table. EVER. The whole point of service is that the guests in the dining room should enjoy the company of their fellow diners and not be disrupted by the service. Unless the computers have gone down and we are in the middle of an alien invasion, a runner should never ask “who had the roughy?”
Remember those position numbers on the expo’s ticket? The Runner bringing out the food should know where the plates go based on those numbers. Most restaurants also place an ‘f’ after the position of any female diners at the table, because historically ladies were served first, but it also helps get the food down quickly. It really confuses service if your party changes seats between courses.
The runner should place your plates in front of you with his or her left hand, from your left side. Since most people are right-handed, this helps mitigate any interference by guests knocking plates, etc. Unless a party is seated in such a way that this is not possible (at a booth, or against a wall), in which case the plates should be placed in whatever way is least intrusive.
Sidework-wise, the expo and runners usually set up a garnish station in a steam table or ice bath (depending on whether the item is hot or cold), they clean the counter tops on the dining room side of the kitchen, stock additional paper and ribbons for the ticket printers, stock to-go containers, and prepare ramekins of commonly requested side items (ketchup, hot sauce, ranch dressing, sour cream, etc.). In between orders, they typically polish plates, and ensure that the cooks are stocked with the plates that they need for the incoming orders and prod the dishwasher if necessary.
Expos and Runners are typically paid minimum wage plus a percentage (usually between 4-10%) of the tips from the servers. A spectacular Expo, however, will generally be paid more, up to $15/hr plus a share of tips, because it is such an important position.
Many fast-casual restaurants cut down on the runner/ backwaiter position as the cost of food and labor has increased over the last ten years. Runners in particular, are not revenue generating positions– they can’t sell anything to help offset the cost of their wages—so if the dinner service looks lean, most floor managers will cut the expo and expedite the service themselves, or cut runners and have the servers pick up their own plates.