Restaurant 101: What does a Server do?

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The basics:

A server greets your table, advises of any specials, and menu items that are not available this evening.  They will typically take a drink order first, then try to take the order for first and second courses at the same time, to keep your service smooth and prevent unnecessary intrusions into your conversation.  The server should be able to answer questions you have about the menu.

When guests in the house, the servers’ primary focus is on the guests, so sometimes it appears to the rest of the staff, bussers/ runners/ cooks that servers don’t do much.  But before service and after service, waitstaff have many tasks.

Sidework:

Before the restaurant opens, servers are assigned their station for the night.  They inspect their tables, ensuring that they are set properly, are level, and that each item is polished.

Servers then check the service stations, ensuring that they will have everything they need once service begins—extra forks, knives, napkins, birthday candles, votive candles, lighters, sugar caddies, salt & pepper grinders, water pitchers, iced tea, etc.

Servers brew coffee and tea, fill creamers, stock loose tea, and check with the chef about specials or short items.

Before service begins, the front of house manager generally has a quick meeting (5-10 minutes long) to get the front of house team on the same page, ensure that everyone is familiar with new menu items, current promotions, and to make sure that everyone is sober, clean and ready to work.  If the chef has a special to taste, it will be presented then.  The whole thing is usually wrapped up with a qui of some kind, to get everyone to focus on the service at hand.

Money, money, money:

Servers are paid minimum wage.  In states that permit tipped employees to be paid less than minumum wage, they are paid less.  In Oklahoma, servers are paid $2.53 an hour, plus tips.  In California, they are paid $8.00 plus tips.   The tips that servers receive are not 100% their own, however.  Servers generally ‘tip-out’ their support staff, bussers, runners, hosts, bartenders, etc.  Tipouts can be as high as 40% of the server’s total tips depending on the set up of the particular restaurant.  Some restaurants base tip out amounts on the server’s total amount of tips, and some base the totals on sales.  This is where it can get hairy.

If a server has a table that required a lot of attention and ordered several bottles of wine, for example, but the guests only tipped 10% of the total of bill, the server is still on the hook to tip out the bartender or sommelier on wine sales, and the expo on the food sales.  Under-tipping in that way can sap morale immediately.  It’s not so much that servers pay taxes based on sales, or anything like that.  where under-tipping gets into a server’s pocket is in tip-outs.

Say a server worked on a party of 5, for 3 hours.  They had a great time, ordered three bottles of wine, and shut the place down.  Total bill is $500.00

Say the host of the party, understanding that wine is marked up 100%  in restaurants, opts to separate out the $250 in wine from the total bill, and tip only on the food. I’ve seen this happen several times.

The service was great, and the staff is probably expecting an 18-20% tip, $90-$100.  But what is left on the line is $50.00

The server owes 10% of the tip her busser, 8% of the total food sales to the runner, 10% of the total wine sales to the bar, and 2% of the total tip to the host.

So, now the server is left with:

$50 -$25 (bar)- $5 (busser) – $20 (runner) – $5 (host)= -$5.00

a $50 tip, but $55 owed in tip-outs on that table.  When you’re getting paid $2.52 an hour… that can crush your soul in a hurry.

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