Restaurant 101: Bussers and Backwaiters

Bussers and backwaiters are both dining room– “front of house”– staff in a restaurant. They perform service that does not include taking orders, pouring wine, or delivering drinks from the bar. They clear tables, refill water, perform bread service, and reset tables between guests. Sometimes they will ‘mark’ tables, i.e. reset them with clean silver, between courses (though some establishments reserve that task for servers.

Some more modern establishments will alternately use the term “Server Assistant” or “SA” in place of the older “busser” or backwaiter.

The terms are pretty much interchangeable and vary mostly depending on the style of restaurant; busser is more common in casual spots, backwaiter in fine dining, SA in corporate locations. In a way bussers and backwaiters are “assistants” in that much of their work enables servers to perform their tasks more efficiently. But I prefer the term backwaiter, because I think it is more indicative of their role as integral to the service. They may not be required to memorize the wine list and know all the allergens in the tortellini en brodo, but their work is no less important than that of the sommelier or the head waiter.

In most restaurants in the US you can ask any front of house staff member for help if you need a fresh glass of wine, or don’t care for your entree. But generally you will get these things faster if you request them from your server rather than the backwaiter. By all means catch the backwaiter’s eye if you have spilled something and need assistance, if you need more water or coffee, or if your table leg is wobbling. They are the head of the brigade and best equipped to meet those needs. But if you need to know if the cannelloni is gluten free, wait for the server.

Restaurant 101: “Corner!”

If you have ever encountered a neighbor at your local supermarket hollering “Corner” while hurtling around the end of the cereal aisle, chances are you narrowly missed slamming into a person who works in a restaurant.

(I will neither confirm nor deny that I have shouted “Corner” in public spaces like farmer’s markets, parking garages, and the market down the street from my apartment.)

Restaurant staff work constantly in tight quarters with hot, heavy, cumbersome plates of food and trays of martini glasses, and so some strategies develop to make it less likely that a bartender with a tray of glassware will collide with a busser laden with arm-loads of dirty plates. When rounding a blind spot in the restaurant floorplan– generally near the major entrances and exits to the kitchen, bar, or scullery– if one listens intently, one may hear a chorus of “Corner” being performed throughout the night.

Get close to the kitchen, and you might also hear such juicy tidbits as “On your back!” And “Hot Behind!” Or their spanish cousin “Atras!” All of which serve the same general purpose; to keep folks from crashing into one another and spilling a tray of hot shortribs all over the floor.

Restaurant 101: What is Sidework?

So, what is Sidework? This question has come up in conversation a few times since I began this blog, so I thought I’d address it in a little more detail.

Sidework is restaurant jargon for the tasks that are required to prepare the place for public enjoyment. Think of it as… detailing. It can be anything from windexing the front doors, filling 50 ramekins with ranch dressing, and stocking paper products in restrooms, to polishing silver, folding napkins, and taking out the recycling. Depending on the day, it can also be replacing light bulbs, sanitizing high chairs, or scraping chewing gum from the bottom of tables; The sorts of tasks that the phrase “additional duties as assigned” was invented to include.

Ideally, all of this takes place out of view of the guests, usually before any diners arrive, or after all the diners have left the restaurant. Which is why guests that linger for an hour after close can get the evil eye from servers who can’t begin their hour’s worth of tasks until the restaurant is empty.

Everyone working in the restaurant has sidework. The kitchen crew must prepare ice baths and bain marie-s to keep cold things cold and hot things hot during service, then sanitize every surface at the end of the night. Hosts sanitize menus, clean the coat closet, stock business cards/ mints/ toothpicks/reading glasses. Bartenders cart ice to the bar wells, inventory liquor, prepare infusions, wash all the black rubber bar mats. Servers polish every glass & piece of silver, fold hundreds of napkins, reset tables, clean service stations. Bussers rearrange furniture, clean & stock restrooms, bag the dirty linen, sanitize beverage stations/coffee makers/ undershelf refrigerators…plus anything that needs doing, as assigned by managers like me.

The most odious task I have to assign to my staff, on a somewhat regular basis, is scraping gum off the barstools and tabletops. I worked at one restaurant that kept the remains in a gallon jar in the managers’ office. It filled up shockingly fast.

Those of you who work in restaurants, what’s the strangest (or least-favorite) bit of Sidework you’ve ever had to do?