In this article: Tips for servers, bartenders, and service staff to read guests and anticipate their needs, elevating the experience both for the guest and the team.
Staying on top of everything during a busy shift can be hard. Sure, we all have our rhythms that we fall into, and some of us even thrive the busier it gets.
If you’re new to the service industry (and even if you’re not) you may be feeling overwhelmed by the stress of a busy shift, and frustrated by not knowing how to make it easier. There are a few tips and tricks that you can add to your belt. The best place to start is by learning how to read your guests and anticipate their needs.
It took me a long time to learn how to anticipate guest needs, but once I did, serving became easier and I was able to relax and trust my instincts. Being able to anticipate guest needs allows you to be natural in your flow and delivery, which your guests will react to by also relaxing and enjoying their experience.
Let’s break down service step by step to see where we can best read our guests and anticipate their needs.
When a party first enters the restaurant, most likely they will be greeted by the host. In a more relaxed venue they might be prompted to seat themselves, in which case it’s everyone’s responsibility to greet them.
How do you anticipate the needs of a guest as soon as they walk in? Well, you can guess how many people are in the party, and think ahead as to where you will seat them. Do they have small children? Anticipate needing booster seats or highchairs. If there is an elderly or disabled person in the party, you may start planning ahead to seat them nearby so they don’t have to walk too far.
During each phase of the dining experience, you want to be setting yourself and your team up for success. By seating guests at the most comfortable table for them, making sure they have what they need (menus, booster seats, etc) you are starting their experience in the best way possible, and making it that much easier on the rest of your team to stay ahead.
Alright, you’re a server and you just got sat. No matter what you have going on, your new priority is to get to that new table and greet them. General rule is that the initial greet and water service should be done in 30 seconds to 1 minute after the party has been sat.
This is important. If you can greet your tables (genuinely, not a panicked HELLO I'M YOUR SERVER. I'M VERY BUSY BUT WHAT CAN I GET YOU?!) within the 1 minute mark, you will build trust with them, and this will buy you some flexibility later in service. First impressions are everything, and if their first impression of you is that they had to wait a while to even see your face, that’s hard to recover from.
Make your initial greet warm and genuine, but not over the top. Take these 2-3 minutes to read your guests, meaning read the energy of the table. Are they happy, grumpy, outspoken, shy? Do they make eye contact and engage with you, or do they ignore you and only look at their menus? Is there one person in the party who will take charge, or is everyone doing their own thing?
This part takes some practice, but once you are able to effectively read your guests, you will be able to customize your interactions with them and only give them what they want.
Now everyone at the table has their drinks, it’s time to start going over the menu with them. Depending on where you work, this will vary. Fine dining will require an in-depth scripted spiel, while a diner may not require one at all.
The menu spiel and taking the food order is a crucial part of the service flow, and there are different ways to anticipate guest needs based on how this interaction goes. While there are a million things that could happen here depending on many different factors, there are a few generalized things to remember that will help you stay ahead.
If you’re giving a menu spiel, try to customize it as much as possible. Ask about allergies and dietary restrictions right away, and then recommend items that they can have. If your guests are on a date, recommend dishes that can be easily shared, and maybe highlight your favorite dessert in a playful way.
Once the table starts ordering their food, the most important thing to remember is to LISTEN! Yes you should be writing the order down or entering it into your handheld, but don’t go into autopilot here. Pay attention to what everyone is ordering, and anticipate what they are going to need. Start making notes in your head about how you will course the food, what you need to set the table with for each course, and any ways you can go above and beyond their expectations.
Once the food has been delivered, immediately go to the table and make sure they have everything they need. Pro tip - don’t rush off to grab the first thing they say they need. Linger for a minute, look at the table and ask some questions. Steak sauce for the guest who ordered a ribeye? More napkins or hot towels for the guest who ordered ribs? Drink refills for anyone?
Taking the time to ask a few questions, clean up any trash or miscellaneous items from the table, and just lingering for a few moments gives everyone a chance to figure out what they need. This will save you from running for them (in most cases) so instead of making 5 trips for a single item, you can make one trip for multiple items, and you’ve done some pre-bussing at the same time.
Pre-bussing is one of the most important parts of a successful service. For starters, no one wants to sit at a table with dirty dishes. Pre-bussing makes sure your guests have a top-tier experience. Secondly, pre-bussing makes your job and everyone else’s on the team easier. Think of it as cleaning little messes as you go, instead of having to clean a giant mess at the end. You will be able to flip tables faster, making you more money.
When your table is finished with their meal, you should be finishing up the final round of pre-bussing and boxing any of their leftovers. During this time talk to your guests, ask how things were and if they want to look at a dessert menu.
Some people like to automatically bring the dessert menu without asking, I prefer to ask first. Oftentimes I would bring the dessert menu, only for them to immediately shoo me away, uninterested and just ready for the check.
You have to find your own flow with dessert service and the check delivery based on where you’re working and what’s easiest for you, but try to make it natural and easy. If you’re going to bring the dessert menu without asking, make sure you also have the check ready in case they ask for it. The way servers get behind is by making too many unnecessary trips, so think ahead and be prepared.
Working in a restaurant is chaotic and challenging. There are a lot of moving parts, things to remember, and standards that have to be met all while basically putting on a performance for your guests. Naturally it can be overwhelming and exhausting.
If you’re new to the service industry and feeling frustrated, remember to give yourself a break and take lots of deep breaths. Pay attention, stay calm, and learn from your mistakes. If there is someone you work with who is really great, don’t be afraid to ask them for help!
And as always, feel free to send me a message if you would like some more tips, tricks and advice. I hope this article gave you some helpful insight. See you on the floor!