The best servers breathe, adjust, and flow with guests’ ever-changing styles, moods, and pocketbooks. In the Meal Designer series, we explore effective approaches to every kind of diner—economizers, faithful regulars, celebrations diners and jackpot tables—to enhance the guest experience and maximize sales.
- Don’t pre-judge.
In my server days, on a Monday night in January after the holiday rush, I worked a shift at the Georgetown Seafood Grill in DC. During slower months, coupons were mailed to local clientele. Guests filed in, enticed by a can’t-refuse $9.95 Maine lobster dinner. Waiters prayed that Anne, our manager, wouldn’t seat these perceived cheapskates in their station, convinced they would order only the lobster meal deal with water and leave a measly 10 percent tip.
- Economize with them.
Fed up after a party of three left me loose change on a $30 check, I thought, ‘why fight ‘em, why not join ‘em?’ As Anne sat a coupon-carrying party of four, I decided it was time for a fresh approach: “Welcome to the Georgetown Seafood Grill. We’re delighted you’re here, and the lobster special is a great value. And it’s a great value to share a bottle of Frascati, a light, crisp white produced near Rome. It’s $12 and gives you a glass and a half per person,” I encouraged. I was taken aback when an ascot-wearing blue blood shouted out, “We’ll take it!” Figuring I was on a roll, I continued, “For an appetizer, we offer Thai shrimp potsticker. For soup, don’t miss our warming clam chowder. And we feature an excellent classic Caesar Salad.” Dead silence.
- Keep the faith.
OK, I thought, and pressed on. I opened the Frascati and graciously poured four glasses. After presetting the table with bowls for shells, claw crackers, and seafood forks, I helped the foursome don bibs. Once they’d started their meals, I checked back, “Are you enjoying the lobsters?” I attended to every detail—clearing dirty glassware and replacing a fallen napkin, being ever present but not hovering. After they finished, I cleared the table. Then, I placed the dessert tray in the middle of the table: “For the finale, we offer white chocolate banana mouse pie, ginger crème brulee, apple cobbler served with vanilla ice cream, and key lime pie. We also offer Sambuca, Frangelico, Gran Marnier, and Baileys as well as espresso and cappuccino.” I waited through the silence. No luck on the dessert or cordials, but they ordered four cappuccinos—which in those days totaled $10. Presenting the check, I offered a fond farewell: “Ladies and gentlemen, it was great having you, and I’m glad you enjoyed the Frascati. Many thanks for joining us, and since we’re neighbors, I hope to see you again soon.”
- Reap the benefits.
Had I prejudged and treated these guests like second-class citizens by taking their orders and robotically going through the motions, the check would have been $40, and I’d have gotten—if lucky—a $4 tip. But since I was on my best behavior, I got a $12 tip on a $62 check. An increase of 300 percent! I appealed to their frugality by offering a value-priced bottle of Frascati. And, though they didn’t go for extras, I graciously gave them the opportunity to enhance their meal. I didn’t pout and detach but was warmly attentive from start to finish. And I learned three lessons:
1) Lousy tips are self-fulfilling prophesies for servers who pre-judge.
2) Don’t let down at the mere sight of certain types of guests.
3) Don’t carry bad feelings from one table to the next.
In my seminars and speeches, I ask, “Isn’t it true that you sometimes economize when you go out? Don’t you from time to time order only a drink and an appetizer? What makes of cars are parked at Costco? Mercedes, Lexus, and BMW. Why? Smart consumers are smart shoppers. Don’t think everyone toting a coupon or diner’s discount card are mean-spirited chumps on the cheap.
Sure, today most guests are looking to save. And, as importantly, diners want a break from the bad news. Providing a cocoon of warmth and kindness through artful and empathic service will gain your guest’s gratitude and loyalty.