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A Cut Above: Finding and Keeping Great Servers

A couple friends of ours recently went to a wine bar that came highly recommended by a friend of the manager. The recommender raved about his friend and implied that he would take great care of them and ensure that they have a fantastic date night. However, when they got to the bar, they were greeted with less than enthusiastic service. The bartender stood with his arms crossed, texted throughout the evening, and responded to their requests as if they were an inconvenience. Our friends later remarked that had it not been for the surly bartender, they might have returned. Their dinner was nice, and the wine selection was great, but the service was so poor that they have sworn off the restaurant altogether.

Industry pros are guilty of saying things like “servers are replaceable,” and “waiters are a dime a dozen,” but they couldn’t be more wrong. A truly great server is hard to find, and once you find one, you better hang on for dear life, and hire all of his friends, too. A wait staff can make or break your restaurant. To guide you on your path to creating the perfect team, we’ve come up with a list of qualities to look for during the hiring process:

1. Passion: Lots of folks take jobs as servers, not because they love food or wine, or even restaurants, but because they need the cash. That’s fine, to an extent, (we all need cash, don’t we?), but great servers actually love what they do. They not only love to eat and drink, but they also love talking about it. A passionate server is your best salesperson. Passion is also contagious. When your server is truly excited about the product he is providing, your guests are a lot more likely to rave about it, too.

2. Personality: People go out to restaurants, not only for the food, but also for the experience of interacting with and being cared for by a server. Therefore, it is important that your servers be friendly, polite, and that they have winning personalities. Not only will your guests love your staff, but you will too. Fun personalities make for a really fun workplace.

3. Attitude: Personality is not to be confused with attitude. Your most interesting and engaging server could also have some major ‘tude. The best servers are anything but apathetic. They eagerly approach each table or task with open hearts, ready to tackle obstacles and annoyances with joy, rather than frustration. These servers are also ready to care for even the most complicated guests with sensitivity and compassion.

4. Work Ethic: Anyone who has ever worked a single shift as a server knows that the work is grueling. You arrive long before service begins and are often expected to stay long after it ends. You need a staff that is wiling and ready to go above and beyond without complaint. Better yet, a staff that knows what needs to be done and does it before being asked to do so. Look for folks who are able to see tasks to completion: who have the energy and focus to get all of their side work done and then some.

4. Honesty: With all of the stress that comes along with operating a restaurant, you shouldn’t have to worry about your servers cheating on tickets, nabbing tips, or swiping steaks from the cooler. Hire people that you can trust to walk past an open safe and keep their hands to themselves. Honesty is another great sales technique. Guests appreciate straight talk from servers.

5. Brains: Look for servers who are thirsty for knowledge: not to be confused with know-it-alls. These are the kind of people who attack your menu and wine list like it’s the most interesting novel they’ve gotten their hands on since Harry Potter. They don’t have to come to you with extensive food and wine knowledge, but they should be eager to learn. I’ve worked at a few restaurants where servers were regularly given food and wine exams. The servers with the highest scores were given the best shifts, or a bottle of wine. Incentives are always helpful.

Great servers are hard to find, and once you find them, you’ve got to hang on for dear life. Servers have the potential to be the heart and soul of your restaurant, and a large part of what keeps your guests coming back for more. Take a good, hard look at your current staff. If they seem a little lackluster, it’s either time for a pep talk of a clean sweep. What are some qualities that you look for when hiring wait staff? Please feel free to leave a comment below.