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Tableside Semantics

In the past two weeks, I’ve had no less than 6 strangers introduce themselves to me in restaurants and relate what they were going to do for me. Each time they said, “Hi, my name is Alex and I’ll be your server”, I couldn’t help but respond “ Thanks for clearing that up. I was wondering what you were doing at our table.”

Seriously, we understand how restaurants work. I am the customer and you are the server. Only thing worse than thinking I’m not smart enough to figure out why you are at the table is when you say “…and I’ll be taking care of you.” Really? Is this just a one-night thing or will you be taking me to my doctor appointment tomorrow? Taking care of me is a big responsibility (ask my wife!). Are you sure you are up to it?

Great restaurateurs make proper semantics a priority and so should you. Thoughtful, non-mechanical greetings, follow-up questions and knowledgeable suggestions make the difference between average restaurant visits and experiences that bring guests back.  Your team represents your restaurant by their words and actions. The best restaurants make sure that all the good things that are done aren’t undermined by poor use of words.

Some examples?

“Can I get you something to drink?” – Guaranteed to be answered with “Water please” which not only reduces sales, but makes the guest experience less enjoyable. Who is going to have a more enjoyable meal? Is it the person drinking water or the one enjoying a selection from your carefully crafted beverage program?

In my waiter days, I always led the service team in Champagne sales because I’d greet each table with a some variation of  “Welcome. May I bring you one of our signature cocktails, some wine or perhaps a glass of Champagne? We’re featuring Moet Brut this week.” Ever had a table drinking champagne that wasn’t having a good time?

“Everything is good.” – In answer to the guest’s question of “What do you recommend”, one of the worst answer is “It’s all good.”  Of course it is. Why else would it be on the menu? The real question being asked is “What are the items on this menu that I simply must try and that will make me want to come back often?”  If your \ team doesn’t have an answer ready, they are missing a huge sales opportunity.  A friend who worked at Atlanta’s famous Buckhead Diner, approached his tables with “I’ve already placed an order for you for our Chocolate Banana Cream Pie. Now let’s talk about dinner.” By doing so, he was sending a very clear message of expertise in that he knew what was good and what shouldn’t be missed.

A worse answer then the above is “I don’t know. I’m a vegetarian.”  WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING?  The guest doesn’t care about your dietary restrictions. She wants to know what to eat. 

The corollary response is  “I don’t know. I’m new here.” Owners and managers, this is on you. Make sure your servers know the menu before you put them on the floor. Sure it’s expensive to have the staff sampling your menu but it’s more expensive for them not to sell the fabulous lamb dish because they don’t know it. As for your vegetarian servers, they don’t have to eat meat to know what the pork chops look like or that guests love them.  It’s better if they taste the food so that they really do have their favorites however even vegans can ask their fellow team members what their favorite items to sell are and make recommendations based on the information they receive.

“Is everything okay?” – Why would you want to emphasize that the meal was okay? Okay is not good and its certainly not great. More importantly, okay does not engender return visits. Only an answer of great creates return visits.

In my steakhouses, the proper question to ask was “Is your steak prepared properly for you?” because the answer was most commonly “It’s perfect!” and then we had the guest themselves reinforcing that they had a perfect meal.  Doesn’t get much better than perfect.

Are you done with that?” or worse “Are you still working on that?”  –  Starting with the latter, if eating at your restaurant is work, it’s time to start exploring new career options. Enough said.

“Are you done with that?” is the wrong question. Asking if the guest is done assumes that they don’t wish to take their leftovers home. (It also sounds like that high school friend of yours who was always scarfing your remaining fries.) There is also an inference that the guest is holding things up. Kind of a “aren’t you done with that yet?” It’s not relevant if our guests are done. What is relevant is if we can remove their plate. A simple “May I …?” with a hand extended gets the point across simply, succinctly and without inference.

There are dozens of ways that tableside semantics can be undermining the guest’s dining experience. Think about the how your guests are engaged from the moment they enter your premises. Are you providing a warm, appealing atmosphere or are you treating your guests as a transaction? Semantics are tremendously important in creating the atmosphere that you desire. I’ll share more examples and techniques in the near future.