How to Train Your Wait Staff to Maximize Guest Experience

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How to Train Your Wait Staff to Maximize Guest Experience

There’s an old adage that says great service can make up for bad food, but never the other way around. Look no further than your friendly neighborhood Yelp! page for proof of that. The guest experience at your restaurant will be made or broken by your wait staff. And even if you think you’ve hired the best people in the world, how you train them will make the difference between success and failure.

It’s not just as simple as handing them a menu, giving a written test, and doing a few mock tables either. Training your staff to give guests the experience you want is an art, that not only involves imparting knowledge, but also attitude and corporate culture. We talked to successful restaurant owners and managers in everything from fine dining to casual Italian food, and they gave us some tips on how to train a restaurant wait staff.

Train extensively on the menu

Having a staff that’s perfectly versed in the menu and comfortable answering questions makes the guest experience far more relaxing.

At the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Miami, home to both Azul and La Mar by Gaston Acurio, Food and Beverage Director Mauricio Miguelena introduces what he calls the “menu matrix” to servers three weeks before any new items hit the menu. The matrix includes the ingredients in the dish, where they’re sourced from, and any possible allergens. A sommelier recommends wine pairings for each, and the week before the new item is released the staff is tested by a manager ordering from them. By the time the item is available to guests, his staff knows is backwards and forwards.

Dave Quillen, the Managing Partner of Joe’s Seafood Prime Steak and Stone Crab restaurants, ensures his staff tries everything on the menu to help people understand what they’re a part of.

“We make sure they taste every item of the food, the chefs bring it out, they embrace new people and make them feel like one of us,” says Quillen. “Same thing with wine and spirits training, they taste all the wine and the cocktails, and talk to the bartenders that make them. It’s an all-encompassing feeling that makes your staff feel like a part of something.”

Cross train everyone right away

Call-offs and no-shows are a given in the restaurant business. It’s how you prepare for them that makes your restaurant run smoothly. Guests don’t care if your food runners or your bartender didn’t show up for work that day, they just want to know why a round of beers is taking 20 minutes. But it doesn’t have to come to that.

“We give our employees a training manual for the entire restaurant right away,” says Miguelena. “Their training agenda requires them to spend time doing different tasks in different positions until they become ‘certified’ in each one. Then they can be on the floor.”

This way, if you need a server to run food, or clear tables, or even host in a pinch, they can do it. And it gives you a bigger pool of people to call when somebody doesn’t show up.

Hire for personality, not experience

Skills can be taught. A good attitude cannot. Of course “good” can also be a relative term, since a fine dining restaurant will demand a different personality than, say, a TGI Friday’s franchise. But the key is to screen people based more on how they act than what they know.

“What people don’t realize is hiring the right personality is more important than experience,” says Andy Fox, the Director of Operations for the Brimstone Restaurant Group in Boca Raton, Florida. “Get a feel for someone’s personality. Are they fun, outgoing, and accommodating? If so, I can teach them the basics, but I can’t teach them to be friendly.”

Create a positive work environment

Servers who hate their jobs don’t hide it well. And if their work environment is terrible, their bad attitude is by translation your fault. But having servers who love coming to work will result in customers who love coming to dine with you.

Sean Liguore owns two successful Italian concepts in Southern California, Bettolino Kitchen and Gaetano’s. About 60 percent of his staff has been with him since opening, a figure nearly unheard-of in the restaurant industry. He credits his staff’s consistency with the restaurants’ strong group of regular customers.

“(Retention) is a priority to us,” Liguore says. “So we spend our time and money on creating a great work environment so we can get retention as high as we can and, then, build regulars.” 

In addition to listening to staff concerns, Liguore also has frequent sales goals for his staff with incentives like a company bowling night or race car driving. He says it serves the dual purpose of getting them to work together towards a goal, and also provides staff bonding time to make the workplace more friendly.

Listen to everyone’s ideas

“Everybody has to have a voice,” says Brimstone’s Fox. “Everybody has to have a say in what we do. If someone has a better idea, we listen to it because we’re small enough we can implement a good idea right away. And if people feel like they have a voice, they care a lot more.”

Budget more training time you think you need

“The biggest mistake we make in the industry is compromising training because we feel the heat and need that person on the floor, ASAP,” says Mandarin Oriental’s Miguelena. “You cannot compromise that.”

It takes time not only to educate you staff on the menu. You also have to educate them on the company culture, history, ordering systems and procedures.

“Imagine what you’d think you need to train a new employee and double that,” suggests Liguore. “They have to be able to understand your philosophies and relay that to guests, and embody that as well.”

Know when someone else should do your training

You might be great at business, and phenomenal at cooking. You might create the most efficient expo line in history and craft amazing cocktails. But if you’re not great at being hospitable, you should not be the person training your staff. They will learn hospitality from their trainer, which might need to be someone else on your staff.

“If you don’t truly feel hospitality in your heart, you won’t be able to convey it,” says Joe’s Quillen. “Not everyone is great at hospitality, and that’s the business we’re in. Not food or drinks. Hospitality. And if you don’t feel it in your heart, have someone else do it.”


Matt Meltzer

Matt Meltzer is a professor of business communication at the University of Miami. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and holds a bachelors degree in business administration from UM, as well as a Masters of Mass Communication from the University of Florida.

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