Things You'll Only Understand If You’ve Waited Tables

By Jake Schroeder
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In the restaurant business, you’re told the customer is always right. But is this always the case? Sometimes, waiters don’t receive as much appreciation as they deserve. Some customers tip poorly or behave rudely, and the waiter is always expected to remain professional.

There are many things your server wants you to know but can’t directly tell you. If customers knew about them, maybe everyone would be happier. And if you are or were a server, how many of these things ring true for you?

Don't Seat Yourself

If you walk into a restaurant and rush past the host to find a table, you’re not following the rules. The host’s job is to formally greet you at the entrance, seat you and hand you the menus. They’ll seat you because it’s their job.

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In addition, your seat isn’t random. You might think a host gives you the first table they can find. That’s not true. Based on servers’ section rotations, reservations and restaurant policies, there’s a strategic process for seating customers. While you might feel entitled to sit wherever you please, a host seats you at a table because it’s the correct one available for you.

Don’t Interrupt the Waiter

Imagine: Once the server arrives at the table, the customer interrupts and immediately starts placing a drink order. This is pretty rude. Your server simply wants to welcome you to the restaurant, tell you their name for future reference and ask if you want to hear about the daily specials.

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Of course, it’s always rude to interrupt anyone, but especially someone who’s about to wait on you. Your waiter is going to bring you food and drinks. You shouldn’t interrupt them when they’re trying to be personable. Your drink order can wait until after the introduction, right?

Get Ready to Order

If you’re ready to order your food, great! But if you’re not, don’t be afraid to ask for more time. It can be awkward for both parties if the customer is staring at the menu, indecisive about what to order.

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The server can reallocate time spent waiting for you to decide on your meal to a customer at another table. They can then return to your table in a few minutes once you’ve made your decision. According to servers, it’s not that difficult to simply say, "I’m not ready to order yet." Your waiter will understand.


Order Everything at Once

Some customers like to sit and linger, perhaps ordering the appetizers first and then waiting a while to order their entrees. Other customers make requests for sides of ranch dressing after they’ve already placed their orders. Instead of doing this, waiters prefer for you to tell them everything while you’re ordering your meal.

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One server explains that if you don’t tell your waiter your full meal request, this can mess up the chef’s entree-prep timing. You may end up having to wait longer. Save time by placing your full meal (everything included) when your waiter is taking your order. If you forget to ask for something, don’t worry — it happens.

Don’t Be on Your Phone

One of the biggest pet peeves for waiters is when a customer is on their phone while placing their order. Acknowledging your server with eye contact is respectful, but it also makes it easier for the server to understand you. Mumbling while staring at your phone isn’t proper etiquette.

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One waiter commented, "I love my phone just as much as you do, but please put it down for the two minutes I’m talking with you." It’s not that difficult to put your phone away to make sure your waiter understands your meal request. Your phone will still be there when the waiter walks away.

Don’t Change the Meal...Too Much

It’s okay if you want to leave off the mayonnaise, but be mindful of your requests. If you order chicken parmesan without any sauce or cheese, you’re basically ordering a chicken cutlet. Waiters understand if you have nutrition needs, but some substitutions can turn into absurd requests that alter the entire meal.

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Remember that this isn’t your home kitchen. The restaurant’s chef has their own recipe. If you have multiple substitutions, you’re changing the chef’s recipe, and that doesn’t necessarily make the chef happy. Instead, keep your order simple — it’s easier for everyone involved.


Remember That Your Date Can Order Their Own Food

Some customers order for their significant others. But many orders come with a follow-up question: "How would you like that cooked?" Or, "Would you like fries or a side salad with that?" It can be difficult and sometimes awkward to answer these questions when you’re ordering for someone.

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Instead, allow your date to order for themselves. If they’re shy, it’s okay. Waiters understand that not everyone is comfortable speaking to a stranger. They’ll listen carefully. If your date isn’t ready to order their food, take some time for them to decide what they want. But make sure it’s their decision, not yours.

Also Remember: The Waiter Isn’t Flirting With Your Date

Waiters are trained to be polite to their customers. It’s part of their job. With this in mind, if a waiter is behaving kindly towards your significant other, that doesn’t mean they’re flirting with your date. They’re there to do their job. They’re not there to hook up with your date at the end of their shift.

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Being friendly doesn’t always mean someone is flirting. There’s a difference between the two actions. So, the next time your waiter is polite, don’t give them a dirty look. They’re completely innocent. Instead, focus on spending quality time with your date.

Don’t Snap Your Fingers

Would you like it if someone snapped their fingers or whistled at you to get your attention? If you wouldn’t like it, chances are that your server isn’t a fan either. They’re working as quickly as they can to serve you. Snapping is disrespectful and belittles your waiter.

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If you need to get their attention, simply wait until your waiter is in close proximity to your table and call their name. They tell you their name during their introduction for a reason: for you to use it if you need them. Be polite, and your waiter will appreciate the kindness.


Don’t Blame Them for the Prices

Servers don’t decide how much your food and drinks cost. Even if the prices aren’t listed on the menu, waiters aren’t obligated to warn you about how expensive your meal might be. Of course, you’re more than welcome to ask the prices while you’re placing your order.

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Because servers have nothing to do with the prices, don’t be upset with them when you receive your bill at the end of the meal. Being frustrated with the waiters won’t accomplish anything. If you’re questioning the prices, speak to the restaurant’s manager. This person is better equipped to answer your questions.

Know What to Do If the Restaurant Is Packed...

Waiters aren’t just serving you and your table. They have several other tables in their section of the restaurant. If it’s a slow day, then you can expect your server to spend more time with you. However, if the restaurant is packed, that’s another story.

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Waiters want to split their time evenly between their tables. They’re juggling a lot of work at once. So, unfortunately, they won’t be able to devote all of their energy to just you and you alone. Imagine if you were in their shoes. You might realize it’s difficult to serve several people at once.

...And What to Do If You’re in a Rush

Sometimes, you might only have an hour to eat your meal. If you’re in a rush, it’s important to tell your waiter after they introduce themselves. Let them know so they can take your order right away. They can also try to speed up your meal preparation in the kitchen.

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Waiters are trained to give customers plenty of leisurely time to look at the menu. If you already know what you want to order, tell them you’re ready to order when they greet you. Tell your waiter that you only have one hour to eat, and they’ll try their best to get you in and out as quickly as possible.


Make Room for Your Plates

If you happen to order an appetizer or a salad that arrives before your main meal, your dinner table can get full of plates before you’re served your main dish. Once your food arrives, it can get awkward for everyone involved to maneuver around the cluttered table.

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Make it easier for your waiter by stacking the dishes neatly at the side of the table. This is a sign to your waiter that you’re done with the plates and your waiter can take them away from the table. It also helps clear up some space when your food finally arrives.

Don’t Give Them More Plates

If your waiter walks past you while carrying a stack of plates, don’t give them more plates. Their hands are already full. They don’t need any more plates, or it might risk your server dropping everything to the floor. That could risk their job, and no one wants that to happen.

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You can always tell your waiter that you’re done with your plate. Give them a chance to explain that they’ll be back as soon as they can return the other plates to the kitchen. You can wait one minute while they finish their immediate task.

Give Your Order Time to Cook

If the restaurant is busy, you might have to wait 30 minutes for your food. Some items take longer to cook than others. If you order a well-done steak, this takes longer to make than a sandwich and French fries. Allow enough time for your food to cook.

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Of course, don’t get frustrated with your server. They have nothing to do with the cooking process. They don’t control how long your meal takes to make — their job is to serve your food and drinks. If you’re wondering about your meal, politely ask your server and they can check on the status in the kitchen.


Don’t Expect Them to Read Your Mind

Waiters aren’t superheroes. They can’t read your mind, so they don’t know if you’re satisfied with your food. It’s important to communicate your concerns to your server. They’re unable to pick up on your subtleties. If your steak wasn’t cooked properly, tell them. If you’re disappointed with your meal, they won’t know you’re upset unless you say something

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Your waiter can’t make changes to your meal if you don’t tell them your concerns. So, at the end of the meal, don’t allow your frustrations to affect the way you tip. It’s not their fault you weren’t happy with the meal.

Try Not to Say “They’ve Done It Before”

Every waiter is different. If you’ve been eating at a restaurant for many years, you probably know the waitstaff. They know you by name, and they know your meal of choice before you even sit down at your dinner table. This is great customer service, but what happens if the restaurant hires a new waiter?

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Waiters advise you not to say, "They’ve done it before." If you left a coupon at home, don’t say that the waiter you always have would take off the discount anyway. This new waiter might not want to risk their job if they believe you.

Avoid Wasting Food If You Can

Waiters see a lot of food wasted every day. It sometimes makes them cringe. While you don’t need to eat everything on your plate, the food you leave on your plate isn’t composted. Instead, it’s thrown into the garbage can to end up in a landfill.

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There’s one safe option: Take the food home with you. Ask your waiter for a to-go box, and they’ll gladly retrieve one for you. It may make them (and you) feel better about the meal knowing that someone else can eat it later, whether that’s you or a family member.


Know That It's Okay to Complain

If you’re not shy about voicing your concerns, that’s great. If you don’t like something about your food or drinks though, you can still tell your waiter. Just be nice about the complaint. They didn’t prepare your meal, so if you’re unhappy with it, it’s not your waiter’s fault.

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Servers understand that no one wants to pay for and eat food that doesn’t meet their expectations. You don’t need to be upset with them. They had nothing to do with the taste of your meal. If you offer a nice complaint, it’s easier for them to make sure your request is corrected.

Watch Your Children

One thing that can ruin a meal is if children are running around the restaurant. Some parents don’t stop their children, allowing them to cause havoc inside. This isn’t cute, especially for the waiters who are trying to balance hot, heavy plates while maneuvering around kids underfoot.

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One waiter said, "I would much rather prefer your child be glued to their iPad rather than running around and risk getting hurt by a server walking into them." If your child starts misbehaving, take control of the situation. It’ll make everyone at the restaurant happy — not just your server.

Don’t Interrupt Your Server When They’re Helping Someone Else

When you need something from your server, they’re more than happy to help you. However, it’s rude to interrupt them if they’re serving customers at another table. You’re not the only paying visitor in the restaurant. Most servers have four to six other tables they’re waiting on while they’re helping you.

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If you walk over to the waiter and interrupt them (especially if they’re taking the customers’ orders), you not only offend the server, but you’re also offending the other customers in the restaurant. You’ll create some enemies, which is never a good thing. Just pause until the waiter returns to your table or walks away from the customers.


Don’t Come Late at Night

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Some customers wait to dine at a restaurant until 10 minutes before the restaurant’s closing time. This is fine, as long as you aren’t going to stay late into the night. Eat your food and then leave shortly after the restaurant staff workers switch off the neon sign. They want to go home, but they can’t if you’re still eating.

"It’s a pain when people come in within the last 30 minutes before close and stay past closing," one waiter says, "even if they come within the last hour and take their time." The restaurant has a closing time for a reason. Respect that time.

Don't Overstay Your Welcome

It’s okay to take your time and enjoy yourself while you’re eating with family and friends. You have every right to spend time at the restaurant. Just know that there are other customers who are probably waiting to be seated at your table. The longer you camp out after a meal, the more customers you’re costing your server.

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"Especially if it’s a Saturday night and there’s a line out the door," a waiter commented, "chances are, we have a plan on what we’re doing after you leave once the server places the check on your table." Time is money, especially for servers who rely on tips.

Add Extras to Your Meal — Thoughtfully

You can’t have everything you want at the restaurant for one price. If you ask for a stronger drink or an additional side to your entree, you need to understand that it’ll cost more. This is a standard policy at many restaurants. Don’t be upset with your server when you see extra charges added to your final receipt.

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Of course, it’s okay to ask questions about the bill. Your server is available to help you. If they can’t answer your questions, you can always speak to the restaurant’s manager. But don’t blame the server for the extra costs; it’s likely the restaurant’s rule.


Don’t Touch Them

It’s almost never appropriate to touch someone without their permission. It can be uncomfortable. This also applies to restaurant servers. Keep your hands off! Waiters don’t like it when customers touch their arms to get their attention. It’s more annoying than a customer snapping their fingers or whistling.

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For one thing, you could touch the waiter when they’re least expecting it. They could be carrying a tray of plates. If you touch their shoulder, they could drop the tray and risk losing their job. Don’t startle them. Would you like to be touched unannounced? No, we didn’t think so.

Make (Some) Small Talk

Some people like engaging in small talk with their servers. You might ask, "How’s your day going?" This is an appropriate question. However, try to avoid dreaded questions like, "What else do you do?" Don’t assume they have another job besides working at the restaurant. You never know what’s going on in their personal life.

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Sometimes, waiters only have one job. Maybe that’s the only job they could find. Being asked if they have another job only reminds them that they have one job — and it’s a job where they have to rely on tips to make decent money. Stick to talking about their day or the weather.

Remember They Don’t Make Much Money

This shouldn’t be surprising information, but servers aren’t paid much for their exhausting jobs. They’re often only technically paid $2 or $3 per hour when they’re required to stand on their feet all day, serve food to strangers and sometimes serve frustrated customers. Most servers end up receiving little in wages.

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Your server is primarily making money from the tips they receive. Although you’re not required to leave a tip, remember that you’re choosing to use their service. You go to eat at a restaurant because you want someone else to cook the food and serve you, rather than staying home. Unless the service was terrible, please leave a tip.


Leave a Cash Tip

You shouldn’t eat at a restaurant if you don’t believe in leaving a generous tip. After all, your waiter worked hard to serve you and meet your demands. If they provided good service, pay them for that service. Waiters depend on the tips to earn more cash.

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Try to leave a cash tip, rather than leaving a tip on a credit card. By doing this, you know that the money is staying with the server. They’re picking up the tip. However, the tip doesn’t belong just with the server.

Remember That They Split the Tips

Customers don’t see what goes on behind the scenes at a restaurant. At the end of a shift at most restaurants, servers have to split their tips with the bartenders, runners (who help run food from the kitchen to the customers), bussers and chefs. The money doesn’t just belong to the waiter.

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Even if they were a good server, your waiter won’t be paid the full tip you leave at the end of your meal. Keep this in mind when you’re leaving your tip. If you leave a small tip, just know that your waiter is receiving an even smaller percentage of it.

Don't Be Rude

No one likes to be treated rudely. Waiters are there to serve you, and they want you to have a good experience while you eat at the restaurant. Waiters work hard to leave a positive, lasting impression. So, if you treat them like they’re servants or like they’re irrelevant, you don’t make their job or day any happier.

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Servers are just like you. They’re people with real emotions. When you yell at them about your food or drinks, this affects them. If you realize how your actions could hurt your server and adjust them accordingly, this can make your waiter’s life much easier — and your meal more pleasant.