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Server mistakes costs restaurants money, but good training can help staff avoid problems

By Robyn Davis Sekula

Pizza Today | January 2008

There are two types of veal chops on the dinner menu at Atlanta restaurant Veni Vidi Vici. One is pounded. The other is grilled.

When a server punches the wrong type of veal chop into the Point of Sale system, and the customer gets the wrong dish, that’s about $25 of lost revenue for the restaurant if they have to fix a new dish to appease the customer, says Enrique Grajales, beverage manager of Veni Vidi Vici.

Knowing the menu well helps save servers from making that mistake, Grajales says. “There is a saying that the best waiter on the floor knows the menu inside and out,” Grajales says. “Knowing the menu and wine list gives you confidence. If you don’t know the menu, you can’t give recommendations. When you talk about something you like, it assures them that you know what you’re talking about.”

It also means the server knows enough to ask which kind of veal chop the customer wants before walking away from the table.

Grajales tells the servers to repeat the order back to customers before they leave the table, and they are required to write all orders down to make sure they get them right. Memorization leads to mistakes, Grajales says.

“If you repeat the order back, customers like it,” Grajales says. “It makes them feel like the server is really paying attention to them.”

Mistakes by servers can cost a restaurant plenty of money in meals, free desserts, free drinks and even future business if customers are angry enough about the mistake. They also cost the server and the manager time and stress.

Identifying the problem

But how do you know if you have a problem? Ron Yudd, president, Points of Profit Leadership Inc., Gaithersburg, Md., says one way to tell is to look in the restaurant’s POS system and see how much food, including desserts, are being given away as compensation for a mistake, and then find out why. Was the kitchen slow? Did the server make a mistake?

If there are a lot of mistakes, also consider if the restaurant is well-staffed at peak times. If there aren’t enough staff on hand, that can lead to mistakes, says Paul Paz, career professional waiter and hospitality consultant who runs www.waitersworld.com.

There are at least two times when a server is most vulnerable to a mistake, Paz says. The first is when the server is taking the order. Write it down, and ask confirming questions, such as “You want the grilled veal chop, right?” Also, know what the public often dislikes, but may not think to mention, especially when it comes to pizza toppings, such as olives, mushrooms or onions. When the person is finished ordering, confirm the order with the customer. Yudd says to look for a confirmation nod, and a look in their eye that says you’ve got it right.

The second time when a mistake can occur is when the order is being placed in the restaurant’s POS system. After the server has punched the order into the system, they need to take a moment to review the entire order and compare with their notes, Paz says. If the restaurant uses paper tickets, a system of abbreviations may help servers get orders correct, and help the kitchen interpret them.

Restaurant experts interviewed for this story say that good training is key to avoiding mistakes. “During the training, familiarize the staff with the menu,” Yudd says. “Make training fun for servers. It’s all about having servers do rather than sitting and reading a manual or watching a movie or doing something online.”

Consider structuring the training as a game and give out prizes. At Veni Vidi Vici, servers go through five lunch and five dinner shifts before they work alone. There are tests on menu knowledge within the training, Grajales says. The restaurant also emphasizes how to properly enter orders on the POS system. “From the time they take the order to the time they put it in the computer are when most of the mistakes are made,” Grajales says.

Training, though, shouldn’t end when the server begins taking their own section. Training should continue in daily line-ups and short conversations with staff. If there is a continuing problem with a certain kind of mistake, address it with all the staff and call their attention to it, which is part of what Grajales does sometimes in lineups when needed. Grajales also has the staff taste any new dishes or specials so they know what’s in it and can recommend it to customers, and won’t make any assumptions or mistakes about those dishes.

Problem servers

Sometimes, mistakes can be traced to one particular server who is having performance issues, Yudd says. “A particular server who has gone through the training and been on a probationary period and keeps making mistakes and keeps having to come to you to have something on their check comped, that’s when you start thinking about is there something wrong with the station size for this person?” Yudd says. “You start to make some adjustment, and some individual counseling for that server.”

Pair up a problem server with a true star, Yudd says, but also give the star a little bit more money to serve in a teaching role, or even a bonus if the problem server stops making mistakes.

And then, there is the other option. If all else fails, sometimes it’s best to simply let the problem server go. After all, mistakes are expensive.

“If you are finding that a person is making so many errors that it’s causing great distress from customers, they can’t be there,” Paz says. “You also have the cost of food products. Someone making that number of errors is going to stress the staff at large. As soon as you see the symptoms, get on it. It’s not going to get better.”