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Posted: June 20, 2013

Chef Laura: Treat ‘em right

Here's the secret to great service

Laura Cook Newman

My food service peers and I all abide by a certain code of conduct. It’s our unspoken version of the Hippocratic Oath. We promise to “do no harm” to fellow servers, chefs and bartenders. As a result, we get fabulous service, and you can too, even if you’re not in the biz.

An occupational hazard chefs incur, is that we eat out more than we should. However, business meetings are usually easier to swallow when breaking bread. It doesn’t take long to determine if my dining companion has ever worked in the service industry. I don’t have to ask; they “tell” me with their actions.

Let’s take a recent business lunch with “Jason," a self-described “IT Geek” who spent his teen-age years playing The Sims rather than dressed in an unflattering uniform asking “would you like to super-size that?”

Quiz Time! Can you spot Jason’s faux pas in the following restaurant scenario?

  1.  The busboy approaches to fill the water glasses; Jason orders an iced tea.
  2. Our server greets us; Jason’s head is buried in the menu.
  3. Jason orders: “Gimmee a burger.”
  4. The server delivers our food and asks, “Can I get you anything else?” Jason replies “No.”
  5. The server leaves, Jason remembers he wants mayonnaise, so he summons a different server over with a loud, “Excuse me!”
  6. Our original server brings over the mayo, at which time, Jason asks for extra pickles.
  7. After lunch, Jason’s side of the table is an array of uncapped condiments, crumbs and Sweet ’n Low wrappers.
  8. Jason tosses his white linen napkin on his Heinz-smeared plate
  9. The check arrives; Jason refers to his Texas Instrument calculator wristwatch to determine his portion of the bill. He asks the server to put exactly $14.18 on his credit card.
  10. He calculates 12 percent for tip. “I had to wait for my pickles, ya know!”
  11. For the next 20 minutes, he launches into a soliloquy about the short-comings of the latest Star Trek movie

Clearly, Jason is unskilled in the decorum of dining out, but there’s hope. Consider me Professor Higgins to his Eliza:

  1. Busboys don’t take drink or food orders. They usually don’t have their own login for the POSitouch system, so ordering anything from them is futile.
  2. Acknowledge your server. Make eye contact. Smile.
  3. Instead of waiting for the obvious follow-up questions when ordering something like a burger, make it easier for your server. “I’d like the cheeseburger, medium, with Swiss, and fries, please. Can you also bring a side of mayo and extra pickles, too? Thank you.”
  4. When the food arrives, now is the opportunity to ask for extra condiments or another drink. Servers should do the industry-standard “two-minute check back” but don’t make them run laps around the restaurant for your every whim.
  5. No need to shout. Instead, use eye contact and subtle (yet polite!) gestures to get the server’s attention. Interact with your server, not just anyone wearing a black t-shirt
  6. See #4. And say “please” and “thank you” like your mama taught you. Gratitude costs nothing and is both the duct tape that binds us and the WD-40 that lubricates social niceties.
  7. Tidy up. You don’t have to bring your own Dustbuster, but leave your side of the table orderly. And parents, if lil Kaden has been dropping Goldfish crackers around his booster seat for the past hour, make an effort to pick up some fishies.
  8. Treat linens with respect. Laundering linen is a huge hidden cost for restaurants. Napkins aren’t hankies or lipstick blotters, either.
  9. Split checks evenly. It’s embarrassing to nickel and dime dining companions and a headache for the server. Whenever possible, pay with Presidents. Not an option? How about tipping with paper, not plastic?
  10. 20 percent is the accepted tip percentage. It used to be 15 percent back when MTV played music videos. Besides, the math is easier.
  11. This isn’t a KOA site – no camping allowed!

How did you do? If you got 100 percent, I’ll gladly dine out with you. Heck, I might even pay…with cash.

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at

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Readers Respond

Just wanted to add some of things that drive me crazy about a person that I dine with often. This article was perfecet to share with him. 12. NEVER ready to order! While everyone is memorizing the menu he’s playing with Blackberry. Even while she’s taking orders still screwing around. When it’s his time to order then he opens the menu. 13. If on the rare occasion he knows what he wants he ALWAYS has his menu on the table with his arms resting on it and they have to ask for it….again after everyone else has voluntarily pass them on. 14. When the bill comes he is the ONLY one that is not ready….BB in hand wallet in pocket! By J. Redou on 2013 06 23
Dad: Backronyms are great and all - when they're sensical. But wouldn't it be teps, and not tips? By Mater Dee on 2013 06 22
Glad you clarified the "range" of tips. "To Insure Prompt Service" - if it's slow, they have a ceiling on the tip - I don't care if it's the chef's fault - I can't talk to him/her. 25% seems a bit high unless they gave you a good stock market "tip." One exception, you should always over tip breakfast waitresses as they do just as much work off a much smaller bill. By Pater Familias on 2013 06 22
Servers introduce themselves: "Welcome to Shindigs! My name is Brett and I am your server tonight. Can I get you something to drink?" A smart guest should address the server by his or her name: "Yes Brett, I'd like a gin and tonic please." Now that the server and guest have bonded the dining experience is bound to be enjoyable. Smile,show some love, and LEAVE A GOOD TIP. Afterall servers are fellow human beings who face the same challenges as most of us do. Thanks Laura for pointing out that Jason has the personality and manners of a dead frog. Jasonians should take a flying leap but obviously they can't because they croaked. By Pamsclams on 2013 06 20
You guys crack me up! I always learn something new from my readers, so thanks for setting me straight on US currency, Star Trek, and quality condiments. As for Mr (?) 12.5%, if I get "bad" service, I tend to agree with your percentage. Mediocre service is 15%, good service is 20% and exceptional service is 25%. Note, servers are usually required to tip out their internal staff (bussers and bartenders) and servers get paid (intentionally) below minimum wage. One last thing - I always "over tip" on breakfast, since breakfast food is pretty cheap. As long as my coffee cup is full, a nice tip is headed their way! By Chef Laura on 2013 06 20
Good points for dining out. Since this was a "quiz" I'll making this a teaching moment. If you "Pay with the Presidents" you're not using $10s and $100s. Both Founding Fathers yes, but Hamilton was the 1st US Treasury Secretary and Franklin, well he was crafty, had a kite and developed bifocals. Which I can't live without! By Abe Froman on 2013 06 20
The good news from reading this article is that the Chef believes in serving the highest quality Ketchup which is always a good indicator the rest of the ingredients the Chef purchases are high quality. As a former General Manager in the business, I wish your article was mandatory reading before people are allowed to enjoy dining out. Thanks for spreading the good word on how to get the most of your dining experience! By Jennifer on 2013 06 20
Spoiler alert. The new Star Teek movie does suck. Point for point remake of The Wrath of Khan. The writers are more talented than that. Makes me worry about the new Star Wars movie! Oh and I agree with you By # 11 on 2013 06 20
The only fau paux Jason didn't commit (and I cringe when I see this) was blowing his nose on the linen napkin - UGH! Keep hammering on this, Laura, good manners are good manners. By Andi Pearson on 2013 06 20
"trust Hang Ups was a very good article, but this one was great and contained some very useful information for everyone. soliloquy was a word my wife would use (and does it all the time) and I had to look it up on line. By Chef T Dub on 2013 06 20
I was invited to dinner last night with friends where kids eat free. I was hesitating how the meal would be, knowing in advance some kids have bad behaviors. I was so impressed how the server hadled our tables. First off, the restaurant " likes " kids or at least pretends to. Secondly, there was a prior relationship with the server as regulars that I was unaware of. Our tables, we were treated like family. I was relieved. In the end, I found myself sliding the waitress an extra tip as the newbie at the table. Yes, being a prior server, I always am grateful for good service. It’s true, treat ‘em right the meal is that much better. By Harley Lady on 2013 06 20
"The accepted tip is 20%" Source: Every server ever. Question: What is the correct RANGE of tips? i.e. a terrible server should be tipped the same as a fantastic server? Doesn't seem right. By 12.5% on 2013 06 20
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