Waitresses, also called table servers, are restaurant or food service employees whose primary responsibility is to care for and assist patrons. The job often involves everything from managing seating and ensuring cleanliness to placing food orders, dealing with customer complaints and concerns, and handling payments and billing. Precise duties tend to vary by establishment, as different restaurants have different rules and structures. Customer service tends to be at the heart of the job no matter what, though.
Initial Customer Interaction
Waitresses are often some of the first people that customers interact with when they come into a restaurant. Larger establishments may have dedicated hosts who are charged with taking reservations and seating clientele. In smaller eateries, though, servers may take over this role — or clients may seat themselves.
One of the first things a waitress will do once clients have been seated is to present the menu and introduce any specials or promotions that may be going on. She will answer questions about items on the menu, including how certain foods are prepared — as such, it is important that she is familiar with all menu items, including common allergens and specific ingredients.
Beverage service also happens at this time. In some restaurants, it is common to provide patrons with a glass of water automatically, but in others water must be specifically requested. The waitress will go over the beverage options, and will usually fill those orders while customers decide on their food.
Placing and Processing Orders
Once customers make their decisions, it is the server’s job to be sure the kitchen gets the order. Most of the time, waitresses write down customer request on an order ticket. These are often quite specific, and can include such things as table location and individual seating as well as special requests like substitutions, sauces, or side dishes.
In some restaurants, the waitress will bring a copy of the order slip to someone in the kitchen; she may also enter it into a centralized computer so that it can be viewed by the cooks on duty. Once the kitchen receives the order, the waitress is free to move on to other jobs — at least for the moment.
One of the most common tasks is known as table sweep, and involves visiting every occupied table in an assigned section to replenish beverages, answer questions, and ensure that all is going well in terms of customer comfort. During a table sweep, customers may also have specific needs, such as a change in their order or provisions for additional guests.
A waitress will often hover near her assigned section in order to anticipate customer requests. Once all of the tables have been swept and serviced, she may check on the status of food orders and will deliver any completed tickets from the kitchen's window to the customer's table. In most cases, though, she will want to be sure that food for all members of a party is ready to be delivered at the same time — for this reason, she must pay close attention to orders as they come up, and be vigilant about timing, food warmth, and other related things.
For large groups, servers often need help bringing food orders out in a timely way. Waitresses often pitch in and help each other make table deliveries, or special kitchen servers may be on hand to perform this role. Once the food has been served, a waitress may be asked to bring additional condiments such as ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise or butter. At this point, she could also refill beverages and ask customers if their orders are correct and prepared properly. Any complaints that arise are the waitress’ responsibility, and she must work quickly and efficiently to address them.
At this point in the meal service, a waitress may only make a minimal number of table sweeps to allow customers enough privacy to enjoy their meals without interruption. She may use this time to clear dishes away from customers who have finished dining, or to bus and re-set vacant tables.
During a restaurant's slow periods, servers often performs a number of duties known as side work. Typical side work includes folding napkins, rolling silverware, replenishing beverage stations, restocking service areas, and cleaning assigned sections. Some waitresses work an entire shift until relieved by another server, but others may be asked to clock out or do side work after a rush period is over. A waitress' schedule and work hours are often determined by customer demand or a manager's need to reduce labor costs.
Processing Payments and Settling Bills
When customers are ready to leave, a waitress will prepare a final ticket and place it on their table. If there is no dedicated cashier on duty, she will take payment and process it at a designated cash stand. The customer will usually receive a receipt for meal purchases made with a credit card, as well as any change from a cash transaction.
Tipping almost always happens at this time. Waitresses in most places are paid low base wages on the assumption that they will be collecting tips from the tables they serve. Tipping guidelines vary by geographic region and restaurant type, but are common in most parts of the world.
In most cases, waitresses do not need any special training or education to succeed on the job. Many employers want their wait staff to have at least a high school education, but even this is not always necessary. Most of the time, personal skills are the most important. Servers need to be outgoing, cheerful, and friendly; they also usually need to be even-tempered and able to work under pressure.
Many waitresses work for long hours at a time, and many must deal with unfriendly or easily aggravated clients. The job is often exhausting on both physical and mental levels. Servers in many places must also content with low pay and inflexible schedules, which can be aggravating.
Restaurant Hierarchy and Potential for Advancement
In larger restaurants, waitresses are usually somewhere in the middle of the larger wait staff hierarchy. At the top are “head” servers, who manage sections and assign waitress schedules; hosts and hostesses are often pulled from these ranks. Table bussers usually occupy the lower tiers. All personnel must usually work together, and in many cases actually share tips.
Most of the time, people are hired into one of the lower two tiers, then advance — either with time or demonstrated potential — into roles with more responsibility. Depending on the restaurant, a waitress’ base pay may increase the longer she has been on the job, as well.