Career

Runner, Server, Host. What’s the difference?

There are thousands of books and blog posts written about being a waiter/waitress or server in a restaurant. These range from tips on how to do the job, to how to excel, to mistakes to avoid, to job descriptions, through to training resources of all different types.

These are all good, but can often be dry and impartial. So I thought I would outline a more aspirational set of guidelines to help you achieve and deliver more to the guests you are looking after. Your employer will be happier, and you will be too. Even if it’s not your career or you may be doing it to get through college, the guest experience is key to a successful restaurant, so if you give your best everybody wins.

Remember, in a few years you will be the guest being served by somebody like you. And if you’re paying good money for a good experience you won’t be happy that your waitress doesn’t really care as they are only doing it to make some money in the interim.

We also see a lot of would-be waiters (servers) in our restaurants who all claim to have experience and know-how to do the job. Some are self-important and happily tell you they “have 20 years experience in the business, so don’t need you (the boss) to tell them what or how to do it,” after you catch them lecturing the guest who just complained about them for being rude.

Ironically, the Pareto principle (80/20 rule) seems to be inverted in that 80% of the employees that we see are on the long tail of the Pareto curve, rather than in the majority *sad face*.

So, on with the yardsticks …

  1. Runners. These are the first step on the ladder. If you’ve got no experience in the industry, you’ll start here. This is where you get to learn how a restaurant operates. All the details laid bare. There will be cleaning, carrying, clearing, and lots of repetitive work. Do it. Learn it. To move up the ladder, you need to know all this stuff as you might have to step in or train somebody else to do it. Be quick. Be quiet. Be confident. There’s a lot to remember (and every restaurant has its own variations) and, if in doubt, ask. Dress smartly (as the restaurant requires); don’t just come as you are – this is work, not movie night with your mates. Typical job titles are runner, commis waiter, back-bar.
  2. Serves Tables. A lot of people think that being a “waiter/waitress” means the same as this. It doesn’t – that comes later. When you “serve tables” you are essentially just a go-between for the guest and the kitchen to ensure they get the food and drinks they ordered promptly and without errors. There are a bunch of things to do here – get the order right, first time; make sure the cutlery is there before the food (a runner or back-bar may support you, but you have to direct them); get the drinks before the food; follow the order of service. You will have a chance to chat with the guests, but “table servers” tend to exist mostly in fast-casual restaurants where you have a large section and buzz around like a busy bee, keeping it all together. Think fast. Move fast. In and out. Typical job titles are waiter, junior waiter, or server.
  3. Serves Guests. Now we’re on the up. You’re thinking about more than just getting the orders through (though this is still essential). You’re thinking about other things to make the guest’s stay better – are their children comfortable; do they have any special requirements (which may have been communicated ahead of time); checking back to make sure wine and water are refilled by you, or more drinks are offered; the list goes on. You’re taking care of them like you would a special guest you had invited to your house. You have to always be positive, even if the guest is being a complete shit. You have to be creative and find ways to resolve issues – even if they are a non-issue for you. They matter to the guest, so you need to make it happen. Sometimes you can delegate this upwards if it really is a non-issue or completely impossible (for example, a guest asks your chef to invent a dish for them as they really don’t fancy any of the 70 dishes you already have). Typical job titles are waiter or server.
  4. Delights Guests. Fred Siriex uses a term called the Magic Touch. What he means is that you preempt the guests’ needs before they ask. If they want something, you have already seen the sign and are present when they ask. You help with their chairs, offer to take their coats, replace things like dropped cutlery, spilt salt cellars, remove wine glasses from in front of minors automatically; you take care of the details effortlessly. It’s like you have a sixth sense. You know if they are having a bad day and your job is to “restore their senses” (as the name restaurant means in French). You get them on your side before you have to deal with any crap. Typical job titles are waiter, senior waiter, or potentially chef de rang depending on the skills required and type of establishment.

If you make it that far and do a great job, you’ll be up for promotion to management. That doesn’t mean you’ll be free of the floor, it means you’ll have a host of other things to deal with (organisational and leadership) as well. You may need to step in wherever needed, though – hopefully – your experience will help avoid issues that require you to do this very often.

The work can be very rewarding. It is tiring and you’ll need a cool head under pressure. But happy guests who want to shake your hand when they leave and tell you what a great time they have had, or ask you to compliment the chef on a magnificent or “out of this world” meal are the best feedback you can get that you’ve done a great job.

Thanks for reading this article about the restaurant business. I hope you liked it! If there is anything you'd like me to discuss or write about just let me know in the comments or via the contact form.