The sorry state of American table waiting was made abundantly clear to Eric Weiss as his server at Pastis, the touristy bistro in New York’s Meatpacking District, took his order. Weiss runs Service Arts, a high-end service consultancy that has trained thousands of servers (he finds the term “waiter” demeaning) working at establishments worldwide, from Hilton hotels to the celebrated California restaurant the French Laundry. When Weiss inquired about the origin of the daily menu’s Malpeque oysters, his server replied, “They’re from the East Coast.”
“The East Coast of what?” asked Weiss, after the server walked away, “Albania?” A server not knowing the provenance of an item as important as a Prince Edward Island oyster was Weiss’s first sign that even in this restaurant, a tightly orchestrated corporate concept, the staff hasn’t been properly trained. As if on cue, the server returned with Weiss’s glass of Muscadet. “See that?” asked Weiss. “He put down my wine with his hand on top of my glass. That’s disgusting.” Lesson #2: A server’s hands should never touch anywhere a diner’s mouth eventually will.
For Weiss, table-waiting is an art that, if properly learned, can help both restaurants and waiters make more money. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a five-star restaurant or a busy diner,” he says. “Every server needs to understand how to give truly great service.” His 3- to 5-day workshops, conducted in groups of 50, often on behalf of hotels, resorts, and restaurants, use such techniques as video analysis and role-playing to help servers reach their full potential.
Weiss’s colleagues are few in number—perhaps less than two-dozen waiter trainers exist across the U.S.—and most are reeling from the recent recession. In 2008, Milton Sheppard opened the Waiter Training School in the Bronx, N.Y., charging $175 for courses, but the business soon ran out of money. He now operates a clown college in the same space. Yet there are grounds for optimism. “The operating environment is the best of the past four years,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice-president of research at the National Restaurant Assn. Restaurant industry sales in 2011 are estimated to have reached a record high of $604 billion, up 3.6 percent from 2010. Restaurant employment grew 1.9 percent in 2011, with some 230,000 jobs added, the strongest gain in five years. “There’s an increase in professionalization within the industry,” Riehle says. “The higher the tenure of the waitstaff, the higher the sales per square foot.”
Waiter trainers claim that an investment in education pays off very quickly for restaurants. “In an ideal situation,” says Debbie Thomas, a hospitality trainer in San Diego, “you would see a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in check averages the day after training.” Still, convincing restaurants, waiters, and even prospective waiters, to pay as little as a hundred dollars for formal training remains a challenge.
Unlike in Europe, where serving is often a career rather than a backup plan, American tablewaiting remains a bootstrap business, and some of the biggest skeptics of waiter training courses and schools are seasoned servers themselves. While waiters at places like Pastis can make upwards of six figures in salary and tips, the national average is just over $20,000 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and remains below 2008 levels, according to Steven Gottlieb of PayScale.com. For most American waiters, a few hundred dollars is a significant investment.
Josh Greene, 40, a server at San Francisco’s Flour & Water who’s been waiting tables since 1993, feels that standard training (shadowing a veteran server for a week) is ample preparation. “Restaurants are pretty dynamic environments,” says Greene. “They’re constantly changing menus, wines, and customers.” He has worked with formally trained waiters in the past, but that type of training doesn’t transfer well to most hip, urban restaurants, where the servers are often “young girls in their 20s with a lot of tattoos,” and a knowledge of seasonal, local ingredients is more valued than the proper way to lay a napkin over a lady’s lap. (Discreetly, and from the right.)
The training business is also migrating online, with countless videos and websites on how to wait tables just a Google (GOOG) search away. Bernard Martinage, president of the Jacksonville (Fla.)-based Federation of Dining Room Professionals, believes standardization will distinguish pros from amateurs. The FDRP hosts over 4,000 certification exams annually, including those for the Houston’s restaurant chain and Aramark caterers, and the growth in Front Summit (the FDRP’s online training course) has allowed the FDRP to offset the decline in demand for physical courses. Martinage expects certification to grow by at least 50 percent over the next two years, as restaurateurs realize that having their waiters undergo online training is a cost-effective alternative to revamping kitchens. “If you improve the dining room, you don’t have to touch your food,” he says. “We have over 500 culinary schools in America. Good food is expected everywhere. The weakest link is really the dining room.”
Still, don’t count out the waiter school quite yet. Ian Maksik, a 75-year-old highly animated veteran of the Borscht Belt and his parents’ Brooklyn hot dog stand turned nightclub, plans to open the Service Arts Institute in New York this spring. Maksik, who claims to be the father of American service training, made his last foray into waiter schools in 1983, with the School for the Service Arts, which he sold in 1999. With eight levels of certification and instruction for both new and seasoned waiters, the new Service Arts Institute will teach hundreds of skills, ranging from thirty different napkin folds to how to properly extinguish a table fire in a crowded dining room, with courses starting at just $200. The centerpiece of this is 18 different styles of banquet service, including Maksik’s personal favorite: Hunter Style. As the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey plays to a laser show, waiters quickly file onto the dance floor with rolling carts, lift their metal chafing dishes in unison, and smash them together like cymbals.
“I ask you,” says Maksik, describing the spectacle. “Is this not an art form?”