Ramping Up Server Training

Authored by Ginger Tin. Reprinted with permission. Jan/Feb 2014 The New Brewer

When you have a well-trained staff, you will see an increase in profits as they help increase revenue while lowering costs.

As someone who was born and raised in the restaurant industry, I learned a valuable lesson very early on while working in our family restaurant: it’s costly to gain a customer base that is loyal, and it’s even more costly to keep them. It takes money and dedication to your restaurant in order to make it grow. Novice restaurant owners fall into the trap of thinking that all they have to do is hook the public with marketing and good food and beer to bring them in. They don’t think about what to do to actually keep the customers once they’re sitting down in the establishment.

In my 20s, I worked for a successful brewpub that had great food and even better beer. They understood the concept that it takes more money to keep an existing customer than it does to gain a new one. The operators of the pub believed in investing in more than just top-quality food and beer ingredients; they believed in investing in top-quality servers and bartenders as well. This set the stage for a comprehensive dining experience.

My dirty secret is that, for a short time, I was moonlighting at a different brewpub on the other side of town—which was not successful and closed its doors within two years of opening. The pub that closed also had a great beer and food menu, but it was no great surprise that they went under.

The problem with the brewpub that failed was this: Nothing was consistent when it came to service because there was no system in place; each shift was chaos. As a guest, you never knew if your food was going to be hot or prepared the way you asked. You never knew if the beer you ordered would actually be available on tap, or if someone forgot to erase the name off the chalkboard. You would observe some guests getting the royal treatment while others would be drumming their fingers on the table, wondering if anyone was going to greet them and take their drink order. You would watch three or four servers walk past your table with their heads down, hoping that you wouldn’t stop them for something, since you weren’t in their section.

Have you ever had an experience like that? If so, did you say anything to the manager or did you just make a mental note to not go back? More often than not, people will not address their concerns with management; they just won’t give the place in question a second chance. To make matters worse, while the manager may never know how his guests were made to feel, those guests will let many others know if they had a poor experience.

It’s not just good beer and food that makes a brewpub a successful one; it’s the people who work there, too. They are an integral piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating an experience for a customer. The beer may sell itself, but somebody’s got to serve it—and serve it well.

Spelling it Out

To be sustainable in the restaurant industry, the people who work for you should know what to do and how to do it when it comes to presenting an experience within your establishment. They should be team players who are invested in the success of the restaurant. They should know how to treat customers from all walks of life equally and with respect. They should know how to talk about your menus, suggestively sell, time courses, and control the flow of the guests’ experience.

How do you find people like that, and keep them working for you? You hire people with potential, and you train them. Show them what to do and how to do it. Teach them to be team players. Get them invested in the business by helping them to understand what your vision is. Invest in your employees, and they’ll return the favor by working harder and turning over less.

The better trained your employees are, the more likely they are to be satisfied with their jobs. The happier they are, the better the service they provide. Better service equates to a strong reputation and loyal customers.

It’s necessary to train people on how to do their jobs. It helps them feel successful at what they’re doing, and increases their ability to deliver a consistent overall experience. People who know how to do their jobs are more likely to be satisfied, because they actually like what they’re doing. When you have a well-trained staff, you will see an increase in profits as they help increase revenue while lowering costs. Your servers will be able to “turn and burn” tables as they efficiently serve your guests. There will be more suggestive selling of profitable menu items; and food and drink comps (due to mistakes and service issues) should begin to trend down.

Training is probably one of the most undervalued investments within the restaurant industry. Many people think that it’s a no-brainer to take someone’s order and get it to the table. But there are nuances to serving people. Whether it’s building a relationship with the guests, or being able to knowledgeably speak to the menus, it all counts. People want to be led through their dining experience, even if they don’t know it. They want someone who maintains control of the situation, so that they don’t have to worry about what is going to happen next.

One important thing to keep in mind is that training is a long-term investment, and that it doesn’t necessarily reveal its return on investment (ROI) in direct or tangible ways. However, if you want your restaurant to operate like a well-oiled revenue-generating machine, then budget some money for a training program. The program doesn’t need to be elaborate, but it should be comprehensive. Design a training program that will represent everything you’re looking for in a server or bartender. When you have a good training plan in place, the end result is that everyone will have a clear understanding of what you’re looking for in a valued team member. Training also indicates that you care about your business and the success of your staff.

Training for Consistency

As I mentioned earlier, consistency is key to being successful. The food and beer should be as described on the menu—or by the server—and the service should contain no surprises. If you plan on expanding your brewpub operation to include more than one location, training for consistency is paramount. While it’s nice that each location has its own “personality,” guests should ideally have a similar experience no matter which one they visit. Think about McDonald’s for a minute. Why are they so popular, and how can they have thousands of successful locations that represent the brand? It’s because, regardless of if you’re in Boulder, Colo. or Singapore, you know what to expect when you walk through their doors.

So what does a training program look like? Here’s a hint: it’s more than handing someone a menu and teaching them to use your point-of-sale (POS) system on their first day. People should be trained over the course of a week or so, to help them digest the mass amount of information that you want them to learn, including how to serve within the system that you put together, how to use your POS to communicate with the kitchen and time courses, and how to talk about your food and beer.

Get started by establishing two things: an operations manual and a training manual. Your operations manual will set the standards for serving a guest in your brewpub and it should include even minute details. This should be a document that entails all the service expectations that you have, and it should be given to all servers and bartenders so that everyone knows what those expectations are. Such specifications should include how long it should take for a guest to be greeted; the time it takes for a drink to get served; how quickly appetizers, main courses, and desserts should be delivered; as well as how long it should take to bus a table and have it reset for the next guests. It should also include a copy of the food menu and a craft beer section so that the service staff will all talk about the menus the same way.

After the operations manual is in order, create the training manual that works in tandem with it. Begin by taking a look at the big picture and envisioning what the perfect customer experience would look like in your restaurant. Then you can write out an outline of the experience and turn it into the backbone of the training program. Break the outline down into digestible chunks of information that can be broken up to be covered over the course of at least five full days (usually a mix of lunch and dinner shifts). This is because you can’t just dump everything on a trainee at once and expect them to retain it. You also can’t just hand someone your operations manual and expect them to read it and translate that into your brand of service.

For each shift of training, there should be a checklist of tasks that the trainee should be able to accomplish with the assistance of a tenured server/trainer. The trainer should be given a copy of the checklist to use as a guide, to ensure that everything you want is being covered. There should be detailed instructions of the topics that you want addressed in the trainer’s checklist and each topic should have a clear and measurable objective. An example of a shift’s training checklist could look like this:

Day One

  1. Tour the restaurant
  2. Attend a pre-shift meeting
  3. Assist with side work
  4. Identify and discuss what distinguishes the establishment from the competition
  5. Define the role of a server in the restauranta.Discuss the expectations for a server during the shiftb.Discuss what servers should do to help other staff members, such as hosts and bartenders
  6. Observe trainer serving guests for the whole shift, focusing on:a. Greeting the guestb. Pairing food with beer

    c. Using the POS system

    d. Timing courses

Your training manual will be something that will need to be evaluated and updated on a consistent basis. Just as you refine your recipes, you will want to refine your training checklists and notes for trainers. This will ensure that your training stays current and timely.

A great way to see if your checklists are tailored correctly is to take the time to observe what your existing servers are doing, and compare that to what’s in the operations manual. If there is a discrepancy, then it’s time to bridge the gap by training your existing staff. Spend about five minutes per pre-shift meeting going over topics that need to be addressed. For instance, if you want all guests greeted by someone within 30 seconds of being seated, then it’s time to train everyone on teamwork. Teach them that they should work together, and to at least stop by a new table to say, “Your server will be with you in just a minute.” This will set the stage for a good experience, since your guests form their opinions of your restaurant within the first few minutes of being there. If every guest gets greeted in a reasonable amount of time, then the shift begins to pull together and all servers will know that the greet time expectation has been met.

You may meet resistance from your team, so it’s important to get the “What’s In It for Me” (WIIFM) factor established. In order to get everyone’s buy-in, it’s necessary to let servers know the benefits of training. Discuss what employees can expect when they fall in line with the restaurant’s defined standards, and why it’s important to take training seriously. These benefits include a smoother shift. Smoother shifts provide for better service, which leads to bigger sales and more tips. When you mention these things, you will get their attention.

All on Board

Once you get everyone calibrated on what your expectations are, you can begin to identify who your top servers will be—they are the ones who will take the operations manual and your coaching seriously. Talk to them, and see if they will become your trainers and head servers. Entice them by rewarding them with a free meal or beer (or both) for each shift that they work and train someone. They will become leaders on the team, and coaches to the other staff members. When the other staff members recognize the perks of being a head server or trainer, they may strive for that position.

If you have people on your staff who don’t want to “play along,” don’t reward them for this kind of behavior. Give them less desirable shifts and/or sections until they begin to comply. If they don’t, perhaps they don’t belong on your team. After all, the goal of having an operations manual is to get everyone on the same page, so that your guests’ dining experience is a good one.

It boils down to this: training is an investment that every restaurateur should take seriously. Even if you are brewing the best beer and creating some of the most fabulous menu items on the planet, if you don’t have a well-trained staff to back it up, you could be losing customers. Customers could be lining up at the door for a great beer, but if they have a bad service experience, they may simply leave the restaurant and not give you another chance.