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Turning the Tables: How to Attract, Hire, and Retain the Best Servers for Your Restaurant

Attracting and Hiring the Best Servers for Your Restaurant
Servers are the face of your restaurant

Carrying four plates of pasta with one arm and a tray of drinks on the other, remembering who needs refills on coffee, clearing dirty dishes, handling payments, and fielding questions—all while navigating a busy dining room and dealing with difficult guests—that’s a typical Tuesday in the life of a server.

That’s why, no matter how delicious your food is or how charming your dining room’s décor may be, having a great server can be the difference between a good and bad experience for your guests.

Servers are the face of your business, creating the first impression and guiding guests all the way through the dining experience. That’s why hiring quality servers that demonstrate genuine hospitality and warmth, know the ins and outs of your menu, and make customers feel taken care of is paramount to the success of a restaurant.

Although servers don’t need a formal education to do the job right, having a wait staff with solid training, experience, and a keen desire to work with the public is the best way to ensure you’re making a great impression with your customers.

The truth is, without servers, most restaurants can’t survive, so attracting and hiring the best wait staff should be at the top of every managers to-do list. Finding and keeping good servers for your restaurant can be a challenge, but there are several strategies that you can implement to increase your chances of hiring and retaining talented servers.

Attracting, Hiring, and Retaining Servers

How to Hire and Retain Quality Servers

While offering competitive wages to job seekers is necessary, not all incentives need to be related to financial compensation. Non-monetary perks including a positive company culture, diversity in staffing, and an opportunity for advancement are all ways that owners and managers can attract experienced and high quality servers and increase retention.

Here are a few suggestions for attracting and retaining a great team of servers:

  • Create a positive work environment: The restaurant business is fast-paced and can sometimes be challenging for staff. But no one wants to work in an unpleasant or stressful environment. Ensure that your restaurant is a pleasant place to work by creating a positive work culture that values and rewards hard work, team collaboration, and excellent customer service. Encourage your current staff to provide suggestions for improving the work environment by setting up a non-judgmental feedback zone or anonymous suggestion box. Just make sure staff knows that there will be no repercussions for any feedback, positive or negative.

  • Offer competitive compensation and benefits package: Offering a competitive salary and benefits package that matches or beats other businesses in your community can help attract high-quality servers who are looking for stable employment. These days, job seekers have the advantage and will no longer settle for non-living wages or jobs without benefits, so make sure your compensation package is fair and includes perks like health insurance, family leave, paid time off, and other incentives.

  • Provide training, workshops, and opportunities for development: Offering regular training and development opportunities to your servers such as customer service workshops, leadership training, and seminars in communication skills, as well as opportunities for professional growth within your restaurant, will help attract quality employees that are more likely to stick around and grow as your business grows.

  • Use social media and online job boards: Posting job openings on social media platforms and job boards will help you reach a wider pool of potential candidates. Be sure to use engaging language and informative descriptions to attract high-quality candidates.

  • Provide incentives and rewards: Offer incentives and rewards to servers who go above and beyond the call of duty and let staff know by posting goals or producing a weekly or monthly staff newsletter. This can include anything from bonuses for exceptional performance and employee of the month awards to perks like weekends off, preferred parking, or recognition programs that show your appreciation for your staff’s hard work.

Server Responsibilities

Key server responsibility and qualifications

Servers are an integral part of the customer dining experience, but their duties extend far beyond food service. Among all of the many responsibilities a server has, the number one job is to make customers happy so they keep coming back, spread the news about your restaurant to friends, and give positive reviews on social media.

Though many restaurants ask that their restaurant staff hold at least a high school diploma or a GED, traditional education isn’t required to be a server. Instead, the skill sets of a good server fall into two categories: soft and hard.

Hard skills are technical knowledge or training attained through life experience. Hard skills in the food industry, which can vary state to state, include skills such as how to operate a POS system.

Soft skills are personal habits and traits that shape how an employee works---on their own and with others. Effective communication, dependability, effective teamwork, and active listening are examples of soft skills that are essential in a quality server.

Hard skills for restaurant servers

Hard Skills for Servers

  • Food handler’s license and alcohol selling licenses

Many states require restaurant servers to have a food handler’s license of some kind. In some circumstances the requirements are left up to the county. Some states simply recommend a food handler’s license, while others require it. Whatever the case, a restaurateur has to know the laws and regulations in their area to legally employ servers.

The same goes for selling alcoholic beverages. As is true with many aspects of American liquor laws, what’s required depends on state and other local laws and can vary widely by location. Many of these laws have recently changed as restrictions on liquor sales have eased, so we strongly recommend keeping up to date with current laws in your area.

For a deeper dive into alcohol service training and the rules and regulations required for servers and other front-of-house staff, see our related blog post, HIRE Education 2023: Alcohol Service Training for Front-of-House Staff.

  • Handling payments/POS Systems

In most circumstances, server responsibilities will include handling payments. That means being able to operate point-of-sale (POS) systems and handle cash and credit card payments, both for in-person and off-premise dining. It is a good idea to do a criminal background check on your prospective employees that will be handling money to start with a foundation of trust in your servers.

While navigating a POS system isn’t always easy, the goods is that just about anyone can be trained to do it, even without previous experience.

Soft skills for servers

Soft Skills for Servers

There are few industries where soft skills matter more than the restaurant business. Rather than formal education, servers rely on communication skills to provide excellent customer service.

  • Ability to multitask

Servers need to be comfortable multitasking, as they handle multiple tables and tasks at once. It’s essential that servers know the ins and outs of the menu so they are able to field questions, address customer needs, and give recommendations.

And these customer service skills are not only critical to a restaurant’s success, but they are a key factor in the server’s income. The better the service they provide, the better tips they’ll get.

  • Being detail oriented

Servers need to have a keen eye for detail to pick up on potential problems in the dining area. From paying attention to whether a customer’s water glass needs filling or a table needs clearing to knowing when the condiments need refilling or noticing when a customer is becoming unruly, a sharp server will be able to spot these issues and deal with them on their own initiative without management ever having to notice and ideally, before a customer notices that there’s a problem.

  • Understanding of a kitchen’s capabilities

A server should know everything the kitchen is capable of so they can respond to specific requests from customers without having to run back and ask the kitchen. If a customer asks whether a dish can be made without salt or if a sauce can be served on the side, for example, knowing the ins and outs of the menu and the kitchen’s capabilities is a key duty of a quality server. Because every restaurant’s kitchen capabilities are different, this is a skill that can only be achieved with proper training.

  • Ability to juggle responsibilities

It goes without saying that a good server must be good at serving food. This includes everything from paying attention to presentation and knowing the timing of food preparation to being able to carry multiple dishes and beverages with skill.

A good server in a fast-paced environment is essentially a juggler. They should be able to entertain customers while keeping many balls in the air at the same time.

  • Adept at dealing with difficult customers

Handling difficult customers is not a piece of cake. The best servers know how to act when dealing with unruly, unhappy, and rude customers by staying calm, showing empathy, and not taking the situation personally.

What to look for in a server

What to Look for in a Server

Hiring the right server is always a bit tricky since there are so many variables to consider. So, while an application or resume is helpful, nothing will replace a face-to-face interview to determine whether a job seeker is right for the position. So, what should you look for in a new server? The most important part of being a good server is excellent interpersonal skills.

An interviewee who shows these personality traits will likely make a good server:

  • Good listening skills

  • Positive attitude

  • Desire to work hard

  • Works well as a team member

  • Self-starter

  • Sense of humor

While previous work experience in the restaurant industry is definitely a plus, it’s not a hard requirement. The one exception is servers in a fine dining restaurant. But, even then, there’s some wiggle room. Most of the most high-quality servers in the business are made, not born. And nothing makes a great server than on-the-job training from both the management team and senior staff.

Writing a Job Description for Servers

How to Write an Effective Job Description for a Server

When writing a help wanted ad for a server, you’ll need to be specific (but not too specific.) Staying calm under fire, communicating clearly, problem-solving on the spot, and attention to detail are just some of the essential skills needed for this multifaceted job.

Here are some of the duties to include when posting a job for a server.

  • Manage the guest experience

Servers must know exactly when to take the order and when to check on their guests, and the true pros make this look effortless—even though it’s anything but. Being a good server requires sharp listening skills so that all orders are accurately recorded, and all plates arrive in a timely manner.

Servers need to anticipate requests before they’re made and be prepared with an answer to every question.

What farm did the organic lettuce come from? Can your pizzas be made with a gluten-free crust? What exactly is in the ponzu sauce? Which wine do you recommend with the chicken special? What beers are on tap? These are just a few of the many questions your servers will have to field on a regular basis and they need to be able to answer them all in an instant. Details are everything, so your servers need to know the menu inside and out.

  • Demonstrate genuine hospitality

It’s not just about the mechanics of service. Servers must be able to manage the personalities and expectations of the guests at every table at the same time. For this reason, they must stay in the moment and be present at all times, giving their undivided attention to tables even in the loudest and most distracting environments.

And they must also remain calm and polite even while putting out fires in the kitchen or being challenged by an unhappy guest. No other business does the old cliche, “the customer is always right” ring truer than in the food game.

This type of genuine hospitality really can’t be forced or faked. The best servers genuinely enjoy interacting with people—even grumpy and rude ones. Only when they bring an authentic vibe to the table, showing some of their true (but best) colors, will servers make guests feel comfortable and happy.

Skills of a Good Restaurant Server

  • Possess superior communication skills

Servers guide guests through the dining experience, from the first greeting to the last goodbye. They do this by communicating with the kitchen, the bussers, the hosts, and the sommeliers. With so many moving parts, there’s plenty of room for error. Keeping clear lines of communication with all team members is crucial.

The server acts as the liaison between the guest and the chef, responsible for communicating essential requests. Sometimes it’s simply a preference for a medium rare vs. well-done, but it can involve more serious requests like life-threatening allergies too, so servers need to be proactive, attentive, and clear with communications and never take them lightly.

  • Align with company culture

Just as with any business, the happiest and most productive employees are in sync with the company’s goals and brand. Servers that immerse themselves in their restaurant’s culture, bring a passion for the food, have a genuine desire to bond with the guests, know how to upsell to boost basket size, and are knowledgeable about the cuisine make the best staff for the long haul.

When posting a job online or on a job board, server responsibilities and duties should include the ability to:

  • Interact with customers

  • Use suggestive selling

  • Boost basket size

  • Provide prompt, courteous service

  • Interact with kitchen staff to ensure smooth workflow

  • Take customer orders

  • Pay attention to special requests

  • Process customer payments

  • Operate point-of-sale (POS) systems

  • Serve food and alcohol legally

  • Work hours and days required

Other requirements:

  • A desire to learn

  • Interest in becoming knowledgeable about your restaurant's operation

  • Interest in your restaurant’s cuisine

  • Adherence to company dress code

Being clean and decently dressed is a key baseline because appearance does matter in the food business. A face-to-face interview is the only way to get the full picture, so avoid hiring directly from a phone or zoom meeting only.

Restaurant Servers

Servers create the image of your front-of-house operation, providing customer service, juggling essential job responsibilities, acting as liaison with the kitchen staff, and turning the tables on any prospective problems in your dining room.

While no formal education may be required to perform their duties, the best servers are well-trained, experienced, and love what they do. By implementing a few strategies, you will attract and retain high-quality servers who will enjoy working as a member of your team and contribute to the success of your restaurant.

Related posts to consider

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