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Server motivation strategies

Question:

Are there any strategies for keeping service staff motivated before the busy hours come? Our restaurant opens at 5 p.m. for dinner service and there are days where the first reservation isn’t until 6 or the main rush isn’t until 6:30-7:00. During these hours, management barks at the staff to stay on the floor and not in the coffee station or in the kitchen eating bread or carrying on about sports. Is there anything we can do? You can only tell them to clean or organize so many times before there is no busy work to be done anymore. How do we motivate them overall?

– Mark Aquilino, Manager, Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse, Philadelphia, PA

Answer:

It is common, especially in fine dining restaurants that I’ve worked with, to bring in service staff all at the same time and then release people in a staggered fashion at the end of a shift. The uniform report time allows managers to make sure that the dining room is set and side work completed; hold a pre-shift meeting to go over specials and do a food or wine tasting; and have time for family meal.

The problem with this system, as you note, is the lag between being ready for service when the doors open, and the peak of your dinner rush. During that time, you are paying servers to be ready but not necessarily serve and, worse, are paying them without the benefit of a tip credit.

I have two suggestions for handling this downtime.

First, take a lesson from casual dining. Casual dining restaurants have gotten very good about forecasting peak periods based on day of the week and sales history and trimming schedules to match. Just as you release some servers early on a slow night, consider staggering the start. A common objection to this suggestion is that a staggered start does not allow time for a pre-shift meeting. While that is true, I would suggest that technology can offer creative solutions. A video of the chef’s rundown of the specials, as just one example, played on a mounted tablet, will not only be a good way to brief servers coming in later, but will be to the benefit of those who miss some details during the face-to-face meeting. As for side work, these days, except in the most formal of dining rooms, it won’t seem odd to have servers finishing the dining room setup after the doors open, provided it is done discreetly.

Second, if the staggered approach doesn’t work for you, you can resort to means to make the downtime more productive: quizzes on potential allergens in various menu items, food and wine pairing activities, sales contests, and guides to show shortcuts and advanced features in the POS.

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