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How to balance server sections

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I have been asked to work at a new establishment (bar with food) as a head waitress. This establishment is small (total seating is 55 including seats at bar), and most of the time there will only be two servers on the floor. The problem I'm running into is that the other servers do not agree with my opinion that you cannot just alternate tables as they come in, but also must take into consideration the number of guests at each table when deciding who should wait on each table to be fair. What is your opinion?

– Susan, Head Server, Boulevard Pub, Illinois


In writing this column for a number of years, I have received numerous questions from servers complaining about systems. Here is what I learned:
• There is always too much side work.
Tip outs are always too high.
• Hosts always seat guests unfairly: In pooled environments, that means that I serve more guests than everyone else but we share tips evenly; in nonpooled houses, it means that I don’t have enough guests and don’t earn enough.

We have addressed the first two complaints occasionally but haven’t given as much attention to the third. For tipped employees working without a pool, an even-handed seating policy can make a big difference in take-home pay. Because guests are different and do not arrive in even numbers, there will always be someone who gets burned—a server stuck with a particularly demanding or stingy guest, a “camper,” or a small party who has to be seated at an unnecessarily large table, to name a few possibilities. Similarly, others may “win,” with a table of good-tipping industry folks, reliable regulars, or easy wine-drinking deuces. To some extent, what you are hearing is the inevitable grumbling from servers challenged to be successful in our broken tipping system.

That said, I agree with you. There is simply no parity in workload by, for example, seating a six-top with server Amy, then a deuce with server Bruce, and then alternating so that the next table that comes in also goes to Amy. My advice is that you indeed balance, where possible, by guest count, also taking into consideration server skill, restaurant layout (for example, a section far from the kitchen may need to be smaller), timing of guest arrivals, prime real estate such as outdoor seating in perfect weather, and guest preferences. While keeping servers happy is important, your primary obligation is to the guest experience. For example, Bruce may already have a busy section, but if a guest asks for him by name, or requests a table by the fireplace, you will need to adjust.

Part of the problem, also, may be that your colleagues think you are being unfair in your seating decisions. My advice is to be as transparent as possible with your policy—letting servers know how you seat guests and why, but also that you have many factors to consider and your decisions are final. As long as guests do not arrive in even numbers, in perfect 15-minute intervals, and tip 25%, there will always be winners and losers during a particular service, but it should level out over time. If it doesn’t, your policy may indeed be unfair.

Finally, consider moving to a pooled system. While some servers may still complain they are pulling more weight than others, it may allow for a more collegial environment.

More on balancing server sections here.

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