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When should servers inform diners of menu specials?

server taking order

Question:

The guests have given their orders and the waiter has placed the orders with the kitchen. The waiter returns to the table and informs the guests of the house specials and signature menu items. Intrigued and encouraged to try the recommended food items, the guests changed their minds. Explain what went wrong.

– Ah-Ra Jung, Server, Eva’s Hotel, Kidapawan, Philippines

Answer:

As an educator, I love it when Advice Guy questions come in the form of a pop quiz. Obviously the answer is that guests should be informed of the specials before ordering. Your case is a misstep in the typical flow of service and obviously causes frustration in the kitchen, wasted time in both the front and back of house and potentially wasted food. But it also invites a closer look—when is the right time to present verbal specials?

Verbal specials can be a good way to drive orders to specific items—either by introducing off-menu/limited-time items or pointing out particularly appealing (and presumably high-margin) items on the menu. Research shows verbal suggestions work to drive sales and can be a good tool to draw attention to items that are particularly profitable, are approaching the end of their peak quality, or provide a positive guest experience (and presumably higher tips).

One of my (many) restaurant pet peeves as a guest is being told about the specials at the wrong time: too early, and I’m still getting acclimated, wanting to have a drink and to greet my companions before being barraged with new information; too late, and I’ve had my careful consideration of the menu interrupted by new options and am annoyed that I have to reconsider my plan for a great meal.

In environments where the menu is presented immediately upon seating—which is now most restaurants—I recommend two touches on the specials. First, upon seating, servers should let guests know that they’ll be back to tell them about the specials. This allows a guest two options:

  1. Asking to hear them right away.
  2. Reviewing the menu but keeping in mind there may be more appealing options to come.

Then, deliver the specials while taking the drink order, minimizing steps and allowing further options:

  1. Taking the complete order if the guest is in a rush.
  2. Giving guests time to consider both the full menu and the specials at once before putting in the order without losing too much time.

Of course, all of this timing discussion can be obviated by a printed sheet of specials, perhaps just highlighted by the server.

More on flow of service here.

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