The Art of the Sell
A restaurant is a closed biosystem. In a perfect world, the partnership between front and back of the house is seamless, creating an experience for diners that is consistently enjoyable. They are two sides of the same coin, working in tandem for the ultimate success of the venture. The best service in the world can’t save a restaurant with lousy food, and the most delicious meal can be ruined with bad service. Ultimately, both need to be working at their best for any place to thrive.
For servers, the pressure is on both personally and professionally. On the job side, you are the first line of defense, the face of the restaurant, and the guiding force behind the meal. It is up to you to ensure that your guests are having as positive an experience as possible, which can include prettying up kitchen disasters, placating difficult personalities, and guiding the unsure through an unfamiliar menu. You have to deal with the entitled expectations of regular customers, while trying to make new guests feel welcome so that they become regulars. And all the while, your own livelihood hangs in the balance.
We’ve all heard from servers who feel hogtied by a kitchen in the weeds leading to less positive experiences for guests and then directly to a negative impact on their personal bottom line. And the tales of inconsistent communication between front of house and the kitchen being the root cause of that chaos are legend. But these issues are hopefully the extreme and not the norm, and on the day to day, any server has a tremendous amount of control over how the shift will go.
Every server is a salesperson, and the better they sell, the better for everyone. Whether that is gently steering a guest away from a dish that is close to getting 86-ed or guiding them towards some choices that improve both their experience and the restaurant’s bottom line, being a good seller is the key to a server’s success.
A good salesperson knows that customers don’t like to feel like they are being sold to, especially when ticket totals impact tip sizes. And yet, there is a subtle art to selling to customers in a way that makes them feel pampered and special and not taken advantage of, and any server who can master this can improve their income and the restaurant’s profitability, which is good for the whole team. Some simple tips can help any server up their sales game.
Starting with the food, being in clear and constant communication with the back of house is essential. You don’t want to give a brilliant pitch on the luxurious marbling and flavorful aging of the strip steak to a party of eight just to discover that there only two left in the walk-in. By the same token, if you know there are only two available, be sure your two-top knows that a purveyor like only sources the finest beef, and only one in four cows will qualify to ensure consistent high quality, and that you only have two left but you are happy to reserve them for your special guests.
Whenever possible, your selling of food should come off as a recommendation based on quality, seasonality, specialness and guest pleasure, and should never appear to be an attempt to pad the bill. Your “personal favorite” is less of a selling point than “only in season for three weeks” or “sourced from a local farm.”
Have a guest wavering between a pasta dish and the steak? Suggest bringing the pasta for the table to share as a side dish or splitting it as a pasta course between the starters and the entrees. Whenever possible try to make the decision an “and” not an “or.” Never be afraid to reward a guest when they make decision that helps you. If they were leaning towards the salad and you convinced them on the scallops, see if you can bring a tasting portion of the salad as a gift from you since you knew they wanted to try it.
When it comes to the bar tab, obviously suggesting pre-dinner cocktails is an easy way to begin, but don’t be put off if you have a table who just wants water service. If your establishment doesn’t have an official non-alcoholic beverage program, suggesting a simple drink like bitters and soda with lime, or seltzer with a splash of cranberry and an orange twist is a drink you can charge for and feels special. It might be the grown-up version of a Shirley Temple, but at the end of the day a $2-4 dollar sparkling water-based drink in a nice glass helps the tab more than the tap water in the pitcher.
As to wine, if you don’t have a sommelier on staff, a good rule is to always suggest the third most expensive wine in the category. It will usually be a good value, which wine folks will appreciate. It will also be close enough to the top price to not insult someone who is determined to be a big spender and would resent implication of not being able to afford “the best,” but middle of the road enough that someone who wants to spend less isn’t jumping down too far or feeling pressure to overspend.
The end of the meal is fraught with peril. On one hand, desserts, coffees, and after dinner drinks can be a cash cow. On the other, a table of lingerers can prevent turnover and create resentment in new guests waiting for tables, and a new tab will always be better than a slightly higher old one. So use your best judgement to see if you think the table has the energy to take on another course, and don’t push too hard if they seem to be flagging.
Finally, remember that regular customers are the most precious commodity a restaurant has. Only the very few top tier restaurants can survive being one-off destination dining, the rest have to have repeat business, or the doors don’t stay open. So be sure that your guests have the kind of experience that makes them want to return, and that returning guests feel special. And when they do, sell them the steak.