I've been a restaurant server for many years. Sure, I've tried other things and worked other jobs—I even went and earned myself a university degree in English Literature, because I figured it would add credibility to my writing and editing.
I ventured off into a world that didn't include bringing people food, but I always wandered back.
Many people misconstrue what it takes to be a server. Serving is hard. Plain and simple. You work long hours; You're constantly on your feet; You have at least 9 tasks on the go at any given moment; You walk for miles and miles every shift—back and forth; You don't get to take a break. So, yeah, serving is hard and not for everyone.
Through my many years of serving, I've learned a few things that have significantly increase my tips, and I thought I'd share—One thing to keep in mind, however, is all my experience has been in casual dining. I was not made for fine dining, so I can't be sure if these traits apply to both, though some probably do.
1. Be honest
You'd think this straightforward, and yet I have come across so many servers that just don't get it. If you lie to me, I'm not going to trust you. If I don't trust you, I'm probably not going to like you. If I don't like you, I'm not going to tip you.
This may go against what you've been taught but think of it as if you were sitting at that table looking up to you and asking a question about a menu item. Wouldn't you want the truth? Wouldn't you want to know that many people who order that "$13 burger" send it back or complain? I would.
What about if they ask you about something you just personally don't like? Tell them. I often say “I don't care for that... but it's really popular.”
Plain and simple, if something is not tasty then tell your customers. Being honest shows you do want your customers to have an amazing experience and enjoyable meal.
You may get a strange look when suggesting against ordering something, but in the end, those customers are grateful and many will show you as such when tipping.
2. Refill drinks (Non-alcoholic beverages)
People hate having an empty glass and having to find you for more to drink. However, every customer will be different, so you will have to determine when and how many refills they may want.
The first refill I will always have on the table either just before or just as they sip that last bit. From there, it is different for everyone. Some, I will do again once or twice and then start to ask. Others, I begin asking after the first refill. Overfilling can backfire and negatively affect your tip.
Some people want only to have one or two, and some have twelve. Some people may have dietary goals or restrictions. Some people just get upset about waste if they didn't want some more.
So, the first one is a relatively safe autofill—otherwise, you need to decide for each customer individually.
3. Read the customers personalities
This is more complex, and I know that not every server can do it to the same degree as another. I'm fortunate in that I can instantly read people and then modify my approach and alter my personality to best fit with the customer I'm serving. I don't change who I am—I merely adapt.
I do this so well that I'm not allowed to have a new server shadow me while working. It confuses them, because I act very differently for different tables—more professional and polite here, and then more snarky and quirky over there, and the poor server-in-training isn't sure what to do.
At the very least, don't be a robot. Be personable. Immerse yourself in a way that makes the customers feel close to you but not smothered. When they feel connected to you, then they will like you. If they like you, they will often tip quite nicely.
4. Listen to the customers
Seems simple, right? It is, but you'll need to bump it up a notch. Don't just listen to them while you are at the table—hear them all the time.
If you're taking an order at one table, you should be passively listening to all your customers around you. If you're heading back to the kitchen with an order, you should hear what people are saying as you walk by. Never stop using your ears—these can make you more tips than you'd have thought.
Many times, while I'm taking an order, I'll hear a guy at the table behind me say “I meant to ask for more mayonnaise.” So, I finish taking the order I'm in the middle of, go to the kitchen and grab some mayonnaise BEFORE ringing in the order I just took and take it out to the guy wanting it. Now imagine the shock and elation when I show up with exactly what he wanted (but never actually asked me for).
5. Be yourself
No, this is not contrary to number three above, as I never change who I am. I simply change the 'volume' of certain traits within my personality.
Generally, I am sarcastic and a smart-ass. Most of my customers come back specifically I am a smart-ass, and they love it—and it shows when they tip me.
But I can also be professional and proper, though this part isn't as much fun.
Regardless of your traits, just be yourself. Amplify some parts for some tables and mute other parts of your personality for other tables. Just don't be fake—people hate fake and this will be reflected heavily in how much (really how little) they tip you.
I can't guarantee anyone that anything will increase tips. I won't tell you that if you do everything right you'll always make great money. People are strange and some will just not tip, period. No matter how much they enjoyed their visit; no matter how much fun they had over lunch; no matter how much they did like you, they leave nada.
This brings me to one final tip. Don't let a 'no tip table' become a chain-reaction. I've seen it all too many times. A server has a table that doesn't tip. This upsets said server. Now the server goes to the next table with an unknown, but present, scowl behind the smile—that 'no-tip-table' still lingering in the mind. So, now this table starts to feel not as great or as happy as they otherwise would, so a smaller tip than what they would have given is left, further upsetting the server. And the cycle continues.
I've never let a small tip or no tip upset me. What's the point? It won't change what was left. It won't make them come back and give more. If I allowed myself to get upset, the only thing to happen is I end up with even more small tips and even more no tips, and it makes for a very cranky and unpleasant day.
Remember one truth: One table may have left you nothing, but the next table may leave you an extraordinary amount—It all balances out in the end.
Serving is hard, but it can be fun.