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February 5, 2020 8 Things Servers Should Never Say (And What to Say Instead)

restaurant server mistakes

Want any freshly ground cracked pepper? Did you save room for dessert, sweetie? Still working on that? Ah, the horror! At best, certain things servers say make customers cringe. At worst, these one-liners result in lower tips and customer satisfaction. So, we put together a list of the 8 things servers shouldn’t say…and a cheat sheet for what to say instead.

1. Never Say: “Are You Still Working On That?”

As far as things servers say, this a strange phrase. Is eating a delicious restaurant meal really “work”? Is the customer chipping away at their steak like a sculptor? No. So don’t say it.

There’s another reason this phrase tops the list of things servers shouldn’t say. It makes guests feel super rushed – a cardinal sin that is often mentioned in Yelp reviews. The word “still” is one of the things servers shouldn’t say…ever. It suggests the customer has been taking too long.

Smart Things Servers Say Instead…

The best waiters observe the table. Then, they clear plates (or send in the busser) as individual guests finish their meal or don’t touch their plate for about 5 minutes. When in doubt, just ask: May I clear this for you?

Sometimes, your good deed goes punished. Your intention in clearing plates is keeping the table neat and clean for guests. Yet they think you’re rushing them out the door.

However, if you are trying to manage a table of campers, there are better things servers say and do to get the job done. For example, instead of using the famed line “can I get you anything else?” you can say, would you like another dessert? (assuming someone has had dessert). Most people – even if they loved that cheesecake – will decline. See 9 more ways to handle guests who won’t leave in a professional way.

2. “Your Food Will Be Out in a Few Minutes.”

Speaking of lies, if you actually have no idea when food will be arriving, this is one of those things servers say that can backfire. Big time. If the kitchen is backed up, a white lie like this can make customers even angrier when their food arrives 20 minutes later.

Smart Things Servers Say Instead…

Again, the best servers read the table. If everyone is chatting up a storm and no one has that hangry look on their face, don’t say a thing. But if you notice people staring at the kitchen, or other tables as their food arrives, go check with the kitchen about when your table’s food will be up. While you’re there, grab a bread basket. Return to the table with bread, a sincere apology for the delay, and the estimate the kitchen gave you – plus 5 minutes.

If things are realllllly slow (we’re talking a half hour or more), you should offer complimentary refills or a bottle of house wine for the table.

3. “Just One?”

There really is no excuse for some of the things servers say. A good host will have already asked the customer how many people are in their party. The fact someone is dining solo is then conveyed to you, the server. So why on earth would you bring this up again? After all, eating alone is a rising trend that many enjoy.

Smart Things Servers Say Instead…

They simply treat the single diner like a normal customer – end of story.

4. Never Say: “That’s Not Possible.”

Listen, we get it. Customers can be demanding – even borderline crazy with their requests. They want you to hold a reservation for an hour to wait for friends. Or, they demand the coveted window seat (never mind your best customer already reserved it). You’re tempted to blurt out things servers shouldn’t say, or cut them off with a curt “that won’t work.”

Smart Things Servers Say Instead…

Even if the customer’s request is a lost cause, tell them you’ll make the effort. Say you’ll go check with the manager and try to make it work. Genuinely go and try. That way you won’t have to lie. (Customers are often walking lie detectors, and they’ll smell a rate immediately.)

5. “Did You Save Room for Dessert?”

Nice, you just inadvertently insulted your patrons! Asking if there’s room for dessert is definitely one of the things servers shouldn’t say. It implies that customers just wolfed down a ton of food. Plus, you’re literally asking them to assess their fullness level instead of focusing on your delicious dessert menu.

Smart Things Servers Say Instead…

There are a few different things you can say here. One strategy is to come over to the table excitedly and ask if you could share a few of your favorite desserts – as you hand out the menus. Be ready to describe a few dishes in detail.

Some savvy servers don’t say much at all. They just set the dessert menus down and quickly say, “I’ll leave these here for you to look at.”

Now, just because you didn’t ask customers if they were full doesn’t mean they won’t blurt out “Sorry, no room for dessert!” Here’s one of the smartest things servers say: “Got it! I could quickly prep dessert to go if you’d like to eat it later?” Not that’s genius.

6. “Sweetie. Honey. Darling.”

Unless it’s your significant other at the table, never utter these mushy terms of endearment. They come across as extremely condescending and too familiar to most patrons. On the flip side, steer clear of these formal things servers say, like ma’am or sir. Many customers have said that being called ma’am or sir makes them feel old. But women also don’t like being referred to as “miss”.

Smart Things Servers Say Instead…

They don’t actually address the customer with a name (unless it’s a regular of course). Smart servers just look directly at whomever they’re speaking to, and say things like “And what would you like for dinner tonight?”

7. “Would You Like Change?”

Here comes another baffling thing servers say often. If a customer hands you a hundred dollar bill for a $55 check, asking if they want change is just greedy. Even if the bill is $90, don’t ask. Anytime you ask, the customer really thinks you’re saying “can I keep it, pretty please?”

Smart Things Servers Say Instead…

It’s not what you say here. It’s what you do. Always get change. If the customer is planning to tip you out of the money they just set on the table, 99% of the time, they’ll tell you.

8. Never Say: “Would You Like Freshly Ground Pepper?”

Ok, so this last thing servers shouldn’t say isn’t a dealbreaker. It’s just pointless. Is freshly ground pepper some sort of delicacy? Is it going to transform a dish? It’s so old school that unless you’re a traditional steakhouse, it will seem out of place.

Most servers ask this immediately after putting plates in front of customers, but think about it: how does a customer know if their food needs seasoning if they haven’t even tried it yet? Mind blown.

Ultimately, many of the things servers say are just classic one liners that they’ve heard their entire lives. Step back, and be mindful of what you’re saying as you take care of customers. Small words can have a big impact on the customer’s perception of their experience, so choose your words wisely.

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4 Comments

  1. Lenny Sims on August 25, 2013 at 2:13 am

    In a fine dining establishment it is out of place to ask if they want change when paying for a $50 meal with 100, but anywhere else I have thrown it out there a few times. It really helps if your a good server (or great) and you have a personality. Make sure you exaggerate–"You don't need change right". But if you have been dry, dull, and boring all night maybe you don't, but maybe, just maybe you do.

  2. Ellen Miles on October 21, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    One more that drives me nuts … when I say thank you after being served, frequently, the server replys with "No Problem". Of course it's not a problem, it's their job. It sounds so much more professional if they would just say, "You're welcome" or "It's my pleasure".

  3. JoAnn Kehoe Ebdon on November 9, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    I would move number 7 to number one. When I am dining alone this sets the tone for the entire dining experience and makes it very hard for my server to earn their tip.

  4. Brenda Sinclair Irby on November 10, 2013 at 2:29 am

    I agree Jo, but number 6 really irks me. I am not their "sweetie" or "honey". I know it's more of a southern thing, but ticks me off immediately.

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