Is Your Waitstaff Annoying Your Customers?

17 irritating habits to make sure your servers avoid.

Dining out should be enjoyable, but it’s amazing how easily a waiter or waitress can tarnish the experience or even ruin a patron’s meal, losing you future business.

These server sins top the list of diner pet peeves according to informal Facebook polls and Peter Szende, associate dean of academic affairs at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration.

Keep your eyes peeled to see if your waitstaff is guilty as charged.

“A lot of it comes down to having systems in place and taking the time to train servers to use those systems,” Szende explained. Make your standards clear, and reinforce them by providing feedback. “You need to constantly reevaluate and improve your system,” said Szende.

Servers should avoid these offenses:

  1. Failing to groom. Servers with chipped nails or other indications of poor grooming or hygiene get two thumbs down. And if you’re sick, call in sick. Don’t touch or breathe on our food, say diners. It should go without saying that diners who witness a server use the bathroom and walk out without washing up won’t be back — and will probably write about the experience on social media.
  2. Ignoring waiting customers. Sure, your restaurant is hot, but that doesn’t mean you should take waiting customers for granted. “Give them the menu,” urged Szende. “Chat with them, if you have time.” One Facebook respondent suggested offering a snack if the wait will be especially long.
  3. Using inappropriate language. “If you go to a fine dining restaurant, you don’t necessarily want to hear, ‘Hi guys!’” said Szende. Many diners also don’t want to be called “honey “ or “sweetie” according to a Consumer Reports survey. One Facebook respondent doesn’t want to be called “y’all,” either. Another noted, “When I say ‘thank you,’ don’t reply ‘no problem.’” Have some class.
  4. Gabbing. One diner’s gripe: “Talking for an exorbitant amount of time about a special or their own personal drama when you just want to order.” “I’m happy to learn the person’s name and appreciate a friendly overture before he starts in on the specials,” said another, “but I don’t need a family history.”
  5. Embarrassing single diners. “Are you by yourself?” is a pretty awkward question for a diner. Nobody wants to admit, “Well yeah, nobody wants to have dinner with me,” said Szende. Hosts and hostesses should find subtler ways to pop the question.


    “Are you wating alone?” is one question that servers should definitely avoid asking. (Photo: wong yu liang/Shutterstock)

  6. Not knowing the ingredients. If you don’t know whether a dish contains gluten or any other ingredient, especially if the patron has a food allergy, servers should check with the chef instead of guessing. Facebook respondents told tales of servers who didn’t know white flour contains wheat and insisted Coke Zero is caffeine free.
  7. Upselling too aggressively. Upselling can be a great way to increase profits, but don’t overdo it. “Kids don’t necessarily want a four-course dinner,” Szende said. Customers end up feeling guilty about not ordering enough, and that’s no way to enjoy a meal.
  8. Getting too close and personal with napkins. At some restaurants, servers put napkins on customers’ laps. “They think it makes the restaurant classy,” said Szende. But customers use those napkins to clean their mouths; they don’t want a stranger’s hands on them.
  9. Carrying multiple glasses by putting your fingers inside the rims. Again, diners don’t want your germs.
  10. Taking away the breadbasket. Even though plenty of people like eating bread with their dishes, servers often take away breadbaskets before they serve food. “For me, it’s extremely annoying,” said Szende. While you might not want your customers filling up on bread and not enjoying your amazing main dish, that’s their decision, not yours.


    Servers often take away breadbaskets before they serve food, which can agitate customers. (Photo: Ekaterina Iatcenko/Shutterstock)

  11. Serving people in a group at different times. “It’s a huge mistake,” said Szende. No one wants to politely ignore the hot food in front of them while others in their group wait for their meals. Restaurants should make sure dishes don’t leave the kitchen until an entire group’s food has been cooked, and servers should help each other serve big parties.
  12. Forgetting who ordered what. This happens all the time. “Servers should learn to take orders in a systematic way,” explained Szende, and take notes about where everyone’s sitting.
  13. Asking “how is everything”? “It’s a terrible question,” said Szende. “It’s fishing for compliments.” Instead, industry experts recommend servers ask specific questions, like “has the steak been cooked to your liking?” to really make sure customers are pleased with their orders. Above all, don’t ask about the food if the diner has yet to take a bite, said Facebook respondents.
  14. Interrupting an intense conversation. Wait a few beats or come back later to ask how the food is.
  15. Allowing glasses to stay empty. Keep the water coming (but don’t refill the glass every three seconds, either). And don’t refill the wine without asking. “Don’t pour my wine, I’ll do it myself,” wrote one Facebook respondent. “It took 10 minutes to warm up and breathe in the glass, I don’t want you mixing in more cold wine from the bottle.”
  16. Clearing one diner’s plate before the others are finished. And don’t take anyone’s plate or glass until it’s clear they’re done eating or drinking.
  17. Asking “do you need change?” The answer is yes unless the customer says differently.
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