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Service 101: Meet customers’ expectations for timing
August 15, 2013 - Anita Hanaburgh
By ANITA HANABURGH
When asked about timing, most customers think about time they spend waiting, but timing refers to all the time the customer spends at the whole experience.
It refers to the gaps between the services of each course. It includes the time it takes to serve each course. It includes wait time, order time, eating time, clearing time and the rest of the time in between. Timing is an important aspect of restaurant service.
Let’s think about some of the trials of restaurant timing. You wait 15 minutes in line at McDonald’s. You are at the end of the wedding buffet line that curls around the hall and all the way to the restroom. Your table has empty glasses and the waiter never returns to get your drink order. You have finished your coffee, you need to leave, the waitress doesn’t bring the check. You are at a big table with friends, and everyone is served, their food is getting cold and you haven’t been served yet. You are at a banquet, and after you eat you go to the restroom and realize that the back of the room hasn’t received their entree yet. You are served your entree while you are still eating your salad.
The timing in a restaurant may be dictated by policy. For reservations, at the Coach House in Saratoga, we would schedule 90 minutes for parties of two to four people. We scheduled an hour and 15 minutes for a party of six and two hours for a party of eight. We scheduled two hours and 15 minutes for party of 10 or more people. We would not put the order into the kitchen until after the salads were served, unless it was the baked pork chops.
The timing is always dependent on the capacity of the kitchen. If everyone orders steak and the grill is in use, then some later orders will have to wait.
The timing is always dependent on the number of customers in the dining room. It is dependent on the reservations for that meal. It is dependent on the number of servers hired that night and the number of tables each one is serving.
The timing is dependent on the skill of the wait staff.
In fine-dining restaurants, getting the timing right is by far the most difficult aspect of service for the server. It is difficult because timing has an element of arbitrariness — timing is largely dependent upon the expectations of the customers and how those expectations coincide with the activities of the server. If the customer expects a calm and leisurely meal and the restaurant delivers a calm and leisurely meal, everyone is happy. If the customer expects a fast, efficient meal and the restaurant delivers a fast, efficient meal, everyone is happy.
The disappointment occurs when the customer expects a fast and efficient meal and the restaurant delivers a calm and leisurely meal or the customer expects a calm and leisurely meal and the restaurant delivers a fast and efficient meal. Good timing requires skill and a bit of mind reading.
So how does one learn to execute the correct timing? It helps if the customer has something to do at all times. When there is a long wait between activities, the customer gets anxious. If there is no wait between activities or they happened simultaneously, the customer feels rushed.
The order of service naturally gives the customer these activities as follows: sit and talk, order drinks, read the menu, wait for drink, order meal, drink the drink, wait for the appetizer, eat the appetizer, remove appetizer, receive salad, eat salad, remove salad, receive entree, eat entree, remove entree, clean table order, order coffee, dessert, serve coffee, dessert, relax, ask for the check. Oh, busboy, you get the idea.
Sometimes the server must “rush” the timing to accommodate incoming reservations. Sometimes service is slow because the dining room is packed and the kitchen is swamped. Most of the time, the timing is in the hands of the server and he or she must guess the customers’ expectations.
Here are some clues to help the servers:?
The service might be too slow if the customer is looking around and shifting in the chair, if the customer is roaming around and talking to other guests, outside on her cell phone, or playing with the food.
The service might be too fast if the customer hasn’t finished his or her salad and you put the entree down next to it., or if the customers gasp, “Oh, already!”?Or if they tell you they are not in a hurry. If four people are served four courses in 45 minutes, you’re rushing. Poor tips are a good clue, after the fact, that the service was too slow or too fast.
Restaurant Watch: Pay attention to your timing expectations in your favorite restaurant.
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