Establishing a Steps-of-Service Program

The reasons to establish a steps-of-service program are almost too many to count. They outline exactly what servers should do at every table. They vastly decrease the risk of errors. They’re an ideal training tool, and really, they’re as essential as an employee handbook for spelling out the goals of the front-of-the-house.

Yet somehow, thousands of restaurants do not have a steps-of-service program in place. A strong steps-of-service spells out each step for a server to take at the table during a dining experience. They provide the sort of structure and certainty that is inherently absent from most of the restaurant business, including the process of hiring new servers. So why wouldn’t every restaurant have one?

Any restaurant that doesn’t specifically spell out what servers should be doing at tables is playing with fire. The most likely reasons are that management:

• Is focused on the kitchen
• Puts too much trust in employees
• Is just plain lazy
• Believes casual diners don’t care about service

The fact is that every restaurant – whether formal or casual – should provide servers with a detailed list of steps that covers every facet of their table interaction with guests. In a business that swims amid a constant organized chaos, this is a critical step for improving the consistency of the guest experience.

Be Specific

The steps-of-service document is much like the employee handbook should be – very specific and very clear. For these reasons, it is usually long. It should be at least a few pages and cover every step from a table greet to dropping the check and thanking the guest.

The steps should be numbered sequentially and thorough, so that things like removing empty salad plates and replacing flatware are spelled out clearly. No stone should be left unturned.

Break it Down by Course

It should read like an outline, so that each course remains distinct from the others. The appetizer course should be followed by the soup, salad, entrée and dessert courses, with contingencies explained in unusual cases (e.g. if one guest is having salad for dinner).

Each course should have many steps, but they should be similar and thus easier to remember. In a fine-dining environment, plates of the previous course should be removed (likely from the right), the table should be crumbed, and flatware replaced, prior to serving the subsequent course. However, the consistency of the steps is no excuse for skipping over one of them.

Casual Versus Fine Dining

By nature, the casual environment is going to have fewer steps. But this should not provide an excuse for skipping them. The evidence of skipped steps (or a restaurant that has no steps-of-service program) is obvious and it’s everywhere. It comes in the form of dirty plates on tables, dissatisfied guests walking out the door, and low sales in the back office.

There are a few decisions to make when outlining a steps-of-service program that follow the business model. One is whether servers will fire tickets to the kitchen (telling them when to plate up a meal) or time out courses themselves. Another is whether the pace of a meal should be fast or slow. These will usually follow whether the restaurant is casual or formal.

Another decision is whether to outline a different steps-of-service for lunch and dinner, or to let servers modify it themselves based on the time of day. In either case, it’s always helpful to err on the side of clarity and be specific.

Test Your Servers Routinely

Testing servers reminds them that management takes the guest experience seriously and that servers are critical to good guest experiences. Tests should always be given after training a new hire, but before they’re allowed to work the floor on their own. Servers should be required to write out the steps-of-service from memory.

Occasional retraining is also a helpful tool to get servers focused and remind them that management takes their skill level seriously. In the end, this concept is all about limiting the unknown, which can overwhelm a disorganized operation.