Building check averages starts with a concerted effort from a management team to emphasize their significance to servers. Managers can do this in a variety of ways, but it has to be consistent and cultural to be effective. Check-building measures that are discussed in staff meetings or are the subject of occasional contests tend to peter out. The only way to consistently maximize check averages is to talk about it consistently. Effective salesmanship has to be pervasive—it has to be talked about during an interview, consistently drilled during training and regularly rewarded. It has to be recognized as an asset by the operator, the management team, fellow servers, the kitchen and even the guests.
A maximized check average begins with suggestive selling. This means that servers specifically name menu items prior to and during the process of taking an order. Suggestive selling that works is consistent and relentless. It is the nature of guests to say “no”, and it is the nature of most servers to give up after hearing “no”. Servers who regularly hear “no” tend to stop trying to sell. This happens at restaurants everywhere, and it is understandable to some extent. But it is the responsibility of a management team working to address check averages to actively fight this tendency. You can guarantee that servers with low check averages fail to suggest specific menu items.
A good menu presentation gives a server a chance to suggest specific items. A thorough presentation only takes 1-2 minutes and must happen before taking orders. It is concise, descriptive and tempting. It should incorporate three steps: a description of why your kitchen/menu is great, of what types of entrees your kitchen specializes in, and one or two entrees that stand out. For example, a chophouse server should describe why the steaks are great (i.e. the aging process, prime cuts, etc.), what types of steaks are great (i.e. filet mignon, New York Strip) and which entrees stand out. The server must also say it with conviction to be effective.
A server must also have a few strategies. These should be like tools in a server’s toolbox, ready to use at the right time, and at the right table. One good strategy is to mention specific desserts after entrees are ordered, perhaps because of the extra time needed for preparation. Another is suggesting a good wine that pairs with specific entree a guest has ordered. Whenever two guests order the same glass of wine, the server should always suggest a bottle instead (especially in states where guests are allowed to cork and take home unfinished wine). Finally, sharable or family-sized side dishes can be a great compliment to dinner.
Rewarding a high check average can come in many forms. Weekly or monthly sales contests are always a great idea when they are consistent. Posting per-guest averages on a spreadsheet on a bulletin board in a highly visible location (with the weekly or monthly winner’s name highlighted) should be mandatory in every restaurant, just as sales volume is posted in any sales environment. Contests for specific items, such as wine sales or liquor sales contests, give every server a chance to focus on new techniques and demonstrate their effort. Just as importantly, subtle rewards can incentivize a service staff. These include premium sections, tables or shifts. When the top sellers clearly receive these benefits, the remainder of a staff will know.
It is commonplace for efforts to raise check averages to fall on deaf ears. It is a difficult topic to emphasize sales to servers, because it must be done thoroughly and consistently to be effective. The ability of servers to increase check averages in most restaurants falls along something like a bell curve. The bottom 10 per cent will never get it, while the top 10 per cent woke up this morning suggestively selling breakfast. How you corral your middle 80 per cent will determine the direction of your check averages.
Let’s face it: guests frequently tune their servers out when they are suggesting specific menu items. However, the server that does it consistently and relentlessly, with enthusiasm and expertise can overcome this tendency. Likewise, the management team and operator must consistently and relentlessly emphasize high check averages. Otherwise, their service staff is likely to tune them out.