Turn Your Servers Into Salespeople

If your restaurant is mid- to upscale and incorporates a menu, bar and wine list sprinkled with high-dollar items, chances are you need a staff who can merchandise them to your guests. There are many great bottles of wine and cuts of beef that sell themselves, and a colorful menu description will surely make an impact on your order sheets. However, no aspect of your restaurant can overhaul check averages like a dynamic, sales-driven service staff. Servers who come to work ready to sell are the puzzle piece that compliments the diverse and flavorful selections on your menu and wine list. It is therefore essential that an operator knows how to put together a service staff that is equipped to sell his product.

Some operators are fortunate enough to walk into a service staff that knows how to sell. In some cases, the expensive items on a wine list and menu are incentive enough for servers to commit themselves to learning how to sell. As an example, the restaurant I worked for in one of my first server jobs offered an $80 appetizer, and you can bet I learned how to sell it. However, most service staffs are formed as a product of a store culture that encourages sales, an effective incentive program and a hiring manager who can identify sellers. First, a few notes on each.

A culture of sales starts with a few leaders on the floor who buy into your menu, bar and wine list. These are people who have a passion for food and wine, and have a genuine interest in what your restaurant offers. This may be why Italian-American servers do well in Italian restaurants. Leaders on a dining room floor encourage other servers to excel at sales though their high check averages and big tables. The mere presence of a bottle of Opus One on the table of the server in the neighboring section encourages a server to want to learn how to sell big bottles of wine.

Conversely, a culture of disinterest in sales can undermine an operatorís extensive work to put together an attractive menu and wine list. A service staff that takes orders, rather than selling the menu, is quickly apparent and is always the fault of the operator and/or management team. There are too many answers to turn around a service staff that doesnít sell, including wine tastings, menu tastings, re-training and new hiring. Effective incentive programs can come in a variety of forms. They can be overt tools, such as contests and rewards. They can be implicit, such as doling out prime sections, tables or schedules to the servers who have the highest check average. Generally speaking, every mid- to upscale restaurant should post per-guest-average sheets that highlight the servers leading the way. Contests that offer rewards to servers who sell whatever it is that you want them to sell benefit everyone. They cultivate competition, reflect which servers are working to improve, and move product off the shelves.

Finally, a hiring manager must be able to recognize good sellers when they walk in for an interview. Good sellers are enthusiastic by nature. They are friendly and establish rapport quickly. They also have the capacity to become experts, or already demonstrate expertise in food, wine and liquor. Good sellers typically are experienced servers and can step into and process a new environment quickly. Therefore, the challenges are about mastering the menu and wine list as much as they are about providing good service.

Ultimately, a restaurantís service is a reflection of the operatorís vision. An operator who cares enough to offer quality menu items and a diverse wine list must have the drive to put together the right staff to merchandise it.