Waiter, Waiter, I’ve Displaced my Fork: Analyzing Common Dining Behaviors

There is a legend among psychologists that describes a large group of professors who dined out at a restaurant for lunch. The waiter took all of their orders without writing anything down, and then served all the dishes correctly. The group marveled at his memory. Later in the day when one of the professors returned to retrieve a missing scarf, the waiter had no recollection of having served him. The waiter explained, apologetically, that he remembers each person and their order only until the meal is served, at which point he forgets both. 

This story is meant to reflect how memory works, but it also highlights how economy of thought and energy can help a frontline worker quickly meet the many different needs of customers in the moment of service without dropping the ball.

The Wall Street Journal last week featured an article describing how good waiters “read a table” and how not-so-great waiters can adopt tools to help them engage and serve different customer types more efficiently. Psychological shortcuts help wait staff anticipate the right level of service customers desire. 

The cues are easy enough: someone who grabs the wine list first probably wants to hear about wine, the person who asks about a dish may be open to a recommendation, a couple dining early and dressed up is probably on their way to an event and may require faster service, someone who is acting moody requires more attention, etc.

Since these are fairly straightforward examples, it seems like even the most scatterbrained waiter could improve by adopting these rules of thumb. Indeed, even at mid-tier restaurants, the general level of enablement is higher post-recession. What remains to be seen, however, is if this art can truly be made a science since human interactions are inherently colored by many more factors and even the most service-oriented organizations can get in the way of a great customer experience.