5 Tips from Your Server: How to Get the Most Out of Eating Out

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They pour your coffee, serve your burgers, and laugh at your jokes. Servers at corporate restaurants – like Chili’s, Applebee’s, or The Cheesecake Factory – are your connection to the food you want and, sometimes, its quality and price. I know because I’ve been one of those servers for the past five years, and I’ve worked in restaurants for the past 10.

So when I go out to eat myself, I know how to make nice with my server – and save time and money while I’m at it…

1. Water is good.

Where I work, buying bottled water is a waste of money. The restaurant is required to filter its tap water. While a server might lie to you about the origin of the tap water, a manager won’t risk it. Ask about it next time you’re out, and you might learn something new and save a few bucks.

2. Only a fool laughs at the tip.

Servers make the bulk of their income in tips, since restaurants are allowed to pay them a “special” minimum wage – anywhere from a measly $2 to $4 an hour. Joking about their income by saying something like, “Well, I guess that comes out of your tip” when the mashed potatoes are cold isn’t funny to servers. Usually, servers stop working hard for guests who make these type of jokes – because they don’t expect the guest to tip them much after such a remark.

3. Get free coffee – or get “decaffed.”

If you want caffeine in your coffee, be nice.

Most corporate restaurants run their kitchens with computers. When a server sends an order through a computer, it shows up on a screen that faces the cooks. Only then does the dish start cooking. This is partly to keep servers from giving things out for free.

But the kitchen can’t handle everything – like pouring coffee and sodas, which are left to the server. If a server likes you, your coffee or soda doesn’t have to be rung up and therefore might not appear on the check.

On the other hand, since no one watches over coffee, you never really know if you’re getting caffeinated or decaf coffee. A server will most likely never give you caffeinated coffee when you ask for decaf since that could make you sick and cause big trouble.

But it’s really easy to give you decaf when you ask for regular – and it’s easy revenge for guests who give a server attitude. Some servers call it “getting decaffed.” So making nice with your server raises the chances of actually getting that post-meal boost you need for the rest of the day.

4. Cut down on the half-and-half.

No, this is not about cream. This is about splitting checks.

If you don’t want to wait long to get your check, let the server know who’s paying for what, and sooner than later. If you tell your server too late, he/she might have to prioritize incoming guests or other business before getting to the task of splitting your check, which could cost you about 10 minutes. Tell the server early, and your bill is printed with a click of a button.

5. Full disclosure.

Most corporate restaurants hire companies that send “shoppers” (also known as “secret shoppers”) to keep an eye on their servers. The shopper dines anonymously, grades the server, and sends the results to the restaurant the next day – which can mean a good word from the boss in the best case and termination in the worst.

This is why you get those long introductions from servers when they first walk up to the table. They are required to hit all sorts of points, anything from two examples of possible appetizers to the drink specials. Servers tend to give shoppers by-the-book service, which is surprisingly slow.

So if you’re in a hurry, tell your server that you’re “not a secret shopper.” This is the one thing that secret shoppers aren’t allowed to do. Now the server is at ease and thinks you’re either in the business or know someone who is. Most servers are likely to speed up your meal, guarantee your food is prioritized by the cooks, and otherwise give you better and friendlier service – not to mention caffeinated coffee and honest tips about the food.

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