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Why Can't Servers and Management Set Tables Properly?

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The situation is desperate. Servers as well as their supervisors and owners can't even set a simple table setting properly once they're asked to set more than just a knife and fork—and even basic knife-and-fork settings are not standardized. I travel this country and others training servers in the ''Service Arts,'' and I've become extremely disappointed with the basic table-service knowledge of my students. I test them in ''setting the table'' immediately after their entrance-exam, a tray-carrying test used as their admission to my seminar. Both of these initial tests are used to judge an attendee's level of training.

I thought I’d be teaching the Service Arts somewhere between the high-school and college level and never thought I’d have to start at the kindergarten level. It seems to be Grandma’s and/or Mom’s fault for not teaching their offspring the basics of table manners, which should include the proper identification and use of flatware. Owners, management, and servers alike don’t seem to know a dessert spoon from a teaspoon or a salad knife from a B&B spreader. When I’ve asked for a “B&B,” I’ve been offered Benedictine and brandy instead of a bread and butter plate!

Many do not know in which direction the sharp edge of a knife goes or on which side of the couvert (place setting) to place the various pieces of flatware or china. I thought that just about everyone saw the scene in the movie Pretty Woman in which the hotel manager instructs our lady of the streets on the use of the common pieces of flatware and how to eat (from the outside in), but I guess not!

My attendees’ admission to the seminar room (even if they’re an owner of a hospitality facility or the director of tourism for the country in which I’m presenting) is usually just “Tray Lifting 101.” I ask them to lift a tray of ten covers and rate them on their lifting style which ranges from “2HF” and “1HF” to “FC” or “DC” (two hands forward, one hand forward, feminine carry, or dead center). The style of tray lifting is the first impression a guest has of a server’s professionalism. I’ve found few who really know how to lift. When owners and chefs refuse to lift, I tell them that if they don’t make the attempt, I won’t admit them. That usually embarrasses them into making the attempt-in front of their own associates-especially since my microphone is on, and the other attendees are privy to their responses.

After introductions, explanations of the various lifting styles, and instruction in tray lifting, I proceed with two contests. In the first contest, I flash a typical holiday prix fixe menu on the screen. The menu is apropos to both banquet and a la carte personnel. Each table of five to seven students has enough tabletop equipment to set just two exact settings based on the flashed menu. They’re given five minutes, working as a team, to view the menu and set their two settings. In the last twenty plus seminars this year, including those performed in nine Caribbean countries, not one single team has been able to set two exact settings according to the posted menu.

As the acid test, and in order to make this learning experience interesting and amusing, I go to each table in the room and have the students at that table eat the menu from the outside in using the flatware as they’ve erroneously place it. They wind up having to eat the fruit cup with a knife, the salad with a spoon, and stirring the coffee with their fingers. The results are both funny and very sad. Not only is the flatware improperly set, but both settings are never exactly the same (duplicated to a fraction of an inch), the way a setting should be set. I challenge our readers to take a ruler into their dining rooms and see if their table settings, even at a deuce, are exactly the same. I bet not. I’ll bet that salt and pepper shakers are not in an exact position on each table. I’ll bet that even “roll-ups” are not positioned in exactly the same position at each setting and that no two tables in the dining room are set exactly the same. Shame on you!

I call this SOP for “standardization, organization, and professionalism.” SOP lends an immediate feeling of calm and comfort to the entering guest. Again, like tray carrying, it’s all about first impressions. If I enter a dining establishment and notice settings haphazardly set with either salt or pepper missing, dirty and/or un-capped ketchup and mustard bottles, or just one knife set with the sharp side out towards the right, I turn to my wife and say, “Let’s get out of here,” for I’ve immediately lost respect for the establishment. Every time the tables are not set in a standardized fashion, I’ve found that the restrooms are dirty and service will probably “stink,” for no one has been properly trained.

But let’s get back to my second test. I ask for two volunteers to race to re-set a four-seater using a simple seating, as commonly used in a neighborhood Italian restaurant. I have previously set a mock server’s station with: eight pre-folded linen napkins, eight water goblets, eight B&Bs, eight dinner forks, eight salad forks, eight pasta spoons (entremets spoons or oval tablespoons), and two large dinner plates lined with white napkins pre-folded into large envelopes. Whoever finishes first with four exact and correctly set place settings is the winner.

“On your mark...Get set... Go!”, I yell before I blow my whistle! I give the two contestants a head start of about 30 seconds, and then I lift a pre-set STP (service transport plate) topped with four napkins and four B&Bs. I hold four water goblets between my fingers under the STP. I approach a third four-seater and set it in less than two minutes with four settings that are exactly the same to a fraction of an inch.

By this time the contestants are usually making their third trip to their tables, failing to properly use the STPs that have been provided. Finally, somewhere between five and ten minutes later, one of the contestants will indicate that they’ve finished, and we end the contest.

We gather the attendees around the contestants’ tables, pointing out that no two settings are exactly the same and that they are usually set improperly with some and/or all of the flatware and glassware in the wrong positions.

After pointing out the errors without embarrassing the contestants, I ask my students to assemble around the table that I had set in two minutes because I was prepped. I ask them all to raise their hands and extend their fingers, and I then ask the question, “Can you guarantee that you have equal space between your fingers?” The reply in unison is no. I then request that they all make a fist and repeat the question. The answer then must be yes because there isn’t any space between the fingers. I explain that if one’s fingers represent flatware, then the secret of instantly standardizing a table setting is “touch, touch, touch,” for it eliminates any need to measure, especially if the napkin is placed first as a template between the forks touching the left side of the napkin and the knives and spoons touching the right side of the napkin. An upside-down plate may also be used as the template in lieu of the napkin. During the re-set or a pre-set, the water goblet is placed in touching the tip of the dinner knife as the guide glass. A B&B may be placed into any of three positions depending on space. It either touches the left edge of the outside fork or touches the tip of the dinner fork, and may also be placed directly above and center of the entire cover.

After explaining the “touch, touch, touch” system of standardization, we demonstrate how to prepare an STP for a typical a la carte table of four with the flatware enclosed in a sanitary envelope-folded napkin atop a large dinner plate with four pre-folded napkins and four B&Bs set in over the encased flatware. As we consult with restaurants nationwide and train their staffs, we find that setting up the STPs winds up being a daily side-job of either the busser or server.

I suggest that management of all food facilities test their staff at least four times a year by holding contests in setting tables from various posted menus, and hold re-set contests as a learning experience in order to fine-tune the change-over with speed and precision.

But in order to approach this challenge for the long run, we need to train our children in the basics of table manners to include setting the table and the proper use of flatware. If we eliminate the family dining together, we’ll wind up with adults who have never learned to use a knife and fork because they’ve only learned to eat burgers, fries, chicken, and pizza with their hands.

The acid test in human resources today is to take job candidates out to lunch and dinner and closely observe their table manners and see how that affects attitude and self-respect. Recently, I trained 75 hotel sales managers in a course entitled “Manners for Management” because their hotel chain was losing conventions and conferences at the dinner table because their sales personnel were eating like animals and lacked basic skills in courtesy and etiquette.

It’s hard to believe how unsophisticated our server applicants have become in the basics of table etiquette. My Mom had me setting tables like an expert at seven years old and her Mom, my Grandma, started teaching her at age four. Table setting is becoming a lost art, and its getting worse, not better, as more and more of our family members are being forced to work, and we’re dining together less and less. Grandma’s and Mom’s job may have to be replaced by management if we want our associates to become as knowledgeable with our tabletop equipment as they should be with the menus they have to sell and serve.

As a restaurateur and caterer, I used to run weekly lessons and contests in tabletop nomenclature. We started the program by touring the kitchen and storerooms and just pointing and naming. Then my service staff were required to identify the tabletop equipment by placing name tags in various glasses or atop pieces of flatware, china, and hollowware that were set out specifically for identification by testing. We rewarded those with the best scores.

Only through training can we advance our servers’ dining sophistication. Maybe someday America’s servers will be able to set tables quickly and efficiently in precise accordance to any menu with which they are presented.
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Popular tags:

 fruits  seminars  banquets  presentations  menus  servers  dinners  dining room  comfort  management

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