Glass for iced tea? Or: How to serve large groups.
If you want your establishment to host large tour groups you need to ensure that you’re actually equipped to deal with the numbers. After an appalling experience this week at a restaurant in the so-called gastronomic capital of South Africa, I’ve compiled this handy guide for restaurants wanting to open their doors to groups of foreign visitors.
It’s more than food and space
Space for long tables and a chef who knows how to create many meals that taste as good as if they had been individually prepared, is only the start. Your team needs to be efficient and organised. You need to invest in proper training. Your lovely location and the chef’s efforts are not enough to satisfy a large group.
Taking the order
If you’ve sold a set menu to a tour operator and there are two options for the main course, here’s a novel idea: tell the tour guide and/or operator in advance what those options are. This way, the guests will have been told in advance and will have already decided what they want by the time your waitress needs to know. Explaining ‘bobotie’ to 30 foreigners who don’t speak the same language as the waitress doesn’t have to take 30 minutes of her time – the guide can do that for you, in the bus, in advance.
Guests are always thirsty. The sooner you serve them a drink, the faster they feel pampered and the sooner you can sell them a refill. If you don’t want to sell them a second round then by all means make the process of taking drinks orders as slow and painful as possible. Otherwise, here’s a thought: ask the guide to help you take the order!
Bonus tip: If you decide to set a table for the guide as far away as possible from the guests you are not likely to get much help from that guide. Seating the guide with or close to the guests is quite useful for translating and general assistance. Why not give the guide the option?
“Glass for iced tea?”
This is the most important advice for restaurants who want large groups, so pay attention. I was taught this trick many years ago when I waited on tables and it’s astonishingly simple, yet under-used. Let’s say we have 16 people at this table. Draw a rough sketch of the of the seating and just scribble in the order, as below.
Tell your waitress to keep it with her at all times. It’s not rocket science but it allows the waiter to simply place the item in front of the guest instead of shouting out like a banshee at a greasy burger joint. To reinforce this idea point out to staff that diners like to chat and might not enjoy being constantly interrupted by a waitress who doesn’t know (and can’t see!!) who should get a glass for iced tea (this did happen, I swear it). Many of the guests don’t even understand the waitress! We did mention they are foreign tourists, no?
This system also helps in the preparation of separate bills. Yes, we know, you hate separate bills but, guess what? With large groups, you might have no choice.
Bonus tip: Use it for food as well as drinks, and if there are only 2 main course options simply ask your guests to raise their hands for option 1 and then for option 2. Add your numbers and make sure the total matches the number of guests.
Why not take into account the different cultures of your customers? For example: are you hosting French people? They like bread with their food, lots of it, so make sure you have enough. Running out of bread after half a slice per person is not good enough. What else? Oh yes, tell your staff that French people place their cutlery the ‘wrong’ way around to indicate they have finished. Coffee? What you call an espresso is what French people call post-meal coffee. Other foreigners have other habits and preferences that differ from ours so you’d be well advised to learn what they are.
Before we leave you to retrain your staff, here are a few more points:
Coffee – many people want coffee after a meal and it’s listed on your menu so it’s a good idea to invest in a decent quantity of coffee and espresso cups. Especially if you’ve pitched your establishment as ‘group friendly’. 12 cups for a group of 35 is not good enough. Oh and the coffee goes inside the cup, not all over the outside.
Hurry up already! There’s no need to rush but groups are always on a tight schedule so don’t waste time. Warn the guide if there’s an unexpected delay. Basically, you need to train your staff to know the difference between small tables and groups, and how to serve them all equally well taking those differences into account.
Plan and check your tables before the guests arrive. Cutlery all there? Salt and pepper? Enough glasses?
Many guides tell tourists that South African tap water is perfectly good enough to drink so they’re going to ask for it. You’re not going to make a fortune selling horrible bottled water and you’re going to have to invest in jugs. Get used to it; it’s the right thing to do.
I don’t know if any of this will change the service at the restaurant where all of the above, and more, was encountered, but I feel a whole lot better for this sarcastic but valid rant. The staff are not as much to blame as the manager and owners who clearly haven’t a clue. I should be charging them a consultancy fee for this guide.
Use it, lose it, but if things don’t change, don’t be surprised at poor turnover – there are a whole lot of other options out there.