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This Is What Your Waiter First Notices About You

Just as you make observations about a restaurant when you walk in the door, waiters observe you when you sit down at your table.

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The restaurant industry has changed

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way we live in every area of our lives, and going out to eat is no exception. Before, we had no problem squeezing past crowded tables or selecting from the salad bar; now, we wear masks to protect ourselves and others and sit at widely-spaced tables. Some of the biggest changes, however, have occurred within the role of your restaurant server.  They’re most likely serving fewer people, as many restaurants are only open at reduced capacity; they spend their entire shift in a mask, and social distancing guidelines mean less interaction with customers. That said, there are still several things about you that your restaurant server takes note of before you’ve even ordered. Maybe your go-to entrée is one of the 10 most popular restaurant dishes in the United States.

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How you’re wearing your mask

By now, we all know that wearing a mask is the number one thing we can do to protect ourselves and others, but some people are still reluctant to do it properly—or at all. “When you’re in the service industry you’re always going to have to sway with people’s moods and personalities, but this is amplified when a situation like COVID presents itself,” says Jamie Hickey, an SCA-certified barista at a steakhouse in Philadelphia. “The people that refuse to wear a mask, or put it halfway on just to be allowed in the restaurant are the most difficult to deal with. They always get an attitude with us if we ask them to put it on or to adjust it.” It’s important that your mask covers both your nose and mouth. Wearing it improperly gives a bad impression to your servers, many of whom are struggling financially due to reduced hours and tips, and some customers are adding to the problem. “I hate to say it, but the people that feel like they shouldn’t wear a mask definitely don’t tip as well as the people who have no problem wearing one,” Hickey says. “But a lot of people are understanding and actually give larger tips, which is greatly appreciated.” These are tough times for everyone, and if you’re able to support your local businesses you definitely should. Just remember to wear your mask, and to tip your servers appropriately. As a rule of thumb, this is how much you should tip in every situation.

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If you’re following social distancing guidelines

It’s important to socially distance as much as possible—during the pandemic, it’s a sign of respect, like wearing your mask. Many restaurants have tables spaced out to six feet apart in accordance with CDC guidelines. To reduce contact, some restaurants have also switched from in-person to online ordering, where you scan a QR code with your phone and select and pay from a digital menu. Your waiter still wants to make you feel comfortable, though, and of course, they’ll still serve your drinks and meals. “The QR codes do make things move along faster, but it takes away the human side of it which has its pros and cons. They do make the process more streamlined, and we are a little safer with the social distancing aspect,” says Hickey. But there are times when you need to talk to your waiter, whether to discuss an allergy or ask for a substitution, and your waiter may be missing that interaction as well. “The cons are you can’t be personable, which is a shame because I like to talk to different people and hear about their lives,” Hickey adds. You can talk to your waiter through your mask, but here are the things you shouldn’t do at re-opened restaurants.

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Are you on your phone, or will you actually talk to us?

Of course, we’re all talking to strangers less during the pandemic, or at least we’re more muffled through our masks! But it turns out, your waiter notices whether you’re on your phone or actually paying attention. “When you first approach a table, you notice hands in phone…unless they’re not! That’s when you get excited—real people with a real, intimate connection, whether they are friends or romantic,” Morgan Taylor, past waiter and CMO for LetMeBank, tells Reader’s Digest. “These people are the kind you can actually connect with! Whether that results in a big tip or not, it’s certainly going to be a more interesting table than when 100 percent are plugged into their social media feed.” These are the 10 table etiquette mistakes you really need to stop making.

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How you interact with each other

Waiters pick up on how parents treat their children and, from that, how to act around those children. “Throughout the years, I have encountered many different types of people and my favorite has always been families with kids. Being a kid at heart, I love to play games and interact with the kid while taking care of the family,” says Jacob Cohen, a waiter with almost a decade of experience who works at a restaurant in a northern suburb of Chicago. “More often than not, the kids get ignored…but when I take care of my customers, I don’t ignore them and in return, I get a nice tip out of it for listening to the child.” These are the 13 things polite people don’t do in restaurants.

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How they can relate to you

It’s one thing when you’re out with a group of friends and have a ton to talk about. It’s another matter when you’re a waiter approaching a table full of strangers and trying to find common ground. “When walking up to a table, I always see if a kid is there but I also scope out who it is and what kind of conversation I need to be thinking about when conversing with them,” says Cohen. “The conversation is key in this industry. If you can’t relate with your customer on something, whether it’s current events, a recent show, a sports team, the restaurant industry isn’t for you. If you can’t sell yourself, how can you sell the restaurant?” Here are 11 small talk tips that will make you less awkward.

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Certain types of people tend to go out on certain holidays

There are times you want to go out and celebrate in a restaurant, and times when you should maybe reconsider. Kristen McLeod, a veteran service industry representative who worked in coffee shops and one of Canada’s most popular restaurant chains, recommends avoiding certain holidays, like New Year’s and Valentine’s Day, at all costs. “These holidays were populated by the people who only went out on special occasions and would sit for hours (instead of allowing me to ‘flip’ the table and earn more income),” she says, “were terrible tippers (unable to process the idea that it was fair to expect them to tip on top of paying an outrageous amount for food they could’ve easily cooked at home), and if they got drunk enough, fight.” Maybe modern dining reflects a past history. This is the surprisingly dark history of Valentine’s Day you never knew.

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What kind of waiter you want

“If it is a loud group of informally dressed people for a dinner service, I am more likely to take an informal attitude with them and be a bit more playful. When I was looking at a table, I think it was important to try and assess why they were there and guess what kind of waiter they wanted,” says Ben Myhre, author of the Ramshackle Pantry blog with a decade of experience as a waiter and bartender. “This involved looking at who the people were as a group, how they were dressed, and knowing the situation you are in.” Do you know these polite habits restaurant servers secretly dislike?

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Whether or not you notice your server

While waiters pick up on what’s happening at their tables, tables can also pick up on their waiter. McLeod remembers a specific experience she had. “As I approached that table the folks sitting there were also assessing me—deciding if I was a dud or one of the good ones,” says McLeod. “I developed a chameleon-like ability to perform what I figured they wanted—instantly—meaning I was lightning flash fast at figuring them out.” Here are 12 ways you’re giving off a bad vibe without even knowing it.

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Your body language

As well as taking note of clothing, Taylor adds that body language is huge. “Instead of clothes, go by body language,” says Taylor. “It’s the old ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover.’ Someone’s personality is a far greater indicator of how they treat others, even strangers only serving them for 45 minutes during a one-off meal.” These are the 57 secrets your restaurant server isn’t telling you.

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We can tell if you’re going to try something inappropriate

Waiters can tell whether a guest is going to hit on them from a long way away. “Are you going to try to pick me up later? In front of your partner when she goes to the bathroom?” McLeod asks. “I developed a serious radar for looking and looking, and learned to deflect early while still allowing for possibly. I mean, I needed the tips!” Don’t hit on your waiter. Do follow these dining etiquette tips.

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We notice your clothes, but try not to make judgments

It’s important to not make first impressions of patrons sitting at tables. “Trying to judge who will tip or not based on their clothes is wildly unpredictable,” says Taylor. “I have had the shabbiest-dressed characters leave $100 bills, and the best-dressed completely stiff me.” Wondering what to wear on your next outing? Here are 15 simple fashion upgrades that make you look expensive. But it’s still good to notice what your guests are wearing before approaching the table. “Being able to correctly assess your guests before you even start talking to them gives you an advantage before you even start talking to them, which at the end of the day can help your tip jar,” says Myhre. “Can you look at a table and know whether they are going to be good tippers before you interact with them? Not really. Generous people come from all walks of life.”

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Restaurants in a post-COVID world

Your waiter always notices and adapts to your behavior, and the choices we make now are more important than ever to keep each other safe. Some of these changes might even stick around for good. From building outdoor dining “streeteries” to bulk-ordering disinfectant, restaurants and servers, as well as customers, have made many adaptations to work around the pandemic as much as possible. “I know the steakhouse I barista at will be keeping QR codes in place for the foreseeable future,” says Hickey. Brittany Arndt, lead server at The Blind Horse Restaurant & Winery in Kohler, Wisconsin, agrees. “In the future, I think there will be people that will still wear masks, and taking what we have learned from this I know we won’t go completely back to how things used to be conducted. We shouldn’t. Maybe we’ll put salt and pepper shakers on the tables and candles…maybe not!” Many restaurants are ramping up their standards of cleanliness in order to make both customers and servers safer. The Blind Horse has taken the step of installing ceiling-mounted UV lights (proven to kill the novel coronavirus) throughout the restaurant and pumping nightly ozone treatments through the space in order to clean the air. Whether we return to normal, or adapt to a new normal, a few things remain clear: treating your waiter with respect and following the restaurant’s rules remains the best way to ensure a pleasant dining experience. After all, you don’t want to cook every night! For more, check out these photos of the new normal at restaurants.

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Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com