Dishin' That: Restaurants go south when management goes micro

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Once deemed professionally competent, no server likes to be micromanaged. Positive reinforcement and well-orchestrated teamwork is appreciated, but in-your-face, tripping over your shoelaces “help” certainly is not. Aside from enforcing practical rules, micromanagement, no matter how unintentional, leads to chaos, embarrassment and animosity.

In a restaurant front-of-the-house, how things are handled, both routine and out-of-the-norm, can best be compared to driving a car. A new server in training is like a driver’s ed student, with the instructor stomping on the second brake every two minutes. As that server gains more experience and hits a few potholes, he or she learns how to navigate the roads. The fender-bender accidents stop and the day-to-day travel becomes easier.

After a while, that same server becomes a seasoned driver who, with the exception of rare and dangerous weather conditions, can navigate almost any situation without over-assistance.

For example, when greeting a new table, an experienced server may add a personalized touch to the house spiel. She may not highly recommend an evening special, opting to suggest an old favorite instead. That same server may buck the system by giving a large table a bit more time to peruse the menu, which typically annoys the kitchen, as well as the host, who may be hoping to turn the table within 1 1/2 hours. Granted, there’s a fine line between being renegade (to the detriment of the whole operation), and using judgment in the name of good service.

Assuming everything is running smoothly, here are a few common micromanaged situations:

1 — The manager insists on running a server’s food, even though that server is available to do so. This takes away a great opportunity to follow through and say things like, “You requested extra Bearnaise sauce on the side of this rare steak, so let me know if that’s enough.”

2 — You’ve taken a drink order, but the manager didn’t see you do it, so he approaches the table himself, or sends another server over. We’ve all been in that awkward situation.

3 — Similar to No. 1, the manager approaches the table more than once to ask if everything is alright. Managers can fawn all they want after the check is served and with a little luck, the guests will compliment the service.

4 — A server has gone to great lengths to set a table for a large party, keeping guest convenience and ease of plate service and clearing flow in mind. Then, the manager comes over and needlessly shifts things around.

5 — When entering a complicated or large food and beverage order in the computer, the manager comes over and starts asking questions about what they ordered.

Most micromanagers hover because they’re Type A’s forced to be primarily hands-off. That, or their own “driver’s education” course taught them a different way to serve.

That said, in every restaurant there are those dreaded moments when things don’t go smoothly, and what was previously perceived a butting-in becomes welcomed intervention. So, for the record, and oft times the win, the majority of micromanagers are well-intended professionals.

The very best of them know when to kick into gear, and when to idle.

Peas & Q’s

Q — You seem to have all the answers about how waitresses should do things and how restaurants should be run. You are really a great server and waited on us at Casa Novello back when it was very busy. But you can’t be perfect, so what should you do differently? — Richie M., Turner.

A — Much to my own dismay, I find myself saying “You guys” to my customers. No matter how casual a setting, or how good the rapport, it’s a phrase I hate hearing from other servers. I’m working on eliminating it from my vernacular.

Also, thanks for the backhanded compliment. The truth is, I don’t have all the answers for how restaurants should be run. However, I know a whole bunch about how they shouldn’t.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.