Drop the Check, Not the Ball

By Michael Chamberlian-Torres, Owner/Chief Consultant at Hospitality by Torres

We’ve all been there before… you’re sitting in a restaurant and the vibes are great, having just enjoyed a fantastic meal, you are ready to keep things moving. But where is the server so you can ask for the check?

In today’s fast-paced world, people are becoming more accustomed to instant gratification, so anxiety and frustration can rise quickly when people feel like they have to wait. While it may seem like the simplest thing in the world to a restaurant patron, deciding when to drop the check can be a tricky subject from the perspective of servers and restaurant managers. There is a long standing belief that bringing the check too early is as good as telling the guest “please leave now,” but as a guest, feeling ignored is no way to end a meal either.

It is of such concern that many restaurants have specific, written procedures in place instructing staff about when it is appropriate to bring the check. Based on my experience this is a mistake. So what is the right answer, then? In short, the answer is “it depends.”

I say that having a standard check-dropping policy is a mistake because it makes the assumption that all guests have the same needs. Deciding when to deliver a guest’s bill is indeed an important step in the service process and should be based on several factors. Restaurant procedures and training manuals should be written in such a way that they guide severs through the thought process of evaluating these factors to determine the best course of action.

Two General Things to Consider:

Type of Restaurant- Many people hold to the old tradition that in a “fine-dining” establishment, you don’t bring the check until someone asks for it directly. On the surface it may seem like the type of restaurant should be the main factor in determining how to handle check-delivery, but in reality this is the most superficial factor. This is partly because of the rise of fusion restaurants and the new generation of foodies. How is “fine-dining” determined now days anyway? By the quality of food? By the grandeur of architecture and design? By the price? It is truly hard to say as restaurants become increasingly tailored to a specific audience. The type of restaurant should certainly be kept in mind, but is of little importance when compared to other considerations.

Meal Period-Another traditional way for looking at when to deliver the check has been the meal period. This begins to narrow things down in a better direction by looking at how meals relate to the average person’s day. A rule of thumb at many casual restaurants is to deliver the check with the food at breakfast, as you’re clearing plates at lunch, and not until after dessert has been offered at dinner. These rules all make pretty good sense when you think about why people dine-out. Most people at breakfast have other plans for the day and are eating a meal to wake-up and get some energy. At lunch, your typical diner is taking break from work, so under a time constraint but still trying to relax. At dinner, the day is done and people are likely to take a bit more time eating and conversing. Dinner is often an activity not just a meal. All in all, the meal period is of greater importance than type of restaurant because it begins to take into consideration the question of why?

What Really Matters:

Reason for Dining Out-One question that every server should get to the bottom of is “why are my guests here?” The answer to this question is the most important thing to consider in deciding how to handle the check. What’s more, it is the basis for providing great service in general. Consider this example:

We are discussing dinner service at a higher-end restaurant; without knowing anything else about the guest, the general rules above would suggest that the check should not be delivered until it has been requested, or, at the very least, not until after dessert has been offered. But then we learn that the guest is going to see the symphony that starts in less than an hour. This scenario completely changes the rules. In this case, delivering the check prior to the end of the meal, with an acknowledgment of why it is being done (i.e. “to be sure you make the symphony on time. I’d be happy to bring anything else you need.”), shows a great deal of consideration and attention to detail on the servers behalf. This small gesture can go a long way.

Who is Paying?-Who is paying the bill can greatly influence how check delivery should be dealt with. In many cases, someone at the table may want to pay the entire bill or only specific portions of the bill. In these situations, all traditional rules are broken. Let’s look at another example:

In a casual restaurant during lunch, the general rules indicate that the check should be brought when plates are cleared. But when the first guest arrives for a reservation they mention that the lunch is for a business meeting they are hosting. In this event, the server is given a golden opportunity to ask directly “how would you like to handle the check?” Asking about payment before the guests have even been seated, may seem out of order; however knowing this information ahead of time reduces the chances of an awkward situation at the end of the meal and again shows the guest that you are considering their individual needs.

Location/Events - As mentioned in an example above, events in the proximity of your restaurant will significantly impact how check delivery should be handled, either in general terms or on specific dates. Establishments located near theaters, convention centers, and sporting arenas should be on the lookout for guests attending scheduled events. Additionally, those located near or in major transit centers should also be cognizant of time sensitivity.

Be Prepared-Printing the check and delivery the check are two very different things. If leaving the check before being asked just doesn’t feel right, there is still a very simple way to show guests that you value and appreciate their time. Keep an updated copy of the bill ready to go and with you each time you approach the table, so that when it is requested you can deliver it immediately. Anticipating needs is what true service is really all about.

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