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A Great Coach isn't Always the Best Player: Creating an Effective Server 
Training Program in your Startup Restaurant

A Great Coach isn't Always the Best Player: Creating an Effective Server Training Program in your Startup Restaurant

by Susan Dickson

Duke University's Mike Krzyzewski is one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. In fact, his mentoring and leadership skills have earned him a place as a faculty member at Duke's prestigious Fuqua School of Business.

While "Coach K," as he is known to his players and fans, was a standout basketball player in college, he was not a superstar. It is his coaching skill, not his personal performance on the court, that is his claim to glory.

start quoteSome of the best servers do not have the interest or personality to train others. In these cases, you don't want to divert top servers from doing what best benefits themselves and your establishment -- serving.end quote
-- Susan Dickson

In some ways, great servers have something in common with great college basketball players. They're only as good as their last performance, they're on the floor night after night, and when they're learning the ropes, it often takes outstanding coaching to turn raw ability into top talent.

If you think the best person on your team to train your servers is your top server, consider Coach K. When it comes to selecting trainers, if you scout your trainer prospects based solely on their talent as a server, (e.g. how much money they bring in or how many guest compliments they receive) you might want to rethink your criteria.

Some of the best servers do not have the interest or personality to train others. In these cases, you don't want to divert top servers from doing what best benefits themselves and your establishment -- serving. You also don't want to overlook good training talent by ignoring the attributes of a great coach.

In this article, we will identify the characteristics of solid server trainers who can help you build a winning serving team. We'll also look at other resources that can assist you with the training process, including bringing in consultants during the startup phase.

Good Servers and Good Trainers -- You Need Both

Don, the best server I know, is brilliant and charming. He puts his guests at ease, guiding them through an incredible dining experience, while "upselling" at every step of the way. His style is well-developed, and his knowledge of wine rivals many wine stewards. His managers would like to clone him. But Don refuses to be a trainer. He doesn't want someone dragging along behind him, slowing him down. That's not a weakness in Don, but an honest appraisal of his own interests.

Linda is the best trainer I know. She is attuned to the individual differences in people's personalities and styles. She has an uncanny knack for knowing when to give her trainee increasing responsibilities. She understands how to balance the trainee's need to learn with her guests' desire for a great dining experience. When she is on a pre-opening training team her most valuable asset is her flexibility. She rolls with constant changes and never lets her trainees see her upset or fatigued.

What Makes a Linda?

In my consulting practice, when I press prospective trainers to identify the qualities of "great" trainers, the responses predictably focus on the trainer's personality -- his personality and communication skills. Surprisingly, the trainer's mastery of server skill sets is not the first thing that comes to mind. Trainers believe their job is to educate and motivate.

Like Coach K, a good server trainer must know the game and have mastered its rudiments; however, there are a number of other attributes that rank up there with technical ability. These include the ability to show and lead by example, good communication skills, a willingness to repeat instructions and advice, an easily approachable demeanor, good listening skills, an appreciation of individual style and differences, patience, and organization.

Moreover, like any teacher, they need to either be trained in how to teach, or at least have an intuitive understanding of how adults learn (See "How Adults Learn," below). Finally, they must enjoy teaching.

Once your operation has been in full swing for six months to a year, you'll be able to recruit trainers from your ranks. The prospects will surface as some of your servers exhibit the traits needed to educate your employees. During an opening there is no established group. Your restaurant's culture is developing. It is a very busy, very crazy time.

If you don't convey how you want things done, people will just do it the way they did at their last job. It might not be bad, but is will not be consistent with your strategy. And that really is the essence of why we train in the first place -- for consistency.

Making a Case for Trainers in the Startup Restaurant

If this is your first restaurant opening, you are in for quite a ride. Opening a restaurant, whether casual, fast-food or fine dining, is a lot of work and a lot of fun. It seems like you have decisions to make every minute. If you've ever built a house, there are some similarities in the experience. You need to make hundreds of decisions, from selecting a financier to choosing sink fixtures. You are also responsible for choosing the culture of your restaurant.

The proverbial buck stops with you in matters concerning the quality of employee training, food, and guest satisfaction. Given the many decisions and responsibilities that rest on your shoulders, the only way to maintain control is to delegate. And if you want to instill your work ethic, business strategy, and vision in every server, you should consider hiring a server trainer.

That's fine for large establishments, but what about small restaurants, including sandwich shops and concessions? If you own or manager one of these units, it is likely you'll be taking on an even greater variety of duties. You will be in charge of purchasing, checking in deliveries, paying the bills, supervising employees and so on. Training is not a one-time event. Unless you have the time to oversee the orientation and performance of every new server during his or her break-in period, you will sleep better at night if someone is doing this for you, especially during your startup phase, when you make your first impression in the market.

The Owner's and Manager's Role in Developing Great Trainers

The owner and manager play important and active roles in the server trainer process. The trainer's job is to impart the expectations, culture, and required knowledge and skill onto the servers. To use the construction trade as an analogy, the trainer builds the house but the manager draws the plans. In business, there is a saying that a bad strategy well executed is far worse than a good strategy poorly executed. If you have a great trainer with poor direction from the top, it may not be any better than no training at all. If you think it's lonely at the top think about the trainer who loses the respect of her peers, because it is her job to teach poorly thought-out policies and procedures.

For example, a critical part of planning your restaurant is deciding the manner in which you want your servers to wait tables. Directing your trainers on every aspect of waiting, from when to present the check, how you want food coursed, and how to up sell, will keep them from second-guessing your preferences and provide that all-important consistency. I once listened to two restaurant partners argue for over an hour about whether straws should be put on the side or in the glass.

Work out even the smallest details before you bring in your trainer. Set up your trainer for success, by having a clear vision and plan of how your servers fit into the goals of the operation.

The Server Trainer is a Leader and a Liaison, Not a Manager

The trainer is not a supervisor. He provides a service to you, his employer and to his trainees. This role is different in posture and tone than the manager-employee relationship. Ideally, the trainer should not cross over into line supervision, or assist in promotion and termination decisions. These should be left to the owner and manager. To be effective, the trainer is a peer to the server staff, which requires tremendous leadership skills.

Since your best trainer needs to be a continuous resource, he or she must remain approachable. Shayla King, a trainer at Lidia's Italian Restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri, said "If I was effective during the initial training, employees will have learned that I am not going to chastise them. That is not always a given with a manager. After they are out of training a few months I treat them as a peer." As a peer, but still a leader, King is a very effective trainer. She maintains high standards, which she does not compromise. Yet, she works to be perceived as fair.

"A trainer is a liaison between servers and managers," said King, discussing her relationship with owners and manager. "I can talk to managers about things that servers aren't comfortable bringing up. And I can explain the manager's view to the servers." King said that staff members often view their relationship with managers as a "them vs. us" relationship. "I have no actual power over servers, so as [their] equal I can show how management thinks about an issue. A good trainer has to know which battles to fight. Being a never-ending conduit for gripes and complaints uses up your credibility on both sides."

Where to Scout for Server Trainer Talent

As noted, depending on the size of your operation, your budget, and interests, you can hire servers and encourage them to develop into trainers; you can hire experienced server trainers from the start; or you can hire consultants who specialize in training restaurant staff.

If this is your first restaurant, the downside of trying to create trainers from an existing server with no training experience is the same as hiring a manager with no experience. They will likely be overtaxed learning your business and how to teach effectively, regardless of their personal attributes. In this scenario, bringing in an experienced outside trainer or a consultant during the startup phase of the operation is probably the better strategy.

Once your restaurant is up and running, then you might have more luxury to help a bright and personable server step into the trainer role. In terms of educational resources to help an enthusiastic potential trainer learn the rudiments of the role, there are many books and articles about the food service industry. The National Restaurant Association is a good place to start for information. Most bookstores have sections that cover human resources, salesmanship, and training.

Beg, borrow and steal. Every business recruits talent, and yours should be no different. Startup restaurant managers dine in other restaurants, strike up conversation with promising employees, and leave a business card. Just remember, if you're looking to recruit a great trainer for your startup, look for qualities that characterize a good trainer. Do you see someone who seems to be helpful to a stumbling newcomer, or whom the other servers tend to lean on for help or information. The goal is to find someone who will do more than a good job--someone that will be a great trainer.

Advertise specifically for trainers. Take out an employment classified ad that solicits a trainer. Good employees often will not change a job unless they can advance into a leadership position. While this advice seems to contradict the advice to hire skilled employees for your key position, if you can find a skilled server who has the personal characteristics to be a good trainer, he or she might be a worthwhile risk. Again, some people really enjoy the training process and may apply to help you during your initial training phase.

During your interview with the job applicant, find out if they have trained before. Do they like educating? Who trained them? Think about the attributes of a great trainer and remember to interview for a trainer, not a server. A great prospect might be someone who hasn't been a restaurant trainer, but was a tennis, skiing, or scuba instructor in college, or served in some kind of mentoring or teaching role in the scouts or with a civic group. Some people thrive on helping others learn and succeed. These are the folks you want as trainers. You just might have to look in unusual places for talent.

But do your homework. In all cases, check references and listen to the grapevine. Do you know someone who informally will give you the inside scoop on that person? Or even better, do you know a good server who was trained by your applicant? You need someone who will understand and embrace your culture; he or she is the dye from which your servers will be cast. When you hire servers just to serve, ask about their attitudes and experience regarding teaching. Maybe they don't have the time to be an ongoing trainer, but will assist in that role during your opening. Network with friends and contacts in the business.

In any new enterprise, it is important to develop contacts within your business community. Getting leads from industry colleagues is far more fun than stealing employees. I have put together many opening teams from friends' restaurants. Restaurateurs are a pretty generous group and it can be beneficial to them to have their stars help open a restaurant. The opening team members usually gain a new perspective, new friends, some new ideas, and a break from their usual routine.

Another way to find trainer prospects. There are consultants who specialize in restaurant training. Stick with consultants that don't just provide you guidelines, but will come into the restaurant and "train the trainers." This can provide invaluable role modeling, particularly for a new staff. For leads to good in-service training consultants, start with your local hospitality/culinary schools.

Server Trainer Care and Feeding

If you were Duke University, and you had arguably the finest coach in the NCAA leading your team, you would make sure he was well-compensated and happy. Every college basketball program in the country would love to have Coach K on their payroll. If you have found good trainer talent among your ranks, you need to foster it.

Thank them. Daily.

Pay them. Some managers pay their trainers more every hour they work. Some pay more just when they train, or more for classroom time. Some trainers receive other perks, ranging from a free employee meal or a monthly dining certificate, attendance at wine dinners, to a monthly amount to check out the competition. Be creative; money isn't the only way to reward someone.

Provide trainable new hires with good attitude. A good trainer is not a magician; they can't make a purse out of a sow's ear. It's your job to make good hires.

Invest in their development. A good trainer, like a good manager, is always learning. Provide opportunities for their development. Send them to at least one seminar per year.

Share pertinent articles. There are great Web sites available, some for a nominal fee that can sharpen their teaching skills. Direct them to these. Like any professional, a trainer seeks career advancement. Many companies have learned that their best managers are previous trainers.

Listen to them. If they tell you that a trainee isn't going to make it, be willing to act on their advice. Listen to the positives and negatives about a trainee. One of the best trainers I know left one job because she felt isolated and unsupported. Trainees would show up, with no warning, sometimes several at one time. The manager never asked how things were going, or took an interest in the trainees' progress. Today she trains, quite happily, for the competition.

Support them. Make sure that their peers know you respect and support them. Keep comments that others could hear positive. If other servers believe that the trainer has management support, the trainer's job will be easier.

Give them the proper tools. These include manuals, drink lists, menu descriptions, speakers, specifications, a quiet place to train, the time to train and whatever else will facilitate the success of the program.

Be vigilant for "burn out." Trainers often work long hours while developing your team and it is easy to overwork them. Keep this in perspective and remember that trainers are not management. If you have a large server stage, hire more than one trainer to spread the workload.

Expect Excellence but Not Clones

Trainees tend to model their trainers. They will begin to emulate their trainer in the manner in which they up sell, perform side work, check out, and speak to guests. The result might be a little spooky, like eating in a room full of programmed robots. Watch out for this.

Encourage the trainees to develop their own style and express their personality. Individuality is what will ultimately make your restaurant and your servers stand out.

-- Restaurant Startup & Growth Magazine

How Adults Learn

Unlike children and adolescents, adults have significant experience and learning, and seek to contribute to their own education. Therefore, a trainer needs to allow for significant interaction and questions to help the adult learner integrate new information into his own framework of knowledge.

Adult learners have chosen to place themselves in a learning environment because they want or need to learn. Thus, the trainer needs to avoid being defensive when adults question the value of the subject matter or the validity of your teaching methods. On the other hand, like children and adolescents, adults retain the most learning when they can immediately apply what they've been taught. Also, like all learners, adults learn best when they feel physically and psychologically comfortable.

You might have heard people characterized as either "visual" or "audio" learners. It is true that many learners tend to respond better to one learning stimulus than the other. Using language and vision, hearing and seeing, helps people learn through all channels. You need to tell them and show them. And because of the performance skill sets required to be an effective restaurant server, these adult learners also require significant "kinetic" (hands-on) reinforcement. All learners are kinetic to some degree.

For example, simply explaining and demonstrating the proper technique for pouring wine is insufficient. The trainee must have sufficient experience performing the task to gain ability and confidence. The military, which for many years has been required to train young adults quickly and efficiently, is an innovator in instructional technology. Some of the training techniques that have been pioneered by the military and adopted by trainers in civilian fields include:

  • At the beginning of a training session, the trainer explains what her students will be learning (the learning objectives), and why it is important they learn it (the value of the lesson).
  • During the training session, the trainer will repeat the key instructional points multiple times and in a number of contexts. Repetition is important.
  • At the end of a training session, the trainer will review with the students what they just have just learned and reiterate the value of each lesson.
  • The trainer will test the students' knowledge or skill development immediately after the session, to determine if any of the points need to be reiterated or if remedial teaching is necessary.

Patience is perhaps the most important quality of your server trainer. The learning abilities and styles among restaurant staff can vary widely. The server who is working on a Ph.D. during the day is a different learner from the server who struggled to graduate from high school. Both can challenge the trainer's skill and patience; however, both can become good servers, with the right trainer.

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