Spotting quality wait staff can be tricky business, but it’s possible—if you know what to look for. Rob Johnson reports.
In an ideal world there’d be a ready supply of skilled, experienced workers available to restaurateurs around the country. But as many can testify, we live in a far from perfect world. But if an unskilled migrant turned up at your front door looking for work, how quickly could you tell if he or she would make a good waiter?
Well, it’s tricky, says Sam Christie, co-owner of the Longrain restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. “The first thing I look for is experience,” he says. “You want someone to present well, and to have an understanding of food. Of course, sometimes you have to take whoever bowls up.”
When Christie is screening potential front-of-house candidates, he looks for someone who is good at reading people. “If, for example, you get a bunch of meat-eating, red-wine drinking, ah, gentlemen, you don’t go in to serve them tenderly, whereas for an older couple having a quiet dinner you might be more relaxed,” he says.
“Experience is important, but it really depends. Sometimes someone can have only two or three years experience and be really good. And at other times, you’ll get someone who has 10 years experience and they’re worse than the less experienced person. I do find that often younger people are not as set in their ways, so you can more easily mould them into the perfect staff member.
“If it’s a good solid person, there’s not so much moulding required as education on the product in your own restaurant. But if you get someone who’s green but enthusiastic, that can sometimes work out really well.”
He says it’s often easier in an interview situation to work out who’d be a poor waiter. “Some people just find it hard to serve people,” he says. “You can pick those people quite quickly. You can see it in their body language. They’ve got an ‘I’m better than this’ outlook.” He adds this is less common now that people are seeing the hospitality industry as offering a career.
The other thing he looks for is their understanding of food generally, which he gauges through not only their answers to his questions, but through questions they ask of him concerning the Longrain menu. And he encourages them to ask as many questions as they want to.
“You can’t really determine how they’ll be from an interview,” he says. “It’s more during a trial process that you can tell, but even then, you can never tell for sure. You can get someone who is quite shy in the interview, but then you throw them on the floor for a trial shift and they’ll be great.”
There is another way Restaurant & Catering members can determine whether an individual has the right personal qualities to make a good waiter. It’s called the Harrison Assessments (HA) tool, and it’s available free to members of R&C state associations. The tool is essentially a questionnaire that a candidate fills out either on paper or online. Their answers are processed and compared to a template developed by restaurateurs that identifies those qualities needed for a front-of-house employee.
The templates were developed by Wollongong firm CareerFit in consultation with members of Restaurant & Catering state associations. The HA tool itself was originally developed by Dr Dan Harrison, who has a PhD in organisational psychology and has a lot of experience in designing and working with assessment tools. A colleague challenged him to design an assessment tool that actually worked. That took 14 years.
“He was living in Australia during that time, and most of the research in the development of this tool took place in the Asia Pacific region,” says June Kitto, managing director of CareerFit.
The HA tool is a performance-based tool, rather than a normative one. The difference is in the analysis and presentation of the data: with a normative tool, the results from a particular candidate are compared against the results from a sample of the population, and this is what is seen in the report.
“Whereas with a performance-based tool, there’s no filtering of the data against sample norms. We use only the raw data provided by the candidate, and the results are unique for each individual,” Kitto explains. “We get very accurate measurements, and it’s almost impossible to deceive, so we’re getting a very accurate picture of how the person will behave and perform when they are in the job.”
CareerFit developed the front-of-house and kitchen staff templates in consultation with a group of employers in NSW—they brainstormed what qualities were necessary in each of these positions, then Kitto designed the template to reflect that. The criteria they came up with was “pretty unanimous,” says Kitto. “The difference would have been in the hours required for each position, but the amount of importance (on particular qualities) was the same. We have a category for a food and beverage attendant, where you might have someone who multi-tasks, so they might not be front of house the whole time, but the role might still require someone who spends some of their time front of house.”
“With a normative sample group it includes a cross-section of the population. It’s important to get a broad enough cross-section, to get sufficient representation of the range from good to poor performers. One concern with normative data is that there is no measurement of how well each person in the sample group performs, and therefore how do we guarantee that high performance with a normative tool is actually high performance in the workplace. The concern is that it may promote mediocrity rather than high performance.
“But that’s not a problem with HA and performance-based templates. Let’s say with the template that one of the traits you’re looking for is ‘helpful’. When we factor that into a template, we weight it ourselves so the template measures a person’s suitability according to our own performance standards. We might rate ‘helpful’ as extremely important, and rate it against the number of hours in a day the worker had to be helpful—which is pretty vital for floor staff in the hospitality industry. This is done for 25 traits on average for each template. We would then compare a person’s profile against the template to get a score out of 100 on how this person is suited to the position. But with normative tools, you get an indication of how helpful that person is compared with the pool of people that make up the norm.”
In practice, the way this all works is as a very efficient screening mechanism: “In hospitality positions where good performance is more determined by behaviour than skill the ideal scenario is to do a brief interview to assess an applicant for appearance and general demeanour, then get them to do the questionnaire, where you can screen for whether they’re highly suited for the job. It can save a lot of time, and the cost benefits are huge.”
But the real test comes when you get them on the floor, as it were. Says Sam Christie: “Sometimes, you think someone might be great, and you give them a three- or four-hour trial shift, which will tell you if they have the fundamentals. But sometimes after two weeks you might think, I’m not sure. And vice versa—sometimes they’ll be terrible on the trial shift, but really pick up over the next couple of weeks. We generally give people an eight- or 12-week trial period, and at the end of that we look at whether they want to continue and if we want them to.”
It doesn’t always work: he relates the experience of finding an employee he thought was fantastic for the first couple of weeks, but after that she started complaining more and more, and drinking on the job: “At the end of a shift she was the first to booze up, and where everyone else had one or two drinks she’d have three or four. We soon realised she was an alcoholic, and we had to let her go. You can’t judge a book by its cover—it’s a cliché but it’s true.”
The most important thing, he says, is learning on the job. “You can’t learn how to be a waiter—or a chef, for that matter—in a classroom. Beyond that it’s on-the-job training, which can be hard for people starting out, because everyone’s got to start somewhere. We’ve just taken on an 18-year-old girl in Sydney—she’s never worked in a restaurant before, and she might not stay, but at the end of her time at Longrain she’ll have enough skills and experience to take out into the market.”