Christopher Stark knows a thing or two about how to be a successful server. Having moved through various parts of the restaurant industry, only to spend the last 17 years as a fine dining establishment server at California Grill in Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, he has possibly one of the best pedigrees one can acquire in training server staff. In part one of this generous and candid interview, Christopher shared his thoughts on how your restaurant can better develop and support its staff — and ultimately provide the best experience for your guests all around.
Why did you choose a career in the restaurant industry?
I’ve been involved in restaurants of various types most of my working life. My first experiences working in restaurants were part time jobs in high school at Hardee’s and a local pizza joint. Serving is something I feel I can do well, and being able to do it at Disney has definitely been a bonus.
You’ve worked in different segments of the industry: quick serve, casual, and fine dining. What has been the biggest difference as a server working in those different types of restaurants?
The knowledge of the guests when it comes to choices they could be making and their desire to know about the products. Be it where the ingredients are from, some back story about the wine maker/brewer/distiller, or something as simple as a definition of a term used on the menu. I have found that people are more concerned about those type of things now than they were when I was working fast food or casual dining. I guess it is a combination of both an expectation of me and of the products.
Has a career of serving guests changed what you do in your off-hours?
Yes, I am a frequent restaurant-goer. That being anything from food trucks to fine dining. Or just kicking back and discovering new beers or (less often) wines. While I am a frequent visitor to the World of Beer, I also am lucky that we have a number of breweries that have opened here in Florida and I love going there and seeing what they have to offer.
And you’ve been a server at a fine dining restaurant at the Walt Disney World Resort for nearly 17 years. What are the responsibilities for your current position?
Included in my duties is having knowledge of the food and beverages we are offering. I also need the ability read and figure out my guest’s needs and desires and help guide them in having the best dining experience possible.
In addition to serving, I am responsible for training new servers. This includes having them follow to watch how I and other servers do our jobs, going over product knowledge and restaurant procedures, and then giving them a chance to put that knowledge to practical use while I am there to help.
The training is definitely needed more in upscale/fine dining. That is why I am glad I have worked my way “up the ladder.” [Fine dining] is definitely more mentally challenging than other types of restaurants, which will be more physically challenging due to the need to get as many people in and out as possible.
What are some of the challenges of training new servers?
When training new servers I think the biggest challenge is getting them to find their own voice and style. While you want to have them know the steps of service required of the restaurant, you don’t want them to just imitate how you do it. My method of guest interaction may not work for them. I think Disney does a good job of helping in that regard by having them follow different servers each night of their training.
If someone is more challenging to train, how do you help them succeed?
If someone comes in not being used to this level of service — and the knowledge and studying that is required of them — then I try to spend some extra time helping them, or letting them know what they really need to focus on when going over things on their own.
If they are willing to put in the extra effort and still aren’t getting it, then I am more than willing to try to help them, either before or after the shift. But if a person is thinking they can just come in and slide by without the work… then sometimes you just have to let them fall on their face to make a point.
What tips would you have for restaurant owners in training new servers?
Fit the training (and the hiring) of new servers to the type of restaurant you have. Is it a style of restaurant that somebody with no restaurant experience can just come in and work? Or are you probably going to be better off having worked in the industry before?
Decide how much product knowledge the servers will need. If the majority of your customers aren’t going to care about what farm the produce came from, there probably isn’t a need to pound that into the servers’ skulls.
What kind of support are you looking for from an owner or manager that they might not be aware of?
Once the training is done, let us do our job. You hired us for a reason. Now if there are concerns, address them, but do so in a professional manner. Everyone is working towards the same goal.
Also be willing to be on the floor and help if needed. The team is going to be more willing to do what you want for your restaurant if you are willing to step in and help when things get a bit frantic.
I think that [support] is a huge part of retaining good employees. Showing appreciation for the job that all the employees of your restaurant do is huge. The right tools for the job should also be available. Having the required items for whatever you are asking your employees to do should be a no-brainer. Try not to set them up to fail.
Continue on to part 2 of our interview with Christopher Stark to learn more about training servers to upsell: