To paraphrase The Wire, when you’re a server, you only do two tables… your first table and your final table. That final table can be the longest.
It’s been a busy but unremarkable night. Your section filled, drink orders were taken, entrees served and checks were split 5 ways over 7 cards. You’re cruising to the end of your shift when you realize… table 10a is still there.
You double-check the POS: yes, they paid like 45 minutes ago. You casually stroll by with some invented task to wipe off another table in the section. They have water (you’d describe the water status as “half-full” while your MOD would say “half-empty”). The payment slip is sitting there unsigned and ignored. They are deep in conversation about something that sounds interpersonal – which is the worst-case scenario.
You have little choice but to settle into some side work and wait them out. Here are a few ways to nudge those last guests from the table and back out into the world…
Keep the waters topped off
You might be tempted to go into “full ignore” mode and stop filling the waters. This is a huge mistake, but not for the reasons most people think. Whenever the waters get to half-full (now you know which side I’m on in this debate), fill them back up. The guests will consider this to be good service. Your MOD will consider you to be focused and going the extra mile. But what you’re really trying to do is to get one or more of the guests to go to the bathroom.
A bathroom break can often snap people out of their conversations and cause them to check the time. Keep that water glass full at all costs.
Clear the table
They shouldn’t have anything they don’t need. At the end of the meal, that means they should only have water glasses. If they were drinking coffee, but stop accepting refills, take the cup once it’s empty. Take any share plates. Take any silverware. Take everything you possibly can.
Some restaurants will even let you take the check once it’s signed. I wasn’t so lucky with my last job. We had a policy the MOD called “continuity of care.” If you started the table, you had to finish it. This being the case, I’d even take the napkins. Nothing says “you know, I think this party may be over and it’s time to go back to our families” than sitting at a table with nothing but a glass of water.
Avoid seating new tables near them
This depends on your restaurant’s policies. Some places close sections as the night wears on. This makes it easier to wipe tables and reset in stages so the closing server can get out quicker. If that’s the case, the final guests will eventually find themselves all alone, surrounded by empty tables.
This, like keeping the waters filled, is a bit counter-intuitive. People might like the privacy of being alone in their own section. In reality, being the only table in a section can get pretty awkward. Every time you cross the floor to fill the waters, it’s pretty clear it’s just for them. Eventually, the non-psychopaths will realize it’s time to go.
Reset all the tables around them
Again, policies vary per restaurant, but generally, it’s good to use the time while waiting to get your section ready for the next day. Get all the napkins down, reset the silver and glasses, wipe crumbs off the chairs and do any leveling that needs doing (to this day I still get anxiety about wobbly tables).
This is a twofer. One, you get your section spec’d out and ready for close. Two, it’s pretty obvious the night is over. For the most part, people take the hint.
Make manipulative small talk
This is an advanced technique, so be careful. The plan is to make small talk during one of your watering runs. I suggest a few warm-up rounds of light chat. Ask what they thought about one of the desserts. “It’s new,” you can lie, “and I’m getting feedback for the kitchen.” The point is to get them comfortable with you chatting each time you swing by the table.
Normally, this is just enough to break up whatever intense conversation they’re having. After a couple of chats about the new natural-wash coffee beans you are trying out, they’ll leave on their own. If they stay, it’s time to go up a level:
“I usually don’t drink coffee this late since I have to get up early and take my daughter to her appointments.”
This sentence does a lot of work with not much effort. It points out it’s late. It implies you have a life outside of the current situation. It directly states you have some larger, more important responsibilities. It implies those responsibilities are vaguely dire.
As I said, this is an advanced technique. It’ll take a few tries to dial it in, so proceed cautiously as you learn how to properly weaponize small talk.
When you get stuck with a lingering table, just keep in mind that they will eventually leave… eventually.