Dear Food Fanatic: Training Arrogant Waitstaff, Selling Nonalcoholic Beverages

Seasoned advice on the front and back of the house.

Q. I’m having a tough time motivating my “seasoned” waitstaff to upsell. They tell me, “I’ve been waiting tables for 15 years; I think I know what I’m doing.” How do I get them to suggest new items on the menu?

A. Find out what motivates them instead of giving ultimatums. Is it competition? A financial bonus? Maybe it’s a day off or dibs on scheduling. Once you know, run contests and reward top sellers with those coveted prizes. Bring in a sales training service or look to your supplier for marketing or training programs that are effective and fun.

Q. How can I save on labor costs without skimping on food quality?
A. Restaurateurs no longer have to guess customer counts and sales. Software programs consider past sales to help operators order smarter and reduce food waste. This tech can also help with scheduling by staggering shifts for cooks and other kitchen help. In addition, look at low-tech solutions such as using the same ingredients in more than one dish. This approach also works with staff. When everyone knows how to do parts of their co-workers’ jobs, your business benefits.

Q. Is social media really that important?
A. That’s a loud and clear, “Yes.” Figure out how your customers—not just today’s diners, but tomorrow’s as well—are communicating. Certain demographics are on Twitter versus Facebook, while others prefer Instagram or Snapchat. If you’re a newbie, consult an expert, but remember that effective social media use is not about setting and forgetting it. The most successful brands work continuously to keep followers engaged.

Q. How should I handle unruly online reviews?
A. Reply to all your reviews, good or bad, but especially the bad. Thank the reviewers for their feedback and let them know you’re always looking to improve service. Then offer to schedule a time to talk or ask for advice on improving the dining experience. Most people will appreciate the response and acknowledge you took the time to address their concerns.

Q. Any tips on building a locally sustainable menu?
A. Never build an entire menu on local sustainable foods, or you’ll risk pricing your menu out of your market. Instead, pick a few key items that can be featured throughout the menu. Spotlight them, and spread the word using social media. Although locally produced items make great promotional fodder, be sure you can track the profitability of your purchases.

Q. Customer counts are down. We used to hit 100 a night. Now, we reach 25 to 50. It seems my clientele is aging and not coming as often.
A. Our business world has changed. Unlimited expense accounts have gone away, and millennials aren’t as loyal as older generations. It may be time to reevaluate your model. Update your decor, look for inspiration in your menu and find other avenues to generate sales. Be proactive.

Q. I’m seeing nonalcoholic beverages more on menus, especially lighter beverages that fit into healthier lifestyles. How can I work some of those drinks into my menu?
A. Spring is the perfect time to play around with ingredients. Freshly juiced fruits and vegetables complemented by muddled herbs, berries and natural sweeteners offer endless possibilities. The health benefits of hot peppers and the popularity of spice can bring some heat into healthy beverages.

Matthew Dean is a Food Fanatics chef for US Foods from Streator, Illinois, with a passion for teaching. Follow him on Twitter at @chefmathu.