5 Ways To Improve Restaurant Service, Courtesy Of A Longtime Server

Jess Rowland has been a restaurant server for over 25 years. Now he’s sharing his expertise with the masses.

Jess Rowland has been a restaurant server for over 25 years. It's a job he's always held while pursuing other projects, including acting, improv, and server training. In Ace of Service, a new series produced by Marcus Entertainment that's available online through Food Nation's YouTube channel, Rowland is turning his expertise into instructive entertainment by coaching the staff at various restaurants and service-based establishments on how to improve their approach.

Unlike other shows of its ilk, Ace of Service doesn't set out to embarrass its subjects for the sake of entertaining the audience, nor does it poke fun at imperfect servers. Instead, Rowland lets criticisms land softly, if energetically. Sometimes those criticisms are edged with humor, but the overall tone of the show is imbued with a genuine desire to help employees succeed. Clocking in at about 10 minutes each, these bite-sized episodes provide a compelling insider's view of the service industry, one full of advice on how servers can better navigate its challenges.

Rowland spoke with The Takeout about his new series and the recurring themes that arose while filming it; he provided additional wisdom and pointers along the way. Here are the seasoned server's five best ideas for how to improve restaurant service.

Servers should have different gears

Rowland believes servers should read the room (or, as the case may be, the table) and adjust their communication approach accordingly. This means noticing when, for example, a group of friends wants to chat and linger over their meal or, conversely, when a group of coworkers on a lunch break needs to be in and out quickly.

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"I call it mirroring," Rowland said. "I don't treat people like I want to be treated, I treat people how they want to be treated. I know which gear I need to use for certain people so that they feel seen and taken care of."

Ultimately, it comes down to being present in the moment: really listening to what people are saying and responding appropriately.

"If I ask you for a straw, I don't want you to say 'sure' and walk away," said Rowland. "I want to see a sense of urgency: 'Of course, who else would like a straw?'"

That includes being present with slip-ups. Rowland admits that even with over 25 years of serving experience under his belt, he still makes mistakes. But if, say, he forgets to ring in French fries, as soon as he realizes the mistake, he heads to the table, apologizes, and makes it right.

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"It's called a service recovery," he said. "Service recovery can be more important than great service. It makes you human."

Don’t bash the food

Part of the conceit of Ace of Service is that the show goes into restaurants where the food is already great, with the goal of making the service match the quality of the food. In one scene, a server lets a table know that a serving of French toast is large. "Usually when I bring this out, I warn people about the size," she tells the guests.

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"Don't smack-talk the food," Rowland says in the episode. "How many restaurants have you been at where they look at you and go, 'Just to let you know, that has mayonnaise on it'?... If you sat down at a mom-and-pop restaurant and ordered mom's lasagna, do you think the daughter would ever say, 'Just to let you know, that's really cheesy'?"

Rowland said this is an area where he's gotten some pushback on TikTok. People say they like honesty from their servers. But he thinks servers should keep their opinions out of the experience, in part because they should trust that guests will take in information and make their own decisions based on their tastes.

"Stop saying 'Good choice,' stop saying, 'That's my favorite,' stop saying, 'That's what my nana loves,'" he said. "Tell them what's in it and they will decide."

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Write down orders

In the show, Rowland places an order with a server who doesn't write it down. "When you don't write down my order, I feel unsafe," he says while talking to the server later in the show.

Rowland told The Takeout that when a server doesn't write down orders, he thinks it's often because the server wants to prove they have a great memory.

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"It's self-indulgent," he said. "I don't know your name, and you think I care that your memory is a steel trap? I don't know you, bro. I'm going to be with you for 40 minutes, and I feel like you're making it about you, not me. Regardless if you get it right nine times out of 10, I'm worried."

Understand that guests are constantly experiencing “moments of truth”

A moment of truth, says Rowland, is any time in the guest experience that an opinion is formed—which is, to be clear, all the time. It can be something positive, like noticing a bathroom is immaculate, or something negative, like spotting a little piece of garbage on the floor or even smelling beer on the breath of a server.

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"Guests see more than you think, they're just nice, so they're not going to tell you," said Rowland. "Every single time someone forms a moment of truth, we want it to paint a better picture of the establishment."

Knowledge is everything

Rowland stressed that it's really important that servers know the menu, be present, and be ready to anticipate guests' needs. Those things are so important, he said, that getting those skills down should be a server's top priority. They should never assume they can rely on their personality to cover up a lack in any of those areas.

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"I think people are like, 'I'm cute,' or 'I have a funny personality,'" he said. "When I wait on Steve Carell, do you think I'm trying to be funny? No. He's the funniest guy in the world. I don't care that you're funny, Michelle. I just want you to know your liquors."

That's not to say that personality doesn't matter. Rowland acknowledges that although knowledge can and should be taught (and learned), servers should always let their warmth shine through.

"What I'm looking for more than anything is warmth," he said. "I can teach the technical side, but I can't teach charisma and warmth. That's either in you or it's not."

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