Ask The Salty Waitress: Should I ask customers why they didn't finish their meal?

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Photo: Wavebreakmedia (iStock), Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
The Salty WaitressThe Salty WaitressSalty Waitress is The Takeout’s advice column from a real-life waitress that will teach you how not to behave like a garbage person while dining out—and maybe in real life.

Hey Salty! Long, longtime server/bartender here. What should I say, if anything, if a customer asks me to clear their plate at the end of their meal, with the majority of their food still on it? (I’m not talking here about a few bites left over at the end, I mean they’ve clearly only taken a few bites at all and are asking me to remove the plate from the table)

I’m conflicted on this—on one hand, if the customer was dissatisfied with their meal and that’s why they’ve left most of it, I’d love to get the chance to make it right, whether that’s offering them something new, or offering to remake the dish. On the other hand—I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone; for all I know they didn’t eat their food because they’re struggling with a health issue, or an eating disorder.

Do you have an idea for a script with this sort of thing? I don’t exactly want to say “Was everything okay here? I notice you didn’t eat much of your meal” ... or do I? I don’t want to call anybody out, or police anyone’s food intake, but it’s also my job as a server to pay attention to these sorts of things, and make things right if I need to.

Thanks!

First off, the fact you’re concerned about this shows you’re one of the good ones. There are servers who see their job as just a paycheck, and there are those who get that we’re here to make a customer glad they spent their hard-earned dollars. We’re here to serve, and you get this. Come to Salty’s diner soon and I’ll comp ya a slice of banana cream pie.

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This is a simple fix. You can get to the root with, maximum, two questions that won’t seem intrusive. If there is a large amount of food left on the plate, you just ask: “Would you like me to wrap this up for you?” If the customer says yes, you’ve got your answer.

So what if the customer declines? If it were me, I’d take the plates away and allow a little time to pass. Then when you return with the check, just ask: “How was your meal—is there anything we can do for you?” Keep it open-ended, no need to frame it in the negative, like: “Was there anything we could’ve done to make it better?” If something was unsatisfactory, maybe this is when your customer will speak up now. But if this person doesn’t take the bait, well, you’ve offered several openings for the customer to express his or her dissatisfaction.

Some servers are pretty forward, and maybe you’re the type to blurt out: “Was there something wrong?!” I’m as salty as the next waitress, but I don’t know your personality, so I’d say to trust your instincts. Maybe you don’t want any conflict, in which case all you can do is create as many opportunities for your customers to make their feelings known. All we can do on our end is make them feel comfortable and want to return.


Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or just a general question about life we can help you with? Email us: salty@thetakeout.com

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