February 13, 2013 |

2009 January: Get on the Bus

By Daniel P. Smith

2009 January: Get on the BusFawn Ray looks out on her 75- seat dining room at The Pizza Palace in Camas, Washington, to see a flurry of workers moving about. Without hesitation, she points to her bus staff as an integral part in the establishment’s daily operation, knowing that a quality team of bussers can offer a strong dose of credibility.

“It’s important that the customer’s first impression be a good one, especially since people are more health conscious these days,” Ray said. “If customers sit down at a clean table with clean silverware and napkin holders, it’s natural for them to assume the rest of the business is so. For that to happen, though, there’s a reliance on your bus staff to do their job right.”

Though bussers are often considered the backbone of a restaurant, they remain huddled in an often overlooked, undertrained post. Yet, a prompt, courteous bus staff can do wonders to boost an operation’s image. “

Bussers are a visible part of the restaurant landscape and as a part of that environment, they’re an asset as well,” says Lou Greenstein, head of Epicurean Restaurant Consulting based in North Reading, Massachusetts. “Customers are looking at dining with new eyes these days and they’re looking and watching things like the actions of bus staff. If a bus staff isn’t handling their business properly or is rude or unkempt, then that’s going to cost a restaurant some credibility with the dining public.”

Adds Ezra Eichelberger, professor in Table Service at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York: A well-trained, friendly bus staff “helps people have confidence in the restaurant and when they have more confidence, they’re likely to visit more often.”

But it’s more than image alone. From the five-star bistros in Miami to the family pizzerias in Phoenix, every restaurant faces the reality of turnover. The more tables an operation can turn, the better sales the establishment will earn. An efficient bus staff does plenty more than clear a table after diners leave; they sharpen an operation’s bottom line.

“If you don’t have a quality bussing team, then the tables won’t turn as they should,” Greenstein says. “That could make the difference between three to four turnovers in an evening.”

And just how do operators boost the efficiency of their bus staff? In a word: training. Eichelberger digs into his past, back when he directed a Manhattan restaurant. On one slow night, two of his busboys took it upon themselves to polish the silverware. Eichelberger watched as one of the employees lifted a knife into the light, noticed a blemish, blew on it, and then wiped it off. At once,

Eichelberger was enchanted by his employee’s attentiveness and motivation while simultaneously repelled by his simple act. Instead of reprimanding the busboy, however, Eichelberger put the blame on his shoulders.

“It was my fault because I never trained him properly,” he said, “and I think all operators need to have that consideration. Are we training the bussers properly and giving them the tools to do their job right? Are we giving them a bottle with disinfectant or a tub without a hole in it?”

Both Greenstein and Eichelberger, veterans of the restaurant industry, offer these four tips for training a quality bus staff:

? Stress the difference between cleaning and sanitizing. Cleaning and sanitizing are not synonyms. While one might “clean” a table, one very well might not have “sanitized” the table with disinfectant and a clean rag; Eichelberger, in fact, has seen a rise in the use of disposable sanitizing wipes. It’s paramount that tables, seats and anything else the dining public will touch be sanitized after each group departs. Every time a bus tub is taken into the back, it should also be sanitized.

? Save it for the back. Bussers should never scrap plates, speak loudly to others, or eat in the dining room. En route to the kitchen, staff might also toss a clean napkin over the cart rather than walking by diners with a bucket full of half-eaten crusts and dirty plates. And bussers should never reach across guests to grab an item. “It all seems like rudimentary stuff,” Greenstein says, “but it’s easy to make mistakes.”

? Cleanliness is next to Godliness. As visible staff in the establishment, bussers shouldn’t be tossed into the dining room wearing t-shirts, jeans and aprons. A greater sense of decorum should be cultivated. Staff should also receive thorough training on the proper handling of clean tableware, such as never touching a glass or grabbing silverware where the mouth has been or will go.

? Thank those who least receive it. If bussers do their job well, then wait staff has a much better opportunity to provide better service, thereby helping the entire restaurant operation. Although managers cannot require tip sharing, Eichelberger says most operations have a system in place to recognize the help of bus staff, one often directed by the servers themselves. “Most servers understand that they should tip out to those who help them. Bussers and bartenders, then, typically share in 10 to 15 percent of the tips,” he said. “Because keeping good help is as good as keeping good customers.” ?

Solo Act:

Should an operator hire personnel only to bus tables?

Hiring staff whose sole responsibility is to bus tables might be an outdated, unrealistic model to follow given the rising costs of labor, which long ago overtook product as the most expensive slice of a restaurant’s budget. As such, many operations look to the general utility worker, an employee who can handle a range of duties from bussing tables to stocking the kitchen.

But for some, a bus staff doing that work alone might be the best bet, so long as they’re not consistently standing around. Eichelberger urges operators to take an assessment of their staff and consider if other units of the restaurant could handle the increased turnover an efficient bus staff could bring.

“Keep in mind that greater turnover at the tables means an increased workload in the kitchen, where they’re also trying to fill pick-up and delivery orders,” Eichelberger said. “There always needs to be a fl ow of some sort to keep the restaurant balanced.”

Chicago-based writer Daniel P. Smith has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.