We have good news and bad news. First the good news: experts predict a pretty healthy economy for the next year, and that’s great for your bottom line. The more cash Americans have at their disposal, the more they’ll spend eating at your restaurant — and the more staff you’ll need to handle those extra tables.
The not-as-great news? No matter how great business is doing, finding qualified, reliable candidates for waitstaff positions can be a bit tricky. Servers who will show up on a busy night — and deliver superior service no matter how slammed they are — aren’t always easy to spot.
Luckily, the right set of restaurant interview questions can help you quickly separate the wheat from the chaff and ensure that you get off-the-cuff responses that ring with authenticity, rather than a string of practiced answers.
These questions go way beyond the typical “Tell me about your greatest weakness” to identify candidates that are fast on their feet and quick on the draw. Here are six of our favorite questions to draw out revealing responses.
Question 1: Tell me about a time a customer you were serving got upset. How did you handle it?
Why it works: Even the best server deals with an unhappy patron here and there. Sometimes the customer’s anger is justified, and sometimes it’s just the result of a bad day. Either way, your team needs to be able to react quickly to soothe angry clients and correct the issues without exacerbating the problem.
Interviewees will no doubt expect this interview question and will likely have practiced answers to offer (if they don’t, consider it an immediate red flag). Look for candidates who can demonstrate their knowledge of service — the ones who talk about empathetic listening and their ability to stay calm and to come up with a solution on the fly. Bonus points for candidates who say they don’t take an upset customer too personally. After all, you don’t want your waitstaff taking their work home with them!
Question 2: What do you like to do in your free time?
Why it works: This seems like a softball question, but it can give you a lot of information about what your interviewees are like, on and off the job.
For one thing, it’s never a bad idea to have well-rounded team members on staff. Servers who can talk at some length about the snowboarding lessons they’re taking or the latest movie they saw are more likely to make authentic connections with the customers they’re serving.
Their answers also provide insight into the cultural fit of the candidate. An applicant who prefers reading and other quiet activities may not be the best fit to serve tapas at a hopping bar district restaurant. No matter how eager you are to hire, finding candidates who match company values and culture means you won’t find yourself back here, interviewing new candidates, two months from now.
Question 3: Tell me about a time you had excellent service at a restaurant.
Why it works: The key to this restaurant interview question is in its reversal. By asking the applicant to put themselves in the shoes of the diner, you can often get a revealing glimpse into their idea of quality service.
If their vision of the ideal waiting experience is a cheerful, chatty waiter, but you prefer servers to be seen and not heard, they may not be the best match. On the other hand, if it syncs with your ideals, it may as well be a match made in heaven. Just make sure you’ve taken the time to identify for yourself the specific, unique qualities that make your service team so great!
Question 4: What’s your favorite movie and why?
Why it works: This question falls into the category of “Can you think fast on your feet?” — in other words, it’s a curveball. But it’s a little more relevant than other oddball questions of its ilk, such as “If you were a box of cereal, what would you be and why?” Good servers should be able to adjust to unexpected elements quickly. If a candidate can’t even tell you about their favorite movie, how are they going to react when a rowdy 12-top walks through the door 15 minutes before closing?
Candidate answers to this restaurant interview question can also be pretty illuminating as to their lifestyle and values, but try not to read too deeply into what a specific flick says about your applicant. After all, you’re not hiring a movie critic here! What’s important is that the candidate can bounce back from their initial surprise and open up to you about their preferences and values, not whether they like superhero blockbusters or indie flicks.
Question 5: How do you prioritize tasks when you’re waiting tables?
Why it works: The ability to deliver great service takes a unique combination of skills: the personality to give guests the warm fuzzies and the organizational prowess to juggle a list of tasks and priorities all at once. A waiting applicant may be all smiles in the interview, but unless they are able to prioritize a multitude of tasks, they’re practically worthless in the dining room setting.
The most experienced servers multitask — they never make an extra trip to the kitchen or the wait station if they can avoid it. Ideally, applicants will describe how they prioritize serving tasks for efficiency, while still delivering thorough, patient service. In other words, they aren’t “one-trippers” — they make every trek to the kitchen count by making efficient use of their time.
Question 6: Have you ever eaten here before? If so, what would you improve about your dining experience?
Why it works: A no here isn’t necessarily a fail. However, if the server has eaten in your restaurant before it shows some personal connection to your establishment, meaning there’s a reason they applied here beyond the fact that you’re hiring.
It’s also a great outsider window into how your existing service is working from someone in the position to know. An experienced server’s eye is invaluable when it comes to correcting potential problems that may go overlooked by current waitstaff. After all, it’s easy for more established team members to fall back on existing patterns. Even if you don’t decide to hire this candidate, that’s some valuable reconnaissance to have at your disposal. And those are insights you can use anytime.
With that out of the way, let the hiring begin!