Writing orders on paper and tracking customers’ preferences on a computer are well-known ways for restaurants to deliver smooth service. Some establishments go a step further and teach their workers to use discreet hand, eye and other signals to communicate with their colleagues — all without a sound.
It’s hard to say when wordless restaurant commands originated. A 1944 photo spread in Life magazine revealed how the owner of the legendary Stork Club in New York let his staff know, without saying, that he wanted to pick up someone’s check — or get away from a customer: Sherman Billingsley played with his tie knot or tugged his ear, respectively. Some industry veterans say they first noticed hand signals when designer waters gushed onto the scene in the 1990s.
Created to make things convenient for restaurants, wordless routines prove reliable in the noisiest of venues. They also save considerable time. Instead of walking across a busy dining room and possibly slowing down colleagues, servers using body language can get a message across in a single movement. “If one person is doing everything, it takes twice as long,” says Chesser, the ringleader at CityZen. Economy of steps equals savings in time: Sanders of BLT Steak figures dining room shorthand trims off 45 seconds or so per table; on any given shift, that’s “20 minutes of attention I can give back to guests.”