Server Incentives—Does It Pay To Use Them? Two Restaurants Weigh In

The Palm Restaurant
Even though The Palm Restaurants now encompass 29 units in the United States, England and Mexico, it’s still the mom and pop business it was when started in 1926, says Bruce Bozzi Jr., executive vice president and fourth-generation member of the founding family. The steakhouse, such as the one in New York's Tribeca is known for its aged USDA prime beef, such as the 16-ounce New York Strip ($49.90).
Le Petit Zinc
A part of the Detroit dining scene for three years, Le Petit Zinc serves comfortable French food. The eatery—its name means small, local bistro—in the downtown Corktown neighborhood features crepes ($3.75 to $6) and classics like ratatouille ($6.50) and saucisson cornichons ($7.50), says chef and general manager Bobby Bendily. The restaurant has 40 seats indoors, with another 30 on the patio.
What's the restaurant's view on server incentives?
The first time I remember an incentive was in the early '90s. There are a couple reasons why they started, but foremost it was to increase sales. It's a way to incentivize servers and managers, but it also builds teamwork. You can combine high performers with low ones to coach them. That kind of goes into employee development—to learn about wines, loyalty programs and more. Healthy competition and coaching builds morale.
We've never done them. I worked at a place in New Orleans, and there we tried to make sure our servers are taken care of without any incentives. We continue that here. We want our wait staff to make at least $10 an hour, especially in the winter when the weather's nasty and traffic isn't as strong as the summer. If you pay your people better, they will be happy and care more about the restaurant. It instills a sense of family.
How do the servers and customers feel about incentives?

I think incentives work well for both. They help servers know their food and beverages better and provide value for guests. One of the big ones, around the holidays is a gift card contest. The server who sold the most gets a $500 Amex gift card, plus the rest of the staff (at the winning restaurant) receives a party and trophy. For the customer, if they buy $250 in gift cards they get a $50 Palm (gift) card, so they are rewarded for being loyal.

I think it makes the servers kind of jaded. Every day the ownership wants you to push whatever it is they want to push. Customers come in and know what they want, or they expect the servers to understand what they want. And it's a good server's job to make guests feel comfortable and help the customer get a great meal with something they like, rather than push some items to get a $20 gift card at Starbucks.

Are there any plans to change the incentives?

We think incentives are best for servers and guests. It's not about overselling, so there's a fine line, because you don’t want the server to be too aggressive or ambitious. You have to be able to read your table, know your products, your wines, your steaks and have fun with it. We have a rhythm with most of them—summer lobster, beverages and gift cards [in winter]—but it can also help if you see sales soften and need to move a product.

I don't see having incentives unless the servers really want them. Even if that happens, it certainly wouldn't be anything big. At the most, it would be something like whoever sells the most of this today wins a six-pack to share with the rest of the gang. A restaurant doesn't need to push any items. As long as the management does a good job of managing the product that comes in, you don't need to force things out.