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Server Tip: Clearing the Table

Today’s tip applies more to bussers than servers, but knowing how to clear the table is a valuable skill for all restaurant staff to understand. Did you know that there’s a right way to clear a table? Clearing a table is about more than the number of dishes you can carry at once; it’s also about maintaining a clean and welcoming atmosphere for your guests. Here are a few points of essential table-clearing etiquette:

Is it okay to clear plates before everyone has finished eating?

In general, it’s best practice to wait until all guests at a table have finished before clearing a course’s dishes, especially if you work in a relatively formal dining setting. Clearing one guest’s dish before the others may make his or her companions feel rushed and uncomfortable. That said, there are circumstances in which clearing dishes as they are finished may be appropriate, especially in more casual dining situations. If you aren’t sure which approach to use at your workplace, ask your manager.

Pay attention to the sides from which you remove a guest’s plates and beverages.

This is another point on which there is dissent among the foodservice industry—according to some experts, all dishes should be cleared from the guest’s right, and according to others, food dishes should be cleared from the left and beverages from the right. Ask your manager about the preferred clearing directions at your workplace, and be consistent.

Remove serving platters first, then plates, and then silverware.

In general, clear the largest items from the table first, and work your way down to the smallest items.

When crumbing a table between courses, use a crumber or folded napkin to sweep crumbs onto a napkin or plate. Never use your bare hands to sweep or catch crumbs.

This tip is pretty self-explanatory; it just looks neater. And of course, don’t allow crumbs to fall onto the floor.

Don’t clear more dishes than you can safely carry at once.

Making an extra trip to clear a table is preferable to hurting yourself, breaking dishware, or dumping meal scraps into a customer’s lap. You can also enlist the help of another server or busser to clear dishes neatly and efficiently, and many establishments use bus tubs and carts to assist staff in clearing dishes.

If you work in a restaurant that allows smoking, empty ashtrays into a designated can or container, not a dish or cup.

Sprinkling ashes over meal remains can definitely put a customer off his or her appetite.

Avoid picking up dishes and utensils by their eating surfaces.

We’ve touched on this principle in previous blog articles, but it’s important when you’re clearing dishes as well as serving them. Picking up dishes and utensils by the bottoms or handles protects you from your customers’ germs , and it prevents your customers from having their stomachs turned.

To learn more food safety tips, check out our Food Handler Training!

Katie Heil

Arduser, L., & Brown, D. R. (2005). The waiter & waitress and waitstaff training handbook: A complete guide to the proper steps in service for food & beverage employees. Ocala, FL: Atlantic Publishing Group.

Sanders, E., Paz, P., & Wilkinson, R. (2002). Service at its best waiter-waitress training: A guide to becoming a successful server. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2014 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

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