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Clear Finished Plates At The Proper Time

Recently, a chef called me on the telephone and posed a question: "When is the correct time to remove a plate after a customer is finished eating?"

The chef who asked me this question had been sitting at the bar observing the restaurant dining room service on his off hours. There were three people at the table; one customer had completely finished a plate of food while the other two customers were still eating their plates of food.


The chef felt that the "one finished plate" should have been cleared immediately by one of the bussers or waitstaff.

His inquiry was another simple restaurant dining room service question (quite legitimate) that may actually have more than one answer. It all depends on the restaurant's "level of service", the "situation at the hand," and/or what the customer desires "at the moment."

Certainly in any restaurant service situation, before clearing a plate, the staffer obviously must wait until the customer is completely finished eating from his/her plate. Whether it is an empty plate in front of the customer, or if the customer has placed the knife and fork side by side in the middle of the plate, or if the customer hasn't touched any food in 20 minutes, the staffer must make the proper decision to clear the plate or not.

But to really answer this question in full detail, I had to ask some preliminary questions of my own, as consultants often do, especially about the desired level of service in the restaurant such as:

    • Were there tablecloths covering the tables?
    • Was the floor completely rugged?
    • What are some of the expensive items on the menu?
    • Was the table crumbed after each course or at least after the entrée course?

After receiving some answers, I concluded that, yes, it was a fine dining restaurant. Therefore, my immediate answer to the chef's question was for the staff to wait until all of the customers at the table were completely finished eating; then start the process of clearing. This is the "book" rule.


In most cases for a fine dining restaurant, if the one plate only was cleared while the other two customers were still eating, all three customers probably would have been offended thinking they are being rushed out.

Though, a few more points must be added to this answer.

What about the "situation at hand?" What about the customer needs "at the moment?"

    • What if the customer had a train to catch and wanted to leave the restaurant quickly before the other two parties?
    • What if the customer asked to have that plate cleared?
    • What if the customer, who had finished eating first, placed a credit card on the table requesting to pay and leave the restaurant quickly?

The answers to these questions may actually warrant the act of clearing that "one finished plate" immediately.

A big empty plate may get in the way of the customer signing the credit card receipt or counting out the correct amount of cash to pay the check. Even worse, the customer's sleeve may get stained with an accidental sideswipe of a soiled plate.

In these unexpected type of situations, "by using dining room common sense," the staffer can politely ask the customer: "May I remove your plate?"

Then, there is the casual dining restaurant service situation, where the plates are enormous and sometimes way too big for the tables. The process of removing the plates ahead of time may be the norm with no other way to get the clearing job done before these big entrée courses arrive.

My main point is that there are always "standard rules of restaurant dining room service." But always, the servers and bussers must use "common sense at the moment" to get the job done safely, cleanly and efficiently.

Again, one must always politely ask before removing a plate as nothing could be ruder than trying to clear a plate while the customer is still enjoying their meal.

The above situation is the "gray area" of customer service which should be taken very seriously and discussed in every restaurant staff training class.

Since restaurants are essentially a people business, there are truly an infinite number of situations that can occur. The trick is to anticipate the customer's needs and then pro-act in the hope that the end result will be a pleased and satisfied customer.

Richard Saporito, founder of Topserve Restaurant Consulting, has over 30 years restaurant service experience in many diverse and profitable New York City establishments. He has worked in restaurants of all sizes and shapes ranging from small independent start-ups to large scale corporate operations with seating capacities of over 1500.
Richard uses this successful experience to help owners, managers, and dining room staffs achieve that outstanding customer service reputation which always sets a restaurant apart from its fierce competition.
Richard has written “How To Improve Dining Room Service” which is widely used for setting up and organizing restaurant dining room service. With each consulting job, this book always gets implemented in one way or another. The reasons being is that the concepts explained inside the book will help put the correct dining room service systems in place and keep them functioning properly for years to come.


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