The Restaurant Industry’s Strange Practice of Not Writing Important Things Down

At some point in my adult life, many people in the restaurant industry were seized by the idea that wait staff should not write down customers’ orders. I wonder where this practice came from and what its economic payoff is presumed to be.

Two companions and I had brunch this weekend in an eatery of the “don’t write things down” school. When you count in beverages and side orders, that meant that the waitress was trying to remember about 9 pieces of information, which is at the limit of most people’s working memory (Psychologist George Miller famously showed that most people have cognitive space for seven items, plus or minus two). Unsurprisingly, she brought me the wrong main dish and got both of my companions’ side orders wrong.

Why does this practice persist, when it is economically disadvantageous for the restaurant? In this case for example, food was wasted and at least one of my dining companions was sufficiently irritated to reduce his tip.

Many industry practices happen out of sight of the customer. But industries make certain practices public if they believe it will increase customers’ willingness to pay. As the “we don’t write things down” parlour trick is done ostentatiously, it must be believed that customers value it and will pay for it. I wonder if there is any basis to this belief.

The health care industry has dramatically increased patient safety by writing down important things more often and double-checking information to avoid errors (e.g., does the patient’s wrist band match the name in the chart? Does the medication label match the prescription? Does the written surgical order match the planned procedure?). It is hard to imagine a hospital today marketing itself by emphasizing to patients that “We aren’t one of those fuddy-duddy medical centers that writes important information down!”. Yet at least some people in the restaurant industry seem to think that relying only on memory is a selling point.

One could argue that it’s different with hospitals because a memory error therein can lead to health damage. But that only makes sense if you ignore that fact that people have food allergies. I can’t imagine the anxiety of a restaurant customer who says “Take out the coriander because I become violently ill if I eat it” and then observes that the waiter doesn’t write this important information down.

Of course, industries sometimes adopt ineffective practices based on faith and anecdote. Maybe a management guru in the food industry ran some seminars for CEOs and said that when wait staff maintain eye contact during the order-taking process, customer satisfaction increases, or, that when a waiter remembers an order correctly without writing it down, customers are so thrilled that they tip more.

To me it’s just sloppy practice and raises the risk that the wait staff will fail at one of their essential duties: Bringing customers the food they actually ordered. The proposition that restaurant customers are less inclined to reward receiving the right food than they are a vaudeville-style memory trick seems extremely dubious.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

36 thoughts on “The Restaurant Industry’s Strange Practice of Not Writing Important Things Down”

  1. 7 Always be clear about your order. When taking the order, take time to clarify that you’ve written it down or heard the request correctly. If there is a choice of selection, ask. Don’t simply present the diner with white toast because the customer didn’t ask for rye, unless the menu states that a certain item will be given unless otherwise requested. Also, be aware that taking down orders by memory often worries customers because they think you will forget something. Unless your employer requires orders by memory, write it down!
    How to Be a Great Waitress

    1. […]
      Defender’s of the practice say that “it’s a more hospitable experience,” because “it’s easier to make a recommendation or suggestion,” and you can look customers in the eye. One server says that “it puts your guests at ease knowing that you’re in control of the situation.” Not so, according to the Post, as one waiter tells them “One time I pulled out a notepad and a girl was like, ‘Oh thank God—it always makes me so nervous.'”

      Padless Miscreant Waiters Use “Memory” To Diners’ Dismay

  2. i lived in estes park, co for about 2 years while i was in my early 30s. this is a resort town and much of the middle and lower middle class economy of the town is driven by tips. there are a lot of restaurants in estes particularly for a town its size so i knew many waitrons. it wasn’t so much management rules but personal pride that caused most of the ones i knew to work without a notepad. carrying pencil and paper was the same, to them, as admitting they had no business waiting tables. in the 20 years since i returned to texas i’ve seen waitrons in many levels of the industry use notepads. i recently ate at a brazilian style restaurant at which the waiter used an app on his smart phone to send our order straight to the kitchen. i’ve also seen many who never wrote things down. i have seldom been disappointed in either situation. sorry to ramble but it is remarkable how arrogant behind the scenes career waitrons can be about their profession.

  3. I have a possibly related pet peeve. Why is it that nowadays orders are often brought to the table not by the waiter who took the order, and if competent would know who ordered what, but by others who have to ask? This seemed like a blatant and pointless regression in service to me, but of late I have toyed with a more complex speculation. Is it a mechanism to make the assistants legally eligible for sharing of tips? Inquiring minds want to know.

    1. I agree. I generally regard it as a mark of professional service for the plates to be delivered to the right people.

      At least the obnoxious practice of waiters introducing themselves by name seems to be dying down. I’m reminded of a New Yorker cartoon featuring a couple having dinner at a restaurant when one of them says to the waiter,

      “Nice to meet you, Bob. Do you mind if we call you, ‘waiter?’

      Oh. And turn down the volume on the music.

      1. Sometimes it can be too loud, of course, but remember, the music is there to make your conversation more private. It took me 35 years to realize that, so I like to share it.

    2. No, tips are generally pooled and then shared by the waitstaff according to a previously agreed upon formula that also determines who gets what and whether anybody else among the front of the house staff gets tips.

      In the older tradition, all of the food for a particular course, for example, would be delivered at the same time. Typically, every seat at a table had an identifier and either the ticket from the kitchen or the sheet from the waiter’s notepad would show which dish was to be delivered to which guest.

      In that older, fine dining tradition servers and sometimes (but rarely busboys) would assemble so that every guest at the table would be presented with his or her dishes at the same time and also in silence. There was never a need to ask the guests and, indeed, it would have been a bad mistake if a waiter was forced to ask. Sometimes the waiter for the table or the head waiter would direct traffic to make sure the dishes were delivered correctly and in silence.

      One reason why the person delivering the food may need to ask who gets what is if the order system shows only the table number and not the seat. In which case, either must be delivered by the waiter who took the order and hopefully remembers or the person serving the dish must ask.

      I happen to agree with Keith that the new fashion of trying to memorize a large complicated order is a stupid idea that seems to be based entirely on consultant psychobabble.

    3. It makes it so you get your food faster. “Your” waiter might be “in the weeds” (very busy with other tables) and instead of letting the food sit on a warming table a food runner can bring it out. Is it really an inconvenience to raise your hand when they ask “who ordered the pork chops?”

      By having appointed food runners whose job it is to fill in these gaps it lets the waiter have a little slack when they get busy. This means that fewer people can accomplish the same job overall, so better pay for them.

      1. It happens, not infrequently, that three people at the table ordered “pork chops” but one with a baked potato, one with mashed potatoes, and one with fries. When the server asks, “Who has the pork chops,” the first person to raise his hand gets the dish in the server’s hand with two chances out of three that it’s the wrong dish. I run into this situation monthly at breakfast with five to fifteen colleagues. How hard can it be to associate a seat, an order, and the meal on the plate?

  4. My pet theory on why restaurants do this is to play a status signaling game. The indication is that they must have attentive skilled people working there rather than just some kid at McDonalds taking your order because they don’t have to put it right into a computer (and still get it wrong), instead they listen to you, and then get the order wrong by not being able to put it right into a computer and testing the average person’s memory. I’d much rather they use a smart phone app personally that customers could link into and verify. Or just let people order directly through a kiosk/app and the waiter’s job is to answer questions and provide advice rather than fiddle with order-taking (and also to make sure the order is correctly made and served).

    I can see some logic of hospitality that it allows better engagement with a customer, and some logic of how attentive it forces people to be (similar to not writing down most/any notes during a class lecture), but mostly I see a status game to help justify charging higher prices than the chain or fast food place down the road.

    1. I agree.

      And adding on to Mark’s comment (“To me it’s just sloppy practice and raises the risk that the wait staff will fail at one of their essential duties: Bringing customers the food they actually ordered. The proposition that restaurant customers are less inclined to reward receiving the right food than they are a vaudeville-style memory trick seems extremely dubious.”),

      I think that there’s a lot of very stupid junk-management, where management thinks that decorations, bling on the staff’s clothing and various fripperies are as important as informing the customers of what is available and what they’d probably like, helping them order intelligently, and then bringing them the right order, prepared correctly, as quickly as feasible.

  5. The first time I remember seeing this was at Antoine’s in New Orleans in the last ’70s. There were just two of us in our group but the table over was a party of 8 and the waiter got everything perfect, no “Who had the…” It was an impressive thing to watch. But in these days working there was a lifetime job (maybe still is, haven’t been in nearly 30 years).

    I’ve only run across it in a few places since — as I tend not to spend money at high end restaurants much anymore. Just about every Friday the wife and I have lunch at a particular restaurant and we always have the same waiter — and 95% of the time we order the same thing. And our waiter (who is one if the best I’ve ever seen) writes it down, everytime. I don’t feel he is any less of a “professional” because if it.

    I think it is one of those thinks businesses do to give a fake sense of “class” — like calling customers “guests” (restaurants and hotels can call me a guest, to every other business I am a customer)

  6. Back in the late 70’s, it was something of a tradition that the patrons of the Library bar, (Wait staff all students at the local university, as were most of the patrons.) would order, wait until the waiter was gone, and then get up and switch seats. And the selections would be correctly handed out anyway.

    I honestly have no idea how they managed it, but that was impressive.

  7. food was wasted and at least one of my dining companions was sufficiently irritated to reduce his tip.

    Boy, I bet he really showed that restaurant by punishing the wait staff for almost certainly following the owner’s policy.

      1. It’s a tired debate– but I love it! I’d rather spend 2+ hours arguing about this than watching a baseball game. No contest! 🙂

      2. Yeah, when restaurant owners are allowed to pay wait staff as little as $2.35 an hour, you’d better treat it as an entitlement. Or stop eating at restaurants that have wait staff. But punishing the wait staff for something that’s the restaurant’s policy is Not A Good Look. Ask to speak to the manager or owner and voice your displeasure to them; don’t rob someone else of a portion of their wages.

        1. I mean, the server still did mess the order up, and not just who got what, but what was actually ordered, and for multiple people. If they weren’t sure, they should have asked. Also, there was no indication that they were stiffed on a tip, merely that it was reduced. No one is entitled to 20%.

        2. “Punishing the wait staff for following policy” would be the accurate framing only if it were the restaurant’s policy to bring the wrong food to the table.

          1. Or, as was the point of the original article, the restaurant’s policy could actually be to increase errors.

  8. When people running small businesses decide not to make a written record of a transaction it’s a good bet they are hiding income. Also without an itemized bill how can you check to see that you are being charged correctly?

    1. You seem to be confusing writing down orders to deliver to the chef and register with filling out a check at the end of the meal. All restaurants fill out itemized checks, in the end. This piece is about wait staff that don’t take down orders on paper before a meal, and a purported likelihood of this leading to mixed-up or incorrect orders being delivered to the back.

      I, personally, have rarely, if ever, seen incorrect orders resulted from wait staff, even those who don’t use paper and rely on memory.

      1. “I, personally, have rarely, if ever, seen incorrect orders resulted from wait staff, even those who don’t use paper and rely on memory.”

        Then you, personally, rarely if ever dine out.

        1. I may not have dined out much of late, but I have dined out a fair amount in my life. What, pray tell, do you consider ‘rarely’, though, I must wonder before assuming too much, I suppose..? At the very least, I’ve gone out often enough for statistical significance, I feel, but maybe your standards are much higher than even that.

          No grievous error to my knowledge among parties I’ve gone out with. Maybe, somehow, I and those I dine with are statistical anomalies, but that seems highly unlikely. You’d think if this was a real problem at least a few cases would crop up even with one who has a moderate experience with dining out, maybe once or twice a month, but this is with people who have eaten out at least weekly in the past, so even more bizarre.

          If anything, the rare cases of errors my dining companions have recalled were more the fault of the cook not cooking their meat quite to specification. Still healthy to eat, mind, but still.

    2. “When people running small businesses decide not to make a written record of a transaction it’s a good bet they are hiding income. Also without an itemized bill how can you check to see that you are being charged correctly?”

      OTOH, those order slips are trivially easy to dispose of.

  9. I was a waiter for over a decade at every class of restaurant in my city (Minneapolis). Initially, I wrote everything down. There’s a lot to remember – beverages, modifications, special requests. But after a while, I started to just remember what people ordered and didn’t need to write it down anymore. I simply repeated the order in my head and even imagined a visual of the dish. And so I stopped writing things down? But why do this? Why not just keep writing it down? The answer is that I’m busy and it takes less time. After I was a pro did I sometimes make mistakes? Occasionally, yes. But the vast majority of the time I did just fine.

    As to this idea that a person can only remember seven or so items at once, this is partially correct. The question is, What is an “item”? I would argue an “item” is different that a “piece of information.” Just observe one of those high school competitions over who can remember the most digits of pi. I bet you the winner knows more that 3.141592. This is because he or she is grouping more and more digits into seven or so sets.

    So when I was taking a three course dinner order for six people, with beverages, I would essentially group each course into an ordered set in my head. Difficult? Not nearly as difficult as reciting 100,000 digits of pi from memory, as Akira Haraguchi did in 2006, for the world record.

    1. Excellent description of memory chunking. Chess grandmasters do the same thing, remembering clusters of pieces, which allows them to recall more games play by play.

  10. But the order has to be written down at some point, unless the kitchen staff can remember all the orders they are preparing, and unless the owner doesn’t care to match orders with receipts, inventory, and so on.

    So how is time gained?

    1. The order is entered into a computer for the kitchen staff – not writing it at the table means only entering it once (rather than once by longhand and then again at the computer).
      But it generally is a point of pride matter to remember things accurately; I worked in the service industry and generally did not write things down. Although would grab a pad when confronted with a very large table making a complicated order (all entrees and drinks, with apps, at once).
      The basic rule is “write it down if you need to write it down” – this isn’t a hospital so the consequences of getting the order wrong are rather small, so it doesn’t warrant imposing a mandatory policy to write everything for all groups.

    2. Nowadays even at the tiny little diner it all goes into some computer or other. But if the server can remember the order for long enough to get back an push a bunch of buttons it certainly saves time over writing it down and then going back and transcribing it to a bunch of button-pushes. In fact, the entry from memory might be more accurate unless the server has developed some kind of code for writing items, because the button-pushes do not usually map cleanly to the way dishes are ordered.

  11. Here in LA, the usual theory is that the waiters are all aspiring actors anyway and want to show some movie producer diner that they can memorize lines.

  12. I came across a chain moules-et-frites restaurant in Strasbourg years ago that had taken up f PDA technology: the waiter entered the order in a customised terminal at the table. I don’t recall if they had wifi in those days but that’s a detail. The technology cuts down drastically the risk of errors in cooking and billing. Not adopting it is affectation, since it’s now very cheap, with touchscreen tablets everywhere.

    Keith is right to point out that the medical professions have a better culture – but not always (consider the resistance to electronic medical records). And didn’t medics get the checklist idea from aviation? They are still SFIK behind on post-disaster investigation aimed at avoiding recurrence rather than apportioning blame.

  13. There’s another important reason to write down orders:

    Food allergies and sensitivies.

    I have a client who is extremely egg-sensitive and once ended up in the ER when similar-looking entrees were switched at the table (the garnish had obviously been swapped out in the kitchen by someone paying attention)… and a different waitperson brought the orders out than had taken the orders. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to substitute an orange twist for a tomato rose as the garnish if not everyone knows why that was done! Had the order been written down, a note of what the different garnish meant would have been much more likely to make its way to whoever was putting plates on the table.

    This is only going to become more of an issue as even more restaurant patrons are on blood thinners/blood-pressure medication, etc. Oops. I was saying that back in the 1980s, just after I had been in the restaurant business. It’s no less applicable today.

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