It may be the worst part of any waiter's job, but everyone profits from a properly celebrated birthday.
Emptying bins, polishing glasses and cleaning ashtrays; of all the worst waiting tasks, there's one that knocks them all into a cocked hat: leading a room full of strangers and colleagues in a chorus of Happy Birthday. It's bad enough among friends and family, but on an atmosphere-free evening service it's enough to make you quit.
But some waiters seem to thrive on it. The undisputed kings of the birthday celebration are TGI Friday's. Love 'em or hate 'em, those guys know how to pardee. "You don't have to have the full experience with birthday songs and balloons and entertainment,"
insists Sales and Marketing Manager Nathan Godard, "but most do because we're synonymous with it. About five years ago we noticed a trend towards toning it down, but over the last two years there's been a switch back. I'd say we've reached a happy place. I'd hesitate to use the word ‘retro', but people are actively seeking this kind of experience."
"We use ‘zoning and profiling' to divide the restaurant into different areas. Once we know which parties are coming in, we will match waiters to that zone. If it's a lively party, we would get a waiter with the skillbase for that table."
That kitsch factor, coupled with the popularity of a TGI-style waiter on the Catherine Tate Show, have done wonders to reinstate the proper party. You may balk at facepainting, inflatable balloon hats and a medley of 20 birthday songs, but the chirpy TGI Friday's school of thought is not to be scoffed at. The group has half a million Birthday Club members on its database and it has the clout to target these customers with a vast range of incentives, including entertainers, free drinks and free tickets to local clubs, the cinema and bowling, all of which can be organised by one of their party co-ordinators. In other words, birthdays are good business.
"It can be difficult in fine-dining restaurants," says Andrew Hung, GM of Shanghai Blues in London. "There's a sense everything has to be discreet and elegant, but people still want to have happy memories of their night. We have to respect that." Hung suggests a subtle approach – a platter of fresh fruit with jasmine ice cream decorated with a candle, perhaps flowers, champagne, or cake if the client wishes. "Nothing too complicated, though. If they'd wanted a party, they would have booked one." Staff also have a camera on hand to take a snap of the guests to present in a card at the end of the evening.
Customer databases are a key tool. At Shanghai Blues, guests are contacted a few weeks in advance of their birthday – their details having been collected on comment cards or competition entry forms in the restaurant – and offered promotions according to their profile. At Shimla Pinks in Manchester, Operations Director Jazz Pannum does similarly, even sending out birthday cards by post. "It's far nicer than email," he says. "We're sending out up to 700 a month, but we get a 30 per cent uptake in bookings."
If guests draw attention to their birthday at the time of reserving, don't assume they're after a free glass of champers; it's simply their way of saying, "I want everything to go well."
Stephanie Schofield, Assistant Restaurant Manager at World Service in Nottingham, advises taking a note of such reservations.
"They wouldn't get preferential treatment, but we would arrange the best table we can, and try to make it special. If they're a larger party we'd recommend the private dining room."
Don't forget the cake. Guests love to bring their own, but this means a lower spend per head. Angela Morris, Marketing Assistant at Fifteen in London, explains their dilemma. "We used to charge ‘cakeage' [like corkage but for cakes] but now encourage people to order a cake, have a candle in the pudding, or have a chocolate piping plate saying ‘happy birthday'. When people bring their own, they often choose a supermarket one and we'd much rather they had something a little more special. We're seen very much as a special-occasion restaurant, partly because of Jamie's profile and also because there was a perception for a while that Fifteen was very difficult to get into. People are having a splurge – some even come in limos – so it's important that we get it right."
In other words, don't do what I once did and take a 40th birthday cake to a woman celebrating her 30th. It's embarrassing.