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The answer to one of life’s mysteries: How does that great waiter remember all those orders?

The Guardian newspaper’s always entertaining “Improbable Research” series focused this week on a study that investigated the impressive memory strategies of Buenos Aires waiters.

Apparently, waiters in “la Paris de Sudamerica” are renowned for their flawless ability to take and deliver drink orders for as many as 10 people per table without writing anything down — and without asking or checking with the customers about who ordered what.

As someone who paid for part of her undergraduate college tuition (and a summer bumming around in Europe) with the tips earned serving drinks in the bar of an upscale restaurant, I was intrigued. So I dug up the study (published last year in the journal Behavioural Neurology) from Pubmed and read it myself.

The first thing that struck me: This must have been a fun study to conduct. Two of the researchers got to act as “table coordinators” during the experiments. And although the study doesn’t name the bars in which the experiments took place, the authors give us a hint about one of them: They’ve dubbed the memory phenomenon they observed in the waiters “the Tortoni effect,” in honor of Buenos Aires’ beautiful and historic Café Tortoni.

A tough job, but, hey, someone has to do it.

The second thing that struck me: The waiters’ superior memory skills rely on very, very old techniques. In fact, one of the memory techniques used by the waiters can be traced back to the Greek lyric poet Simonides of Ceos (c. 556-468 BC).

The study
The study’s methodology was pretty straightforward. The skills of nine waiters were observed during the course of the study. For each experiment, eight volunteers went into a bar, sat at a table and ordered drinks. The researchers evaluated how well the waiter did in delivering the drinks. They also took notes of the orders being given the waiter from other tables. (The waiters themselves didn’t know they were being observed.) Only one of the nine waiters made a mistake, delivering the wrong drinks to two of the eight volunteer customers.

The volunteers then ordered a second round of drinks, but this time they switched seats before the waiter returned. This caused chaos. All but one of the waiters made mistakes.

In post-experiment interviews, the waiters acknowledged that they rely on location (where at the table an order was given) as well as the customers’ faces and clothing to deliver drinks to the right people. Interestingly, however, the one waiter who wasn’t thrown off his game by the switching of seats reported using only faces and clothing. He also told the researchers that his past serving experience had been mostly in cocktail parties — situations in which people are constantly moving about.

All nine waiters also told the researchers they “did not pay attention to any customer after taking a table’s order, as if they were protecting the memory formation in the path from the table to the bartender or kitchen.”

Method of loci
The waiters’ reliance on assigning a particular drink order to the seating location of the person requesting it is what made me think of Simonides, the man credited with inventing “the art of memory” (or ars memoriae, as the Romans later called it).

According to an ancient Greek legend (told beautifully by historian Frances Yates in her seminal book, “The Art of Memory”), moments after Simonides left a banquet hall where he had been reciting a poem in honor of a nobleman, the roof of the building collapsed, killing everybody inside. The mangled bodies could not be identified. Simonides, however, realized that he remembered precisely where each man had been sitting. Thus, he was able to help the grieving families retrieve their loved ones’ bodies for burial.

Simonides used this experience (or so it is said) to develop the elaborate Method of Loci mnemonic technique, which employs “place” — or, more precisely, spatial relationships — to encode new information in long-term memory.

None of the Buenos Aires waiters seemed to have cited Simonides when explaining their memory techniques. In fact, they “reported systematically that they have not thought of any particular strategy and that their great ability comes only with time and practice,” noted the authors of the Behavioural Neurology study.

I don’t think I had any particular memory strategy when I was waitressing. I mainly focused on being very nice to the bartender so he’d mix my customers’ drinks quickly and making sure I didn’t spill anything as I wound my way back to my tables. But if we have any former or current waitpeople among MinnPost readers, please feel free to offer your insights.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Brandon Cole on 08/21/2009 - 12:15 pm.

    Once again technology is destroying an ancient art. At the resturant I used to work at we had computer assisted table and seat number system. Each table has a 3 digit number and each seat a single digit, one through however many seats at the table. The server would punch the table number, seat number and order into the computer. A ticket would print in the kitchen, the order would be made then a runner would take the ticket and food to the proper table and seat. No need for good short term memory.
    This might explain the popularity of memory inhibiting substances used on the job.

  2. Submitted by Chris Nerlien on 08/23/2009 - 01:47 am.

    I’ve waited tables for years and haven’t used a notepad for the last several. No matter the method, the ability to memorize comes from experience. Sure a ‘method of placement’ comes into play, but I find myself using many techniques. The most often used relates a drink/food order to the customer’s facial features. At times, basic knowledge about customer types will help. Cosmopolitans are most often ordered my women just as scotch ‘on the rocks’ is more common with older men (and myself). Many waiters/servers will set drinks on the tray in order of seating to assist, though I rarely see this nowadays. As for technology, I believe it helps initially, but eventually a waiter/server will not require it to do the job. After some experience most waiters/servers will not even use a computerized system, but will instead use their naturally gained skills.

  3. Submitted by Aaron Klemz on 08/24/2009 - 08:06 am.

    As a former server, I find this fascinating. As a current college instructor, I have to learn 150 plus new students every semester in five course sections. I find that I learn to connect where they are sitting to the name on the roll before I learn to connect the face and the name. For example, I’ll know where to look for the person when I call their name, even if I can’t remember exactly whose face it is that I am looking for.

    To overcome this, I scramble the room by creating small groups and then hand back papers, forcing myself to connect the face and the name.

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