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 the initial question had been sitting at the bar of his restaurant watching the dining room service on his off hours. There were three people at the table, one person had completely finished the plate of food, but 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 busboys or waitstaff.
His inquiry was a simple restaurant dining room service question (quite legitimate) that may actually have more than one answer. It 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 waiter obviously must wait until the customer is finished eating from their plate.
Whether it is a completely empty plate in front of the customer, or if the customer has placed their knife and fork side by side in the middle of the plate, or if the customer has not touched their food in 20 minutes, the storeer 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: Were there white tablecloths covering the tables? Was the floor completely rugged? What are some expensive items on the menu?
After receiving the some answers, I concluded that, yes, it was a fine dining restaurant. Therefore, my immediate answer to the chef's question was to wait until all of the customers are completely finished eating, then start the process of clearing. In most cases for a fine dining restaurant, if the one plate was only cleared while the other two customers were still eating, all three customers might have been offended thinking that they are being rashed out of the restaurant.
That is the "book" rule, yet a few more points must be added to this answer. What about the "situation at hand?" What about the customer needs "at the moment?"
The answers may actually warrant the act of clearing that "one finished plate" immediately. What if the customer had a train to catch and wanted to leave the restaurant quickly before the other two parties sitting with him / her? What if the customer asked to have the plate cleared? What if the customer, who had finished eating, put the credit card on the table wanting to pay and leave the restaurant quickly?
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 dirty plate may soil the customer's sleeve with an incidental sideswipe of the plate. In this instance, "by using common sense," the waiter can ask the customer: "May I remove your plate?"
In a casual dining restaurant service situation, where the plates are intense (and sometimes way too big for the tables), removing the plates ahead of time as customers may be the norm. There may be no other way to get the clearing job done before an intense entrée course arrives.
The main point is that there are always "standard rules of restaurant dining room service." But occasionally, 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 more rude than trying to clear a plate while the customer is still enjoying it. But, unfortunately, these problems does occur with careless restaurant service.
This 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 is truly an infinite number of situations that can occur. The trick is to anticipate the customer's and the pro-act in the hope that the end result will be a very pleased and satisfied customer.