Restaurant 101: The Host, Your Best (Worst?) Friend

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the host in her natural habitat is accompanied by a phone and several menus….

The front desk can be your best friend or your worst enemy whether you are a guest, a server, or a front of house manager.  The amount of information that a host is privy to and the logistical finesse required to keep service running smoothly is enormous.

The Basics

The restaurant host, first and foremost, answers the phone. The only way everyone else is able to focus on service is knowing that the phone, squealing like a hungry baby, is being tended to by someone else.  The host makes reservations, cancellations, fields questions about the menu, directions, parking information, and screens calls for the managers/ owners.  Simultaneously, she greets guests as they arrive, seats them in a friendly and efficient manner, slips a note to the chef/manager/server about any food allergies or special requests from each table. In some restaurants she hands the server a note for each table so he can greet the table with a “Good evening, Ms. Jones and Mr. Smith…”

The host keeps the front doors sparkling, the entry way clear. She polishes the menus and replaces soiled pages.  She sells retail merchandise if there is any, and she checks bags and coats.

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Restaurant 101: What’s a busboy do?

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tell tale signs of a bus boy– water pitcher and dirty plates.

A dining room runs like a football team, every staff member has a position and plays a very specific role.  It is only by having several positions with different areas of focus that you can ensure service is smooth.

For the first installment– let’s start with the foundation of the front of house staff: the bussing crew.

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Restaurant 101: The Cell Phone Conundrum

The LA Times food section today featured a nice little piece on one new variable in dining rooms across the city, the potential hurdles that the presence of cell phones creates. A couple of additional things to consider:

For a restaurant, the cell phone truly is a hurdle to great service. It not only makes the table a minefield for potentially disastrous spills, but the cell phone in the restaurant is the culprit for more mis-orders than I can count.

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Share Plate: OVER IT!


For this installment of Share Plate, I asked my friends who run kitchens and dining rooms what aspects of the hospitality industry they are “completely over.” As I was preparing to write this little blurb, Zagat.com ran a hot little item titled “10 Most Controversial Restaurant Policies”, which is a nice counterpoint to check out, too.

The number one issue noted by my cabal of restaurateurs, by a landslide, is guests who modify the menu. As one downtown Los Angeles general manager puts it:

“I’m officially over guests modifying a dish beyond recognition….And you should never be allowed to modify happy hour.”

The inability to modify the menu is one of the things that annoys guests the most, though. So….

Why is it so terrible?

Is it really that big a deal to just make the burger with Bleu Cheese rather than Swiss?

Not always.

But suppose the burger is coming from the grill station on the line in the kitchen. The grill station does not have Bleu Cheese on it, the pantry station does.  So, someone has to get the cheese from the pantry, to get it to the grill cook. And both the pantry cook and the grill cook have seven tickets in front of them, one of which is a table of 17 on a set menu. Somehow in the ensuing chaos,  either the special order ticket, or the tickets after the special ticket, are going to wait while one of the cooks leaves their station to rummage around for said cheese.

In that case, yes, it is a terrible request. It’s not so much that chefs don’t want you to enjoy your meal (though it is worth noting that there are usually reasons a chef chooses to serve a dish a certain way), it’s more about logistics and being able to maintain a high level of service.  About 60% of the time the guests don’t like the modified dish anyway, and the other guests at their table are annoyed that they had to wait. As a dining room manager, all of this sounds like things you are now going to have to comp.

Other hot button issues were:

  • Using a steak knife as a butter knife,  when both are on the table. The server who placed the steak knife believes that this table has everything they need for their entree course before going to take the order on her next table, only to waved down by the first table because they now need another knife.
  • Entitled servers. One prolific special events manager says, “I’m over pretentious serving and bar staff… ” This is a struggle for guests and operators alike; it’s a human industry, and humans can be….. variable.  Servers that appear at your table to feel entitled to a 20% gratuity are also the staff that appear to feel entitled to the best shifts, the best stations, and the best parties, regardless of their abilities to provide good service or be a team player. The bearded, arm-banded bartender who sneers when you order anything that’s not artisanal gin is also the staff member that will go on vacation witouth getting hs shifts covered…Not all servers display an attitude of entitlement, but those that do…. are seriously annoying.
  • Impossible requests: From a fine dining server: “requests like a “quiet booth/table” on a Saturday night.  That’s never going to happen …  it’s Saturday night!  Typically it’s the busiest night of the week.  How are we suppose to control the people sitting next to you, they too are out, spending money & have a right to enjoy the night as they see fit.”

And a nice one to end on, from a director of operations and restaurant consultant:

“I could go on and on here, from servers’ feelings of entitlement to a 20%+ tip just for serving food at a minimal service level, to guests’ feelings of entitlement to order anything they want from a menu and their dismay when they are charged for extra food or for their substitutions, and on to bloggers who are really just opinionated diners who don’t know the industry that steal time and attention away in the blogoshpere from highly knowledgable and greatly experienced restaurant people such as Mary King.”

awww, shucks…
What do you think? What aspects of the hospitality industry are you ‘over’?

Share Plate: Christopher Gerber

Avec Chicago
Christopher Gerber
the man wishes to remain a mystery.....

For the past fifteen years, Christopher Gerber has been knocking around the Chicago hospitality scene, in roles ranging from food runner, server, maitre’ d, to restaurant consultant. He’s diplomatically walked the line between the front and back of house in such esteemed venues as Trio, Tru, Nomi, Alinea, the Publican, and many others.

WSE: So, you’ve been doing this for….

Gerber: Fifteen years. My first job in restaurants was as a runner and sometimes dishwasher at a place called Rigoletto.

WSE: What led you to a career in hospitality?

Gerber: Acting, naturally. No, actually, it was meeting a chef at my place of work that was not a restaurant and him basically telling me to come work for him.

WSE: Do you think Service is Dead, as the Zagat’s and some others have recently claimed?

Gerber: I feel like that is an impossible statement to make…. when you look at it, service has just changed, some places have brought it down to compliment the nose-to-tail, farm-to-table experience. That style has never been about a sort of ‘elitist’ experience. I understand what they’re saying, but I think the service is there, it’s just more laid-back. You can get a hippie vibe.

WSE: Do you think servers have changed?

Gerber: There’s a big gap in finding people who want to serve. There is a lot more to service than just the nuts and bolts of take the order, bring the drinks, drop the check. It’s a relationship. It really is like someone coming to your home. You offer them something to drink, you take their coat, make sure they are warm enough, or cool enough. It’s just like having a houseguest, and if you approach it with the same heartfelt energy… you have to bring that to the table. All I want is for the my guests to be happy, that’s it.

Be welcoming. Be genuine.

WSE: You know, ‘Be welcoming, be genuine’ are two of the four commandments in Starbucks’ training.

Gerber: Really? that’s funny…. I’ve never worked at Starbucks, I swear.

WSE: Suuure….How do you feel about another tenet that the Bux made famous, ‘always say yes?’

Gerber: The answer for the most part, is always yes. But if a person is being belligerent and wrong… then no. Break up with them and move on. It’s that relationship thing again. We all have people we dated once and don’t date anymore… and there’s a reason why.

WSE: Any thoughts on the Richman/ M. Wells kerfluffle?

Gerber: It seemed like both parties were a little at fault. There probably was a little jokey playfulness between [Richman] and the server, but why would be risk his reputation to write about it?

WSE: Do you think there is a difference in service in Chicago?

Gerber: Chicago as opposed to New York and LA? Well, you have a glut of actors in New York and LA that you don’t have in Chicago. The times I’ve dined in LA, too, I sometimes got this feeling that staff was looking over their shoulders to see who was more important in the room. Chicago has a good mix, there’s an openness in Chicago that lends itself to service, I think.

WSE: What are your go-to restaurants?

Avec Chicago
The Interior of Avec-- one of Mr. Gerber's favorite restaurants

Gerber: Strictly speaking about Chicago, I’d have to say avec is still tops for me. Consistent items, seasonal. Always amazing food. Arami is creating some visually stunning and amazing sushi, I’m a little tired of the “farm-to-table, organic, sustainable, nose-to-tail, shared-plates” thing. So, I’m ignoring those. I think Schwa is still very viable. Alinea, of course. Sepia is very much at the forefront of Chicago dining.

WSE: So you don’t like to share, huh?

Gerber: I’m consulting for a restaurant right now where the whole menu is intended to be enjoyed individually. You get your own appetizer, and your own entree… it’s liberating.

WSE: You’ve worked in some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country—what do you think is the biggest misconception about fine dining?

Gerber: That it has to be stuffy. I truly believe that so long as the servers handle their guests with grace and dignity and are knowledgeable about the food & beverage side of their job there’s no need to disallow them your gregarious and humorous side of yourself.

WSE:  What 5 tips would you give diners who want to make the most out of their night out in a restaurant? 

Gerber: Such an awesome question!

1.) What I would say first is an old Second City phrase which is “say ‘yes’ to the improv”. Too often guests dine and try to fashion the experience to their specifications. Oftentimes, as in any profession, the professional knows their area of expertise better than you do. So, allow us to do what we do. Obviously, this is disregarding serious allergies and other dietary needs but that’s a whole other tangent.

2.) Don’t ask “what is your favorite dish?”. Worst question ever. I love the Lobster roll. But you’re allergic to shellfish. So we’re back to square one.  Ask specific questions about a certain esoteric ingredient. Or “what’s new and exciting?”, or “what is the chef excited about right now?” are also a good ones.

3.) Try to show up for your reservation early.

4.) When you’re asked if you’re enjoying the dish you’re eating be honest if you are not. A restaurant worth it’s salt will respond accordingly if you dislike it by offering something else in its place. We can fix the problem if you tell us then. There’s not much we can do after the Yelp! review.

5.) Be specific with price range with wine. It helps the server find a range and sets up the parameters rather quickly.

WSE: What is the strangest thing you have seen happen in a dining room?

Gerber: A lady finding an aphid in her morel. Someone cutting their tongue on the food. People stealing anything and everything that’s not nailed down. But what takes the cake is having your dining room flood from the floor above. On Valentine’s Day.

WSE: What is your favorite restaurant right now?

Gerber: Alinea

WSE: Your favorite wine or cocktail?

Ms. Stewart's Ramos Gin Fizz
anatomy of a Ramos Gin Fizz (from martha stewart)

Gerber: Favorite wine would have to be Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc. Favorite cocktail is a Ramos Gin Fizz.

WSE: Do you cook for yourself at home?

Gerber: I do. No “go-to” dish. I basically choose a protein that looks good at the market and build my dish around that. Sort of like Top Chef albeit at a much slower pace… And I’m the only contestant.

WSE: who has been your greatest mentor in the hospitality industry?

Gerber: Henry Adaniya

WSE: What makes Henry so great?

Gerber: The best thing about Henry is that he’s not afraid of taking an idea and throwing it in a pan, or throwing it off the table entirely. He doesn’t have a static idea of what works. What works for one restaurant doesn’t work for another one, and he taught me not to be afraid to be wrong. He said “you’re gonna fuck up. I’ll be here to tell you that you fucked up, and then we’ll get over it.” And that was a watershed moment; it empowered me to take ownership.

WSE: Do you think mentorship still exists in hospitality?

Gerber:I didn’t see it as much ten, fifteen years ago, actually. Back then, it felt much more like there were chefs, and there were

Henry Adaniya
chef-restaurateur-author-mentor, Henry Adaniya

owners. The restaurant culture now is much more chef driven, but when I started out it was much more about the owner. He was the guy that welcomed you in and took great care of you. The chef was a guy in a white coat that most people never saw. But there’s an idea now about building a team, growing talent, and knowing you can’t do it on your own. As restaurant groups grow, things can get compartmentalized… to have a good brand you have to have good mentoring. Here in Chicago, I see it with the guys at the Boka Group, One Off Hospitality,  and Grant [Achatz]’s restaurants.

WSE: Is there a food or cuisine that you are excited to explore right now?

Gerber: Asian

WSE: What is the most memorable meal you have ever had?

Gerber: Trio in 2002

WSE: What are you looking forward to next?

Gerber: Change

A Question of Service…

A few days ago, Tim and Nina Zagat wrote on the Huffington Post that the hospitality industry should consider developing a ‘service degree’ that could be ‘taught on-line.’ It’s an interesting idea.

Tim and Nina, powerhouses in the hospitality industry that they are, have no experience running a restaurant, however. They suggest that this Degree in Service would be a Front of House answer to the higher prevalence of culinary school grads in restaurant kitchens nowadays.  It is worth noting, that the relevance of culinary degrees is a hot-button issue at the moment, as well. Because at it’s core, the hospitality industry still runs as an apprenticeship model. There are good reasons for that.

There are almost as many different styles of cuisine and service as there are restaurants. There is no way a basic degree program could effectively teach all these nuances, within a reasonable amount of time.  Culinary schools, and virtual classrooms can definitely get the basics in—what temperature must food be maintained at, not storing meats above vegetables, serving from the left, clearing from the right—but then you add in the human element. Everything you learned in a classroom can’t prepare you for the walk-in refrigerator not holding temperature, or how to handle the parents who let their four year old wander into the kitchen.

There are many processes that are specific to each restaurant, as well. Regardless of the level of degree one may have attained, everyone pretty much starts at the same level in the kitchen and in the front of the house. Those with degrees do tend to move up the ranks faster, but I have seen culinary school grads start as dishwashers, just as those without degrees. I have as many servers on my staff that began as bussers as I have career servers.

The biggest challenge I face, honestly, in training staff?

The level of digital stimulation everyone has become comfortable with nowadays. Getting my staff to put down their Smartphones, forget constant internet contact, and re-learn to look people in the eyes is harder than you might think. I have had applicants answer their cell phone in the middle of an interview, and think that is completely normal.  And past the interview process, I’ve had trainees think nothing of texting their roommate while I am showing them how we count banks and track cash in our restaurant.

Obviously, those candidates did not last long.

But my point is that hospitality is a human industry. The only way you can get good at it is by interacting with people. You cannot get an education as a server by sitting in front of a computer screen. The last thing I need is for my staff to be spend more time with machines.

Training in the restaurant industry is a challenge, yes, but it is also an opportunity. Training is not a “burden” for the restaurant; it is a cost of doing business.  A good restaurant would rather train it’s own front of house staff than have to un-train habits that don’t work in their establishment before they can even begin to instill the habits that work best.

Restaurants that value service should put in the work to develop a solid training program, and stick to it. It’s not easy; it’s work. Train trainers on your staff. Have benchmarks that your staff must meet. Train your staff everyday in pre-shift meetings. The education in a restaurant should never stop. I still learn something new everyday. It’s one of the things that I love about this industry.

What do you think?