Ever walked into a restaurant in the afternoon, the doors are open, there’s a bartender, a host. As you mosey toward the bar for a coffee the host advises you “the bar is open, but the kitchen doesn’t open until 5 o’clock.”
That’s half an hour away, surely you could get a salad or something, right?
Not always. Here’s why: Sidework.
In order to prepare for service, the stations in the kitchen have to be set up. Between lunch and dinner service the guard is changing in the kitchen, everything is being deep cleaned by the lunch cooks, and the dinner cooks have to set everything up from scratch. And that entails quite a bit of work behind the scenes. The salad station actually requires some of the greatest attention, as uncooked vegetables are the items most prone to food-borne illness.
Every item must be prepared, checked for temperature, and an ice bath set up in order to maintain all items at temperatures below 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
That means that while you are sipping your cafe au lait at the bar, wondering
how hard it is to put together a salad, there are line cooks in the kitchen carting fifty pound bins of ice, calibrating thermometers, chilling salad plates, warming plates for entrees, and making sure they have all their garnishes and fussy things prepared. Once dinner service starts, they’re not going to have much downtime, if any, to catch up.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
What do you think? What aspects of the hospitality industry are you ‘over’?
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?
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.
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: 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
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?
WSE: What is the most memorable meal you have ever had?
There was a time when someone would have a bad experience in your restaurant and they would tell 10 of their closest friends, who would then tell 10 of their closest friends, and on and on until your business slowly gained a less than stellar reputation. In the age of social media, however, we have access to our 874 closest acquaintances at the click of a button on twitter, facebook…. or Yelp!. Yelping is curious to me. It actually isn’t anything new; since the dawn of restaurant culture in 18th century Paris, diners have been sharing their experiences with friends. Regardless of where one grew up, or what level of education one has achieved, anyone can have an opinion about food. But Yelping in its current form is different in that we are not sharing with just our friends and family; when we Yelp, we share our opinions with untold thousands of strangers. Is this an illustration of how distant we have become from one another that we no longer have “10 of our closest friends” who can stand to listen to us blather on about the trivial mishaps that we encounter on a night out?
Anyone can have a Yelp account. Disgruntled former employees, rival business owners, the chef’s mother…. and on that account, one can say whatever one chooses. It’s America, after all.
With this awesome power, though, should be some attempt at honesty, and perhaps a dash of self-restraint. Below are a few guidelines that I use in the writing of my own Yelp reviews, and would suggest to anyone as a “Best Practices” guide.
#1: If you accept freebies as an apology, you have forfeited your right of Yelp! review. Or, if you write the review, you must mention that the restaurant made every attempt to correct the mistake.
On Yelp, it’s unsettling to read things like: “the chicken was underwhelming and I sent it back. We won’t be back“
when what it should say is: “the chicken was underwhelming and I sent it back, the manager took it off the check and sent dessert, but we won’t be back.”
Obviously, the manager or owner is offering these things as an apology; as an attempt to keep your night running smoothly. If a guest accepts these peace offerings, it’s a sort of verbal agreement that the issue is now settled.
At several restaurants where I have worked, we have a business Yelp account, and can actually directly message the reviewers. It’s definitely awkward when we remember this person who is slamming us, and recall the specific steps we took to rectify the problems at their tables only to see no mention of them in the subsequent review. End result, we look like complete jerk-faces.
#2: For every poopy review you write, try to write a great one for a place that gave you great service, never disappoints you, or is your go-to neighborhood spot. Even out the karma.
Most people only take the time to write a review when they have had a bad experience. While that’s fair, I try to end every Yelp review session on a positive note by writing a quick love note to a dependable spot that I adore. Most restaurants are small businesses. Everyone has an off night, and most places do whatever they can to make up for any mistakes that occur. It’s not rocket science, we’re not saving lives. It’s an incredibly transparent business.
#3: If your food and service was truly terrible, and unacknowledged, by all means go to town. But don’t get so carried away with your imagery that you slam the place more harshly than is necessary.
From actual Yelp! reviews of establishments in LA:
“Pardon me for my economically challenged palate. I thought the Kobe Schezuan Beef was a little too rich for my blood. (get it… economically challenged… rich.. hehe:”
“As I was sitting there pondering what literary device would best convey my feelings about my second visit to XXXXX, the closest analogy I could provide was to compare the experience to what I would imagine what a bad second date would be like after one had already experienced a mediocre first date.”
That is a terrible analogy. It’s not even an analogy, really.
Not everyone can be Kyle J. Just tell us about your experience, and save the eloquence for those with a gift.
#4 Have reasonable expectations.
“After asking for another table, our party waited nearly 10 minutes before being greeted by our server, who also made very few trips to our table throughout the course of dinner.”
This was probably because the table you asked for was not in a station that was staffed. There was a reason the host didn’t seat you at this table in the first place, probably because she realized that the service would be slower there.
“Food was ok, fried provolone seemed a little under-inspired. The pizza crust however was super booooring.”
Fried Cheese and Pizza are usually not intended to be life-changing. I don’t imagine the chef was trying to knock anybody’s socks off with these offerings. He was probably thinking “these go great with beer and game!” Which is true; they do.
“My endive salad was unremarkable”
Aren’t most endive salads unremarkable? I don’t think I’ve ever had an endive salad that blew my mind. (Although if anyone has had one in LA, please share…)
“the biggest disappointment is the store-bought catsup for the fries. Surely someone in the kitchen knows how to make catsup.”
In this case, it is probably not that the kitchen lacks the knowledge to make ketchup, but that the cost of the ingredients and the labor to make ketchup are prohibitive. For every guest that loves home-made ketchup, you will find 2 people that are adamant about the superiority of the Heinz 57th variety.
“Pork Belly sliders: After all the rave reviews, I was pumped to try these. Um… I think they forgot the pork. Try fat fatty sliders because that is all I could taste.”
Pork belly is fat. It’s pretty much a big old slab of fat, fatty bacon. 92% of the calories in Pork Belly come from fat. It’s one of the fattiest things you can eat. (yum)
From behind the kitchen door, I an can assure you that when we see patterns in these reviews (a particular server pops up for consistently poor service, a new dish is roundly panned by several guests), changes are made. Staff is re-trained or let go, dishes are changed or disappear forever.
Regardless of what some diners might feel, restaurateurs are not trying to hood-wink you; we genuinely want to please our guests and provide you with enjoyable experiences. Most of us got into this business because we love food and –god help us– we like people. But reading the Yelp page for any restaurant is enough sometimes to ruin even my best mood and send me on a punching spree through the dining room.