Restaurant 101: Turns

The word Turn in a restaurant is more than a verb, it is noun. In restaurant speak, a Turn is the liminal space between one party completing their meal and leaving the table and the next party arriving to take residence at the same table for their meal.

When service is running smoothly, turns are seamless. A party that arrived at 6:00pm is sipping the dregs of their coffee cups and signing the credit card slip by 7:45pm. They clear off moments later under a chorus of warm goodbye and thank you‘s from the assembled dining room staff. The table is clear of everything other than a few stray demitasse spoons and water glasses, so a single busser can carry all the dishes away in one trip to the scullery, and the table is re-set before an 8:00pm reservation arrives to take residency for another two hours.

Turns are necessary to most restaurant’s survival. In order to keep the lights on and the water running, establishments must be able to turn tables. On popular nights (Valentine’s Day, New Years Eve, Saturday night), the turns enable more guests to enjoy the space on a holiday or special occasion. Attempting to accommodate turns is why, when you call at noon on Saturday the only tables available for dinner that night are 5:00 and 9:00. The restaurant may be empty at 5:00, but the staff knows that all of their tables are booked for 6:30pm, so they may not be able to seat those tables at 5:15, or may only be able to seat them with the condition that they party clears the table by 7:00.

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, 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’?

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?

Restaurant 101: Biting the Hand That Feeds You…

A comment on the Angry Chef Ron Eyester’s “Six Ways Customers Tick Off Chefs”.

Since the thing was posted on’s Eatocracy, Monday 10/11, the Angry Chef’s words have caused a firestorm of commentary in my dining room as well as on the web.

The most disturbing part of the post is not, however, the chef’s rant; it is the melee in the comments section below it.

It is fairly obvious that the article is done with humor, part of the growing oeuvre begun by the Phoenix NewTimes regular Reasons Why your *Blank* hates you (insert: yoga instructor, housekeeper, cocktail waitress etc.). The chef is not serious, he wouldn’t throw a plate at your head for singing Happy Birthday is his dining room; he is venting. And hoping that, through humor, his comments will educate potential restaurant-goers about what it takes to run a restaurant.

In the comments section, however, a scary group-think has appeared. Posters who insist that people who work in the “SERVICE industry” are there merely to “SERVE ME!” Some gems:

“For you folks that CHOOSE to work in the service industry, your job IS to serve. If you don’t want to be treated like a servant, find a different line of work.”

“…Service industry personnel always have a story of how they got stuck doing “fill in the blank” these stories are as original as your local pole dancer “working her way through school”. People make bad decisions in their youth and pay for it as unhappy adults….a chef who serves sandwiches…has to be a University of Phoenix grad…another $10,000 and they will call you DR. CHEF.”

“…Take a good look at your $40K education and then take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Repeat to yourself. “I am a cook”. That’s what you are…They are the customers, you are the cook. They pay you to cook. If you don’t like that job, get another one.”

“Oh, pleeeze. You’re chefs and you work in restaurants…for the pleasure and whims of the customers.”

Umm… Ouch.

All of these comments miss the mark completely. True Hospitality has no resemblance to the “servant-master” relationship, whatsoever. Sadly, people that buy into the set of beliefs listed above are missing out on some really incredible experiences.

It’s hard to see sometimes, but most people who choose to work in hospitality do it because they are passionate about food… and because they like people.

Dr. Chef has an interesting ring to it, though… I wonder if the CIA has thought about adding a PHD program…?