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?
Trot into the bar of any dining establishment that teeters on the edge of casual and fine dining on a Monday through Friday between the hours of 4pm-7pm, and you’re at ground zero of a daily battle.
It should be simple, right? After work drinks and a snack at a great promotional price. But you can’t get a reservation, you can’t get more than one drink at a time. No additional promotions. Happy Hour in the bar, but not on the patio. Or the Dining Room. Or to-go.
And your server’s smile is getting strained as she answers each successive question in the negative.
Suddenly the happy hour has become…. Cranky Hour. What’s the deal?
I asked around my network of fellow restaurant managers to get a picture from behind the lines.
Some Restrictions May Apply
“ I think that the spirit of what happy hour can be is great. You finish work, and you spend an hour or two with some friends to unwind without hurting your wallet. Weekday happy hours should be…the intermediate, or warm-up to something bigger, without being a major commitment for the evening. It was a win-win for both guests and restaurants… What it has become in the economic downturn, and what restaurants are trying to free themselves from, is the aberration that it has morphed into.” — former general manager, current restaurant consultant
From a restaurant standpoint, Happy Hours are designed to be a pre-dinner promotion, not replace dinner. In a downturn, they also enable restaurants with higher overhead costs to offer lower priced options in a particular area of the restaurant. The bar is a great place to do this, because you always need a bartender during service, so you need to keep him busy. At the bar, restaurants typically don’t have high linen costs, the level of service is more casual, so you have fewer staff on the clock to make it run smoothly.
Bars are also usually at the front of the restaurant, so by encouraging guests to sit there, the restaurant looks busier to passers-by who will then want to duck in to see what is so popular.
Which is why no restaurant (other than the Outback), offers Happy Hour items in the dining room. The promotional price that most of these items are offered at is simply not sustainable. If a restaurant opens the doors to promotionally priced items all over the dining room, it’s a slippery slope…. that could lead right into bankruptcy.
Which is also why Happy Hour items also don’t make sense to package to-go. If you’re selling a chili-dog at $4 at the bar, there is really no profit margin on that. The to-go box costs an additional $0.25, the bag $0.45, napkins, plastic forks/spoons, any sauce that you want on the side needs its own container; it’s a losing proposition. But it’s impossible to explain all this detail to guests on the floor during service, so it’s more efficient to just say ‘ sorry happy is not available in the dining room/ to-go/ after 7…”
“The battles of wrestling with guests about what time happy hour ends, whether or not they can have happy hour apps if they don’t order drinks, and feeling like a jerk when I tell people they can’t take it to go or have their kids at the bar, have turned me away from supporting happy hours until people can learn to enjoy them responsibly again”
Happy hours are also designed to draw in new clientele. And they do. But according to a downtown bar/ lounge manager—
“Guests that come in may not be of the target clientele due to the price point.”
Similarly, another Silverlake general manager weighed in:
“I hate [Happy Hours] because of the crowd they bring in. People want to get drunk and somewhat full quick…we want our guests to enjoy what we offer.“
But there are supporters.
Like one Downtown Beverage director:
“I am a big fan of Happy Hour, it has been responsible for marketing what we do to an entirely different group of people. It really helps keep a buzz going and it benefits what we do in the restaurant because of the exposure. I go through great lengths to make sure that we offer quality drinks, wine, and food at great prices. Many outlets use Happy Hour as an opportunity to use subpar products, I believe this eventually works against them. ”
And another downtown dining room manager—
“Happy Hour is a careful dance you have to dance. It’s the age old Groupon or not for a business. Why would you discount something that people are willing to pay full price for? But in downtown it’s expected. So what are you going to do? Make some deals with your liquor reps and give the people what they want!”
And what about sticking to the rules?
“We keep the Happy Hour very clear, no substitutions of any type on cocktails
for example. We do not have the time restraint so we do not have to deal
with that. If someone is not “Happy” with our policies it is their own
problem but we do not have much issue with it.”
So, what are we left with?
As a guest, the way to get the most out of happy hour is to follow the rules. If the posted signage says “in the bar only,” don’t arm wrestle your server to get happy hour drinks in the dining room. Getting up from your table and getting the drinks yourself is expressly banned in most places, but in the places that tolerate it, it is certainly noted and reviled.
From a restaurant standpoint, it seems to behoove you to have your restrictions to the promotion clearly stated and stick to them.
Avoid potential mis-understandings by offering a completely different menu for happy hour than is available outside of happy hour. It doesn’t make sense to guests to offer a Manhattan at $5 at 6:55pm, then charge $10 for the same drink at 7:00pm.
Kevin, enjoying a glass of Krug with chef M. Voltaggio
If you consider yourself a gastronome in Southern California and you are not reading kevineats.com, then you should start now.
From the French Laundry & Le Bernardin, to Ludobites 2.0 – 6.0, and into the enigmatic world of underground dining, Kevin guides you through some of the most enticing and exciting menus coming out of the best kitchens in the country. He dines the way we all wish we could dine; showcasing each dish with photos that will make you salivate, and even-handed descriptions that let you experience an often super-hyped trend without all the propaganda.
Before you drop $900 on that dinner at Alinea or The Bazaar, or make that reservation for your anniversary at Lucques, you should experience his posts on all.
WSE: Congrats on the Saveur 2011 Best Food Blog nomination!
Kevin: Thanks. It was definitely a surprise… very unexpected.
WSE: What interests you so much about gastronomy?
Kevin: Being able to experience food as much more than mere sustenance. I love it when food can provoke me, surprise me, challenge me, make me think, evoke a sense of time and place.
black truffle explosion from Kevin’s first visit to Alinea
WSE: Is there a particular dish or experience that unlocked your epicurean energy?
Kevin:Alinea, which happens to be my first blog post ever. It was back in 2006, when I was just a budding foodie. The cuisine there was so unlike anything that I’d ever eaten up to that point. It challenged my preconceived notions of what food could be, and engaged me on an intellectual, not merely gustatory level. As a result, I felt compelled to document the experience. That’s the genesis of kevinEats.
WSE: How do you select your next victim…. I mean, venue?
Kevin: A steady diet of Daily Dish, Eater, Grubstreet, and Squid Ink generally keeps me abreast of the latest targets. And of course, there are a number of LA standbys that I just haven’t gotten around to. There’s no dearth of places to visit around these parts–I have to be somewhat selective.
WSE: You seem to have a real reverence for great service and a love for food; Have you ever had absolutely terrible service while you were out somewhere?
butter poached lobster from a visit to the French Laundry
Kevin: Service has almost always been a non-issue for me. The only exception actually happened recently at Umami Burger. I was forced to walk out of the restaurant for the first time ever after sitting at my table 40 minutes without being served. I tweeted about the debacle, and I was surprised to find out that a lot of other people shared my negative sentiments about the place as well.
WSE: Maybe people recognize you when you go out in LA and that keeps your service level high..?
Kevin: I’ve definitely had a few people come up to me– but they are usually other diners…. I was at the opening night of Bouchon in Beverly Hills and three different people came to talk to me because they read kevineats…. as for the restaurants recognizing me, I’m sure some of them do…. its hard to miss the guy taking pictures of everything before he eats it.
WSE: Do you think it’s impossible to be anonymous as a reviewer in the current world of twitter/facebook/blogging?
Kevin: Ideally, it should be done [anonymously]. But I don’t think that’s a possibility anymore. Everything is too connected now.
WSE: You review places from taco trucks to Michelin starred restaurants… how do you adjust your critiques for each different venue?
Kevin: Restaurants must be judged in the appropriate context–with respect to their peers, and with regard to what a place strives to be. That’s something that I always have to keep in mind. Certainly, I would expect more in terms of innovation, whimsy, and sense of humor at Alinea than I would from a taquería, but both places can be “5 stars” in my mind if they excel at what they each attempt to accomplish.
WSE: In some of your earlier posts, you joke about how you go out to dine with 9 or 10 of your closest friends, but your recent posts seem to feature smaller parties. What’s the ideal party size for you when you go out to review a new place?
from a recent visit to Playa
Kevin: I think part of the reason my parties look smaller now is because I stopped writing the names of each person at each dinner…. but now I like to keep it to a party of four. That allows you to try several different things on the menu… sometimes even the whole menu– as we did at Playa— and it’s easier than a really large group. I still do the big groups sometimes– at Fraiche a few months ago– but I like to do tasting menus when we do that… so everyone gets their own plate of each dish. Not everyone is a foodie or a blogger, so it can be annoying for them to wait to eat something because everyone else wants to take a picture first.
WSE: So you go out with other bloggers?
Kevin: Yeah. Blogging can be cliquey….
WSE: Did the Yelp elite co-opt that aspect of the scene?
Kevin: In some ways….it’s unfortunate, but inevitable.
WSE: Seems like a sensitive subject….Do you Yelp?
Kevin: I got banned from Yelp, actually… for posting links to my reviews on my blog. They really prefer for you to just do everything on Yelp…. But I still check it out sometimes. Usually when I am going to a new place and I want to find the best places to park.
a crab dish from a Pheast Underground dinner
WSE: What’d you have for lunch today?
Kevin: A pretty dry burger from Fuddruckers… It was a co-worker’s last day and he picked the place.
WSE: You don’t seem to have the greatest luck with burgers….
Kevin: I once had a fascination with the mojito, but I’ve since moved on. I’d say that I’m trying to get more into beer now. My turning point was tasting La Chouffe for the first time. I didn’t like beer until I tasted it. It has so much complexity but it’s not too hoppy; it’s interesting but not too interesting.
WSE: What are you excited for next?
Kevin: I’m trying to get to El Bulli before it closes for good. And here in LA, I’m looking forward to Ink. to open in July.
Check Kevin out at www.kevineats.com, and vote for him (Tonight– voting closes on 5/12) for Best Food Blog on Saveur.