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’?

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

Share Plate: Hostages of Happy Hour?

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.

Happy Hour.

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

Bar Bites Menu from Drago Centro-- winner of Best Happy in LA in Los Angeles Magazine

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.

Izakaya from Chaya Downtown's Beer Garden menu

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.”

Best Practices

So, what are we left with?

Happy Hour menu from Figaro Bistrot

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.