I have made several trips to Toronto recently and I have become fond of a boutique hotel just west of the downtown core in a neighborhood that is undergoing incredible transformation. Within this fashion district community, there are so many eclectic bars, restaurants and shops that it is a cornucopia of choice. However, I keep going back to this one spot, a psydo-upscale pub called The Wellington.
The original house was built in 1892 and is designated a heritage home. The owners have converted the house and gave it a great and comfortable atmosphere with wonderful patios, but kept all of the great charm of a building of this vintage.
Oh yes, I have tried several other spots for food and a pint but it never has been the same. One evening I even tried a premier restaurant – Scarpetta in the Thompson Hotel, apparently one of the finer Italian restaurants in the city. I have to tell you the food was mediocre, service was snotty and the bill was fairly massive. Next night I go over to the Welly and had a couple pints with my crab and lobster dip as well as a couple of sliders. I got into some great conversations with many regular patrons and also the very engaging staff. Several servers, after they finished their shift, sat at the bar to have a wind down pint and struck up great conversations with the folks they had been serving an hour earlier. The manager also gave out an award to the employee of the week right in front of the patrons with tickets to a hockey game (ok it was the Leafs!) complete with a big genuine hug. I didn’t see a lot of employee/management hugging at Scarpetta!
So why is it that some establishments get it and others do not? Longevity for a restaurant or bar is not necessarily about the cool factor, esthetics or even good food (barring a case of Salmonella of course). Case in point: Most recently, I have had burgers at Earls, Moxie’s, Canoe, Milestones, and the Welly. All the burgers were really the same – in other words, they were not so memorable that the restaurant would draw me back for another. Esthetically each restaurant, in there own right, was quite nice. Earls with Girls is a little tawdry but fine, the Canoe was Cool, however, so was the service and Milestones just forgot about me for 20 min!
What happens when the three attributes above negate each other or are not a factor in choosing a restaurant or pub? You defer to your comfort zone decision. And for 99% of the population the reality of that comfort zone always goes back to Service, Service, and Service! The cornerstone of this industry is “people serving people” – making the guest feel as comfortable as they would in their own kitchen. If you can get to that level of service than they will forgive you for pretty much everything else …at least once or twice.
How easy is it to achieve this? Pragmatically it is easy! But a system has to be in place and set up by the company. First step is management has to hire the right folks, set the service standards, and audit those standards by making sure the managers take an active role in ensuring the servers are meeting those standards. Oh, and if they are not, then management should not demean or demoralize the staff. It is about giving people the tools and knowledge to do the best they can – and 90% of the time the folks want to do the right thing.
Of the last 4 restaurants I frequented, only one manager was taking an active role (the old MBWA philosophy – Management By Walking Around) in what was going on with the guests. He actually came by to ask me how everything was going. He was high-fiving the servers and giving immediate feedback in a very receptive way that the servers seemed to appreciate (see previous blog on leading positively or negatively).
So with a simple system in place, how hard is it to have a good service experience at a restaurant or pub? First order of business; make sure when people arrive the host or server greets them with appreciation and a smile, looking the guests in the eyes. You want to convey right from the get-go that “We want your business and we want you to come back”. Tell them right up front what to expect and guarantee it. Let’s get rid of the 19 year olds in skintight black dresses who are eye candy and not brain candy! Next make sure that the servers are at the guest’s table within 1-2 min to take a drink order and to start a relationship with the guest by showing a real interest in them. You need to relate on some level – remember the world revolves around relationships. Drinks need to be out relatively quickly (less than 5 mins) as guests are at a restaurant or bar because they are either hungry or thirsty – don’t let them get parched! Next is the food order: Ask the guest if they are ready when the drinks come ( I never understood why the servers said, “I’ll be back for your order”, and went away for another 5-10 min).
I like the servers who recommend their top 4 or 5 dishes and I really love the ones who are honest enough to tell me what they didn’t like. Servers should make sure when they are asked what’s good on the menu they don’t say “everything”. This shows a lack of commitment to understand the food! Once everything is ordered make sure it is right – so don’t be afraid to repeat the order as you go, or even write it down. I never did understand those servers who try and remember everything the first time! I would love to see the statistics on incorrect orders between servers who try and remember orders and those who jot them down. It’s also important to let the guests know how long it will be and make sure you can deliver on time (this comes back to the service guarantee).
So how many times should a server check on the guest to make sure everything is ok? First time would be while they are waiting for their food (I am usually good for a couple pints – hate it when my glass is empty). For sure once in the first couple minutes after receiving the food (a guest always needs something) and then again in about 5-7 min. When the server is not engaged with another table they should always be making eye contact with their guest’s table and any table for that matter – it seems like a guest is always trying to get a server’s attention! Again, the server should be with the guest when they finish eating – they may want a desert, coffee, or a desert pint! And when a guest is paying, it would be awesome if the manager brought the bill over and asked how the experience was – this way there is a commitment to a guarantee and if there is a problem it can be acted upon immediately.
Last touch point should be a high five from the server as the guest leaves – you would always walk your guests out of your home after a dinner and invite them back again right?
So there you have it; a couple simple steps to better service. I will bet all restaurant, pub or bar owners say they have such a system or have similar standards. But, my guess is it’s less that 20% that actually adhere to them – so I’ll be watching.