Back in high school I became fascinated with folklore. I marveled at the hand-me-down stories and morality tales that were whispered between teenagers. There were many versions of the same tale. There was the one about the couple at make-out point who find a hook on the side of their car. The tarantula stowed away in a crate of bananas. The sad end of a child star, as a result of a deadly mixture of pop rocks and Coca Cola. Though the details of each story may have been interchangeable—they were murdered! They escaped! They ate the spider! The spider laid thousands of eggs!—the story left the audience feeling in a similar way. Uncomfortable.
Folklore may be a good way to deliver a moral idea, but it is an incredibly ineffective way to share an organization’s plan for service.
Plenty of restaurants start with business plans and a vision for success, but don’t take the time to write any of it down. Owners commission blueprints, lease spaces, write the menu, decorate, hire the staff, and open the restaurant to the public. Money gets tight and they skimp on building training materials.
The opening team bands together like a tight-knit family and creates a living and breathing restaurant. Time goes by. Staff members leave and new team members come onboard. Change begins to set in as the remaining staff retells the story of what they’ve learned to the new employees. Fine point details are skipped. Corners are cut.
Instead of telling the story of the restaurant’s really cool filtered water program, for example, the only message that’s handed down is a simplified version. The training server tells the new hire: “every table gets bottled water or water from that tap.” Gone is the story about why the triple-filtered, reverse osmosis process is so important. Erased from the story is the ethos of the restaurant. What remains is an action, not the reason behind the action.
Restaurants are built on two major principles: serve great food and give great service. Problem is, many restaurant owners fail to take the time to chart out what specifically they want their service to look and feel like or invest the funds to create a solid service program.
When things start to go off track, sales slump, and Yelp reviews get increasingly worse, that’s often when people at the top begin to wonder what they need to do. When things are going wrong with a business, many hope they can find a quick fix to a bigger operational problem.
It doesn’t matter if you are about to open a restaurant or have been up and running for years, asking for help from a hospitality consultant like can definitely speed up the process and make a positive impact on your bottom line (just ask my clients!). But beyond a shot in the arm from an inspiring workshop or coaching session, restaurant owners and managers need to take a long-term commitment to working hard on daily maintenance of hospitality principles with their staff.
Here are the top 10 things I suggest restaurant leaders consider when wanting to improve their customer service and hospitality programs.
1. Get clear on what great service looks like for your restaurant and write it down.
Many restaurants operate without service training guidelines or employee handbooks that include service guidelines. Though having a service manual for a small café or mom and pop restaurant may seem unnecessary, keep this in mine: a restaurant without a service handbook is like a football team without a set of plays.
A thorough manual that states clear service goals, steps of service, and performance expectations is integral in the teaching process of instilling a consistent philosophy of service.
If you don’t write down what you want from your staff, your goals and expectations are unclear. If you have ever thought “they should know what their job is,” you are experiencing proof that the people who work for you probably don’t know what’s expected of them.
Employees who aren’t given clear guidelines or top priorities for their job position are left to assume what is expected of them based on their past experiences. Even though the concept of waiting tables is very familiar, how a corner café defines the position is much different from the four-star, fine dining Italian restaurant. Assuming that people know what their jobs should be is a recipe for bad service.
2. Give your team the tools that they need.
Look, every restaurant runs out of inventory items. But a restaurant that consistently operates without basic tools is a restaurant with big problems on the horizon. A restaurant without enough silverware, plates, glassware, or food and beverage inventories will continue to experience decreased sales, sloppy performance, increased risk of health department violations, theft, and poor training of new hires and current employees.
When employees don’t have the tools that they need to give great service, they are forced to cut corners, lie or make excuses to guests, and work twice as hard for decreasing results. The staff of a restaurant without a consistent inventory loses faith in the organization and forces them to stop caring about being professional at their job. Continue reading →
It’s dinner hour at The Big Traveling Potluck. I head straight for the kitchen. Three of the ladies behind The Potluck—Erika, Pam, and Sharon—garnish the succulent smoked lamb and pull the vegetable skewers out of the oven.
Tina, a strong Finnish woman and host of the night’s events, hands me two spoons and a silver tray piled high with lamb and lollipops of vegetables. “Let’s go,” she says.
It was almost a year ago when I first volunteered my hospitality services to The Big Potluck founders, Maggy, Erika, and Pam. I wanted to apply my hospitality skills and restaurant experience so I could help to relieve them of the organizational pressures of the event and they could be free to do what they do best.
I step into the dining room and a familiar rush of adrenaline flushes through my veins. I feel more alive when I’m in service. I feel doubly present in a busy dining room. A few tables away I see Maggy—one of the event’s lionhearted leaders—as she laughs with a small gathering of friends. Though the event’s pressures are mounting, I don’t detect even a glimmer of stress on my friend’s face. A swell of gratitude rises in my chest.
Just as fast as gratitude can come, so, too does fear. Even though French service—the technique of serving food one-handed with two spoons—isn’t any more complicated than using chopsticks, I worry as I lift servings of meat from the tray. I say a little prayer to Joan of Arc, the patron saint of service, that she help me keep me from dropping food on someone’s lap.
I approach another table and in a flash the fear transmutes into self-doubt when a guest I hope to impress with my service—orders more food without even looking at me in the eye. She doesn’t care who I am, I think. All she wants is an extra portion of lamb. I am her servant.
FLIPPING THE SWITCH
The more I do this work, the more I see how service—like the martial arts—is a spiritual practice that one can spend a lifetime working on. It’s easy to say the words “Let me be of service,” but it’s hard to actually live them. Because when I mean what I say, I am stating that I am willing to commit to an entirely selfless act that requires generosity, kindness, and a certain level of personal sacrifice.
People who practice radical hospitality in their work and in their lives must be open and willing to go to any lengths for others, even if they are never seen or given thanks for their service. Service asks the practitioner to find satisfaction in the act, not in the results. Service requires a smashing of the ego and pride. The expectations of thanks and recognition can only lead to personal misery.
Even though most of the people I serve that night nod and smile at me when I offer them portions of lamb and vegetables, I invite personal misery into my heart when I take the one woman’s offhanded order personally. Even though she may have a very good reason to not look at me at all, I take it as an affront and feel my own need for acknowledgment. I want to be seen by her.
It’s a funny setup – I volunteer to play the part of the servant leader of the event but here I am now seeing the truth of the matter: I do not want to be treated like a servant.
I thought I was being humble and selfless, but I was really just hiding my ego and pride behind all of the humble acts. The truth revealed itself to me in that moment of pride and expectation: I really wanted EVERYONE to love me.
A crisis of faith ravaged my resolve. my mind exploded. What the hell are you doing serving? No one here is going to know you are a writer too! Everyone is going to think that you’re just a hired hand, a server, a servant! No one even knows you have a blog! I wrestle ingloriously with expectation, anger, doubt, self-loathing, and humiliation for the next long while.
I am quiet on the bus ride to the hotel as the chorus of mean voices continue to attack. I know that the suffering is of my own making. I know peace will come only when I can reach for something else that can help me let go of all of the expectations and all of the voices.
Before slipping away into sleep, I pray for relief from the bondage of self and ego and pride. I want out of this crucible of suffering from expectation.
A NEW WAY
The next day, I start from a better place. I surrender myself to the idea of being unseen and to give without expectation for praise. I put my head down and work hard. I fill a pitcher of water. I move a table. I hug a new friend. I give in places where my contribution may not be seen, but felt.
It’s no coincidence that everything goes well. There’s minimal stress and an abundance of sweetness and beauty all about me. The final hour of the Big Traveling Potluck is quiet like a whisper. The hugs goodbye are heartfelt and true.
I spend the car ride home to Los Angeles in silent meditation. I thank the power of the great big world outside of myself for the opportunity to learn, grow, and surrender a little bit more of myself. I thank God for showing me the painful effects of expectation and ego.
I believe there is no coincidence that the ride home to Los Angeles is traffic free. Only open highways and beautiful vistas.
My husband and dog greet me when I arrive. We embrace, happy to be in each other’s presence again after a long week away.
At home, my email box lights up with thank you notes for my service and hard work. One particularly moving missive is from Pam, the culinary leader of the event. She thanks me for my diligence and tells me that my abilities in service allowed her and the team to be the best that they could be and do what they do best.
Hours later, I open an email that is only one sentence long. It’s from Cheryl Sternman-Rule. “You made a deep impression on me,” she writes. Attached is a link to her most recent essay. It’s a tribute to the beauty of watching me (and others) be of service.
I laugh out loud when I read her words. After all my struggle and self-doubt, here was someone who truly saw me.
I imagine God winking, nudging me a little. Don’t you see, little one? Just do the good work and forget about the rest. You will always be seen.
Important questions to ask yourself before starting your own consulting business
Ever since I wrote the essay “How I got into Restaurant Consulting,” I’ve gotten lots of emails from men and women who are considering restaurant consulting as a potential career. Though the people vary in age and approach, they all ask the same big question: What do I need to know in order to become a successful restaurant consultant?
I wish I had a simple one-line answer, but I don’t. There are no easy answers or shortcuts for building a meaningful career as a freelancer.
Big Answers First
The good news is—thanks to limitless resources on the internet, book shelves, workshops, and people like me who offer coaching*—you can find resources and guidance for walking through the process of discovering the best path for your individual career goals.
In time you will need to know how to calculate how much you should charge for services (this freelancer’s resource site has a great rate calculator), but first you should ask yourself the complex questions of who you are, what you want, why you want it, and how you want to go after it, before you take your first client meeting.
The hardest part for some is making the time to do the soul-searching work. When entrepreneurs rush to market with little more than a big idea and passion, it’s no wonder that one in four new businesses fail within their first year.
Shortcut to the Back of the Line
Look, plenty of people will tell you that starting your own consulting business isn’t hard. They say just start doing the work! But you should also know, especially as someone who wants to go into the business of helping restaurants, that rushing into business with little more than a big idea and passion is a recipe for disaster.
I’ve met plenty of potential clients with failing or struggling restaurants that remind me just how important having a well-defined vision is. When a business gets rolling it’s even more difficult to implement a vision plan. Businesses that rush to market or grow too fast are typically organizations that don’t have a strategy beyond making profit. They don’t have the time to create business plans, employee manuals, or monitor staff training or morale. The result: unenthusiastic service, bad restaurant reviews, menu issues, and serious culture clashes that threaten the health of the business.
Restaurant consultants can suffer the same fate. If you don’t know what you stand for, what your particular specialty is, and why you go to work every day, the quality of your work may be compromised over time. Clients will dictate how you run your business and your social marketing/networking opportunities will go sideways.
A recent Inc. Magazine poll showed that the most successful and thriving businesses were built by entrepreneurs who had a clear vision, were generous to employees (regardless if there was only one employee or thousands), and had a commitment to giving back in some way. So with statistics like that to prove that a motivated and passionate workplace is one that makes a successful business—even if that business is just you working out of your living room—why wouldn’t you want to take the time to build a clear vision for a career that’s crafted just for you? Continue reading →
Lots of people pursue careers in restaurants, hotels, medicine, and politics. Most in these service industries see their work as great a way to make a living. But rare are the individuals who perceive their job—as a server, hotel receptionist, technician, doctor, chef, bell hop, county worker, or clerk—as a calling.
In a microcosm of service workers, there is a faction of workers who go out of their way to give generously of themselves to others as a way to make the world a better place—one simple act at a time. These unique folk practice a rare art form of hospitality when they employ the humble ideals of compassion, empathy, and humility in the workplace.
I like to call this radical group, the Service Jedi.
Like the peace-making warriors of the Star Wars cannon, The Service Jedi are a band of unique individuals who study, serve, and use an unseen force of goodness to help those in need. They approach service as a calling, not just a career. The Service Jedi are modest heroes whose metier is to uplift others, rather than themselves.
The Service Jedi are outliers in the for-profit world of Big Businesses. They are a scarce and powerful folk who practice a rare art form of service that is admired by many, but accomplished by few. The Service Jedi have the power to transform people and experiences.
The Service Jedi may begin their journey alone, but naturally seek out others like themselves for alliances and understanding. Within the ranks of The Service Jedi, all are students. Few are masters. Despite galactic differences between industries, Service Jedi can identify each other’s talents and appreciate their similarities. Through connection, The Service Jedi increase their power as they step away from isolation and share their hard-earned knowledge and emotional intelligence. Continue reading →
We live in a time where chefs are celebrated like rock stars and restaurants make great TV. But no matter how popular chefs have become, the people who wait tables, deliver food, and clear dishes exist outside the realm of cool. Service staff occupy a space that’s filled with shame.
Discrimination against service staff is so hardwired in individuals, even journalists are unaware of their bias. The media may do a good job of elevating the status of chefs in the eyes of the dining public but many do much to continue the stereotype of a servile service staff.
In my professional experience, service professionals who identify themselves as career waiters or full time bussers are regarded by friends, family, customers, and the business community with pity and dishonor. Shame motivates many full time waiters and service staff to hide details of their restaurant work from friends, family, or acquaintances. Service work is—if referred to at all—is spoken about as a way to “pay the bills” until they get “a real job”.
Want to find a great job in the restaurant industry? If you want to get hired, the best thing you can do is to be impeccable and pay attention to every step in the process. It doesn’t matter if restaurant work is your life-long passion or a way to pay the bills. How you approach your job search will directly impact the chances of you finding and keeping a great job.
The first step in finding the best restaurant job is to slow down and pay attention to the process. Take a little time to understand what kind of job you really want to get.
Remember: it’s better to send out four great cover letters and four great resumes than blanketing craigslist with a slew of resumes via your smart phone.
Figure out what kind of job you really want. Before you send out a single resume, get clarity on what kind of job you really want. Are you seeking a full time job as a bartender at a fine dining restaurant or a part time counter job as a barista? Do you want to make the transition from server to manager?
Don’t send a resume to job posting that you don’t really want. Sending resumes for a position you aren’t really interested in is a waste of time for you and for the people looking to hire you. Don’t let financial stress or fear motivate you to send resumes for a job you wouldn’t enjoy doing. Only apply for jobs you would actually want to go to every day. Continue reading →
Most businesses don’t have the time or money to teach their staff what true hospitality is. Instead of investing in teaching compassion and genuine hospitality, most restaurants and retailers invest their time and money in teaching their teams how to recite a finely-tuned script for making friendly and efficient sales.
Rare are the shop keepers and restaurant employees who craft their language to suit the buying needs of their particular customer. Instead, it’s “what can I get for you” or “are you ready to order?” Rather than take the time to share stories of how customers were won over or made regulars through a few key exchanges, businesses focus on encouraging number of sales per hour, check averages, and a high score on a secret shopper report.
The problem is, the more we focus on speeding things up, the more we lose an important part of building business: connection.
I recently received an email from a business student who wanted to know how most restaurant consultants get into the industry. Though I may not have the official statistics on restaurant consulting at my finger tips, I do know my own story. I’m happy to share my perspective on the business of restaurant consulting with you.
How do restaurant consultants get into the industry?
For me, I started young. I was a teenager when I got my first restaurant job. I worked in the 110 degree kitchen making milkshakes at a fried seafood shack. My intention getting into restaurants at that time was to make some spending money. I never imagined the food and beverage industry would be where I would make my profession.
I became a waitress and bartender in my twenties. I enjoyed taking care of people and found comfort in the camaraderie I felt with my co-workers. I knew I had a unique talent for service and my entrepreneurial spirit helped kept me rolling in the tip money.
From Part time to Full Time
I went from dabbling in restaurants to taking things a lot more seriously when I started managing restaurants in my 30′s.
The more I poured myself into my job, the more I discovered that the work I did in restaurants fulfilled me in a way that writing never could. I enjoyed building a community, being of service to others, and getting passionate about the products we sold. I saw how leading others not only helped transform their lives, but also mine.
It was also around this time that I began to see that restaurant work was an honorable profession. It was a job I was learning to enjoy from the inside out.
Then, after six years of thriving as a restaurant General Manager, I went to work for Nancy Silverton, Joe Bastianch, and Mario Batali as part of the service team of Pizzeria Mozza and later, Osteria Mozza. It was there I honed and developed a service vocabulary and systems. I became a trusted leader in the dining room — in sales and in happy, return guests. Then, after more than four years of putting my service theories to the test through personal research and development, I felt ready to begin my work as a Service Consultant.
If you’ve even played around with the idea of opening a juice bar, you’re not alone. Lots of people–about one in ten new restaurant owners today–want to invest time and money into turning fruits and vegetables into liquid gold. I work as a restaurant consultant in the city of Los Angeles and in a few city blocks there are at least one or two juice bars and there are more on their way. Fresh juice bars are a $5 billion dollar business that’s projected to grow from 4% to 8% a year.
So why is a fresh juice bar such a popular idea? Well, if you think running a juice bar is easy, think again. There is no such thing as easy in the business of food.
Search the internet for suggestions of how to start your own juice bar, and you’ll find advice that suggests that location is the most important thing to figure out first. After that, they say, come up with a business plan, and then come up with a concept.
As someone who has worked in the restaurant industry for over two decades, I humbly suggest you consider something else first: is running a juice bar something you want to do for the next five years?
Freshly pressed juices are the newest food fad. Lots of people want to get in on a business that promotes a healthy, on-the-go lifestyle for health conscious people who want to take care of their bodies in a fast and efficient way.
Want to know why great customer service is hard to find? Because it requires an investment of time, money, and planning.
We’re fast to complain about the shortcomings of businesses who fail to give great service — just read Yelp and you’ll see all sorts of disappointments in the area of customer service — but are we actually willing do something about it?
We all may hope a culture of appreciation and helpfulness was built into every business exchange, but desire doesn’t make it so. Money and intention do.
So if you want great customer service, you need to start investing in it.
Investing in Hospitality
Kindness and generosity of spirit may be inherent for some, but natural empathy and kindness is a trait that requires cultivation in most people.
The average Jane and Joe don’t spend their days thinking up ways to relate to another person’s pain. The hourly worker isn’t empowered to dedicate time to creatively problem solve a solution that will make a stranger feel better about themselves and the product they just purchased. In truth, most consumers and employers want fast and efficient help that comes at a low price. They expect nicety and warmth will be offered to them gratis.
The sad truth is, we live in a world where we expect altruism and compassion but we don’t cultivate these traits in our institutions. Schools don’t require Mindfulness and Compassion 101. The workplace isn’t where you take classes on empathy. Our government doesn’t require our public servants to be trained in radical hospitality. I mean, who can afford such frivolities!?
And yet, how is it we expect people to be giving and kind to one another in our daily exchanges, if we don’t invest time in speaking about such things?
If you want to grow employees or people who treat others with warmth and compassion, we have to take the time to teach such traits.
And guess what, folks. Time = money.
Time = Money
We can wish all day long that kindness and compassion were inherent traits that were taught in homes and in the business world, but–on average–they aren’t.
As a people, we would rather spend money on software training, speed, and efficiency than traits like big-heartedness and unselfishness. Check out the job postings on most company websites and you are not going to find empathy and benevolence listed under job requirements.
To get great customer service we have to build meaning into our work and begin growing gentleness and hospitality within us.
A Call to Action
Businesses: If your business collects complaints about customer service or you own or work at a restaurant that’s plagued with flaming Yelp reviews, I suggest you think about investing more time into building a culture of hospitality. If you don’t know where to start, I suggest you seek outside help (there are great books and people like me who specialize in teaching such things).
Consumers: If you find yourself consistently disappointed with the service you get at restaurants, banks, retail stores, and daily business exchanges–I have a revolutionary suggestion for you: start investing time and money into supporting the businesses that treat you well and learning how to be kinder to yourself and others.
If you want to be treated well or have employees treat customers with kindness and respect–we have to be willing to invest in it. How will you start investing?
Regardless of what business you’re in, every line of work has its share of archetypes. You may make your living in a dining room, in the middle of a retail showroom, under stage lights, or in the center of cubicles. Where doesn’t matter. Just like a movie with predictable characters, we all encounter common personality types in the workplace.
Heroes vs Foes
Boilerplate people we want on our team are types like the fearless leader, the go-getter, the quiet workhorse, the inspirational force, and the problem solver. But no matter how great your workplace is, there always seems to be a few pernicious characters. You know the bunch. They’re the complainer, the drama queen, the liar, or even the Friendly Incompetent.
Business Archetype: The Friendly Incompetent
I recently witnessed the most astounding version of the Friendly Incompetent, a negative business archetype, at a bookstore in Pasadena.The book shop employee was a tall, good looking guy with a nice smile. I noticed him right away as he said hello to customers as they walked into the store. Just as I was taking mental note of his good service instincts, however, I began to notice a pattern of neglect. Every time he’d say hello to a new customer, he’d turn his back on them just moments after they crossed the threshold.
He would ignore needing glances and check his iPhone or push a stack of books from one side of the counter to another, like a child pushing blocks for no reason. When an inquisitive book-buyer made her way to the front desk, the tall smiling guy exited the counter in order to adjust a coffee cup display just before she could reach him. Seconds later, I watched as another co-worker noticed the neglected customer and jumped to her aid with a great sense of urgency.
Later, the Friendly Incompetent complained loudly about the colors of the bookstore’s carpets and how disappointed he was in the state of the book-selling business. When customers asked for information about a particular item, he pointed them to a faraway shelf, rather than walk the person to the stack of books himself.
After just one hour of observing this man, I calculated he not only lost the business several hundred dollars in lost sales opportunities, he also reduced efficiency in his co-workers. In addition, he created such an uncomfortable setting of bad customer service, I had to leave.
For any restaurant pro worth their salt, Valentine’s Day is one of the nights you want to work. We train for years for nights like this. During service we’ll see crazy stuff: over the top displays of public affection, cruel scorn, fights, marriage proposals, escorts, sloppy drunks, beautiful couples, angry single ladies, and bizarre match ups. And that’s just in the dining room.
Valentine’s Day is full of challenges, but it’s a time that’s lucrative for restaurants and for staff. For this reason and and more, we suit up, show up, and get ready for war.
Unfortunately, this Valentine’s Day, I have the night off. And in case you’re wondering, no–I’m not going to go out. I’ll probably make myself some comfort food and watch a movie at home by myself (my husband is working at a restaurant across town). Or maybe I’ll re-read the article about Valentine’s Day I was interviewed for just for the thrill of seeing my name on the on Time Magazine’s website.
Either way, you’ll know where to find me. I’ll be on lock down at my apartment. In the meantime, If you still haven’t figured out what you’ll be doing later tonight here are some words of advice:
Why you should make your own Valentine’s Day Dinner
Nothing says I love you more than taking the time to make a special meal for the person you love.
Have complete control. Shop at your favorite butcher shop or market, design your own floral arrangement, decorate your home in a seductive way. Because you can control every element of the dining experience you’ll be able to experience lighting, music, menu, and decorations that fit your liking perfectly.
If You Insist on Dining Out on Valentine’s Day:
Realize that if you haven’t made your reservations yet, you’ll probably be eating very late tonight. Make yourself a good snack!
Know your audience. Don’t take a vegetarian to a steak house.
Consider your budget. If you think $35 is too much to pay for an entrée, don’t book a reservation at a restaurant that serves $35 entrees. You’ll be disappointed.
Don’t double book. If you hedged your bets with more than one restaurant reservation, be sure to cancel your second reservation as early as possible. There are plenty of people that would love to take your reservation.
Show up on time.
Find out the seating policy. Does the restaurant expect you to leave after 2 or 3 hours? If so, be respectful of your reservation. Don’t linger at the table for longer than allotted or you may end up experiencing late table karma later on down the road.
Say “Please” and “Thank You”. Good manners go a long way to impress your date and will make for a more pleasant dining experience.
Hope you and your loved ones have a safe and stress-free Valentine’s Day. For recommendations on how best to enjoy your official night of romance, be sure to check out this earlier blog post.
Food lovers enjoy cooking. But how knowledgeable are we when it comes to safe food handling and cooking techniques?
I always put my customers’ health and satisfaction first at every restaurant I work at. I’m grateful for my ServSafe manager certification training and educate my staff on good health safety and proper food handling protocols. My kitchens do multiple health inspections a day in order to maintain and uphold their “A” letter grades. My staff know me as a stickler for finer points and am always pushing them to do better.
But the truth is, I wasn’t always food safety knowledgeable. Back in the early days of my restaurant work, I was what I call “a walking health code violation.”
Small Town Violations
More than twenty years ago I got my start at a fried seafood joint in a small town in Massachusetts. It was the Bon Jovi 80’s and I was a naive, teenage kitchen worker. I microwaved chowders, mixed thousands of milkshakes and frappes on a stainless steel mixer, and grilled the occasional meat patty at a fried seafood shack without ever being educated on any aspect of food safety. The husband and wife team who owned the fried seafood stand, chain-smoked throughout the shift as they cooked and plated leaning towers of fried seafood.
The owners didn’t mind our big 80‘s hair and rock and roll radio we danced to as we worked over the fried clams. They almost certainly didn’t concern themselves with teaching any of their staff how to maintain a spotless kitchen. I washed my hands once a shift and used the same (un-sanitized) rag to clean counters and my equipment for the entire shift. We used sky blue Windex to wipe down the wood counters and stainless cooking equipment. Even when the kitchen reached temperatures above 110 degrees on hot summer days, the thick cream and milk mixture the raw seafood was dipped into was never refrigerated (once we pulled it from the walk-in). I don’t recall ever seeing a thermometer used to check holding temperatures. That’s a culinary memory I’d rather forget.
I discovered much about the food industry back then, but none of what I learned had anything to do with food safety.
Little City Oversights
Later, in the mid 90’s when I began tending bar at a family eatery outside of Boston, I learned very little about safe food handling standards. I was told to taste juices for spoilage and put out vinegar soaked sponges to catch fruit flies, but that was about it. The chef was constantly hung over and he had other things to worry about. The kitchen’s cleanliness reflected his work ethic. We served frozen foods deep-fried in oil that I never saw changed and monster nacho plates that were heated up in a dirty microwave. Vegetarian chili, creamy soups, and sauces were made from scratch and reused until they started to smell bad.
I was food poisoned more than once and frequently got sick.
Upholding an A
It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles in the late 90‘s that I was introduced to a more stringent health code with letter grades. Once I started working in LA restaurants and watched my first thorough health inspection, I quickly learned about cross-contamination, internal temperatures for cooked proteins (165º), date labeling, proper cooling techniques, and the danger of ice scoops in ice machines. I became aware of the importance of frequent hand washing, sanitized rags, proper food storage (cold foods must be held at 40º or less), cooling techniques for hot foods, and proper internal temperatures of refrigerators (40 or less).
The more I learned at work, the more clean and safe my home kitchen became. I realized in time how hazardous my own cooking techniques were. I learned to never cut raw meat on the same cutting surface as vegetables. I stopped using the dish sponge to clean the counter top. I began looking at expiration dates on dry and frozen foods. I found that using a thermometer in my oven and to test the internal temperatures of the foods I cooked made an immediate impact on the quality (and safety) of my meals. Continue reading →
It may not be best to dwell in the past, but it doesn’t hurt to look back and appreciate all that’s happened. So rather than write a post featuring top recipes or big news stories of the year, I thought I’d take a little time to write something of a gratitude list for this blog in 2012. It has been an eventful time filled with great lessons, delicious recipes, and outstanding moments for me and my family. I hope you don’t mind me sharing them with you!
Perhaps the most valuable lesson of 2012 was to slow down and appreciate the little things. Despite the whirling speed of new tech toys and cool apps, I began to apply mindfulness techniques to my life, work, writing, and even social media. Slowing down may not have been instinctual when I started this year, but after twelve months of meditation and mindful action–I find that I have much more joy and gratitude for the little and big things that happen throughout my day.
I was nominated for Best Literary Food Writing in April by one of my most beloved food magazines, Saveur. I might not have won, but knowing that the incredible food writers and editors at Saveur had considered my writing worthy of recognition was award enough.
Other landmarks during the year that was rumored to be the end of the world included a very busy year in my work of opening restaurants. Some of my clients included Milo and Olive, Karen Hatfield’s Sycamore Kitchen, and the artisanal hot dog stand of Neal Fraser, Fritzi Dog. In addition, I celebrated five years of blogging and became the proud mama of a puppy.
I had the good fortune of enjoying some travel during my year. I visited San Francisco and saw my friend Michael Procopio for a great meal and later he suggested I visit the unique/edgy/performance art coffee shop called The Red Door. Experiencing a meal there was revelatory and completely mind blowing.
There were many great meals and restaurant moments in 2012. While I may not have spent half as much time I would have like to writing about the meals I enjoyed during my twelve months of 2012, I did manage to snap several hundred pictures of my repasts via Instagram.
Beyond my meals in restaurants, I found my way into my own kitchen and created a few recipes of my own. A few that I’m most proud of include my simple, and delicious recipes for a Sriracha Chicken, and Kale Salad that was inspired by one of my favorite new restaurants (and clients!), Sycamore Kitchen. My favorite recipe of the year–made so by its versatility and highly addictive flavor profile–is my savory cranberry compote I made last month. Even though Thanksgiving has come and gone, I’ve made the recipe a few more times since then. In my last batch I halved the amount of dried cranberries and added dried cherries.
I am grateful for so many things, including my family, friends, and all the great people I have had the good fortune of meeting during this year. Most of all, I appreciate and thank you for reading, writing such kind comments, and supporting my writing. I wish you all the best in 2013 and may all your dreams and goals be exceeded in the new year.
Love and peace to you and your family. Happy New Year!
Cranberry Compote on Greek Yogurt
Of the many uses of the compote (as a spread for sandwiches and a sweet/savory condiment for turkey and chicken), my favorite may be as a topping for yogurt and ice cream. I love how the sweetness of the cranberry sauce compliments the flavors of an unsweetened Greek Yogurt. I especially love putting it on top of Fage: it’s low in fat and super creamy!
1/4 cup of Cranberry Compote
1 cup of Fage (or plain) Greek Yogurt
Put the yogurt in a bowl and top with compote. Stir in to sweeten the creamy yogurt.
Suggestion: Add nuts or granola for an additional, crunchy texture. Enjoy!
“Hospitality exists when you believe the other person in on your side.” –Danny Meyer
The first time I became aware of this important dynamic of service, I was in my mid-twenties and more than a few years into my career as a bartender. I’m not sure why I hadn’t seen the important link between the service person who gives a damn and an engaged customer. I might have been naturally inclined to give that sort of service, it took an extraordinary waiter with international charm to make me realize the equation needed in order to create a memorable service bond.
The restaurant was called Dali, a small Spanish tapas restaurant that straddled the border of Harvard Square and Somerville. I went there for a romantic evening out with a then boyfriend, and we were taken care of by an older fellow with grey hair and a thick Spanish accent. He was what I called “a lifer”, a person who never got out of the restaurant business. He carried himself with proud gait of a professional but was also suave and flirtatious. The waiter winked at my boyfriend with a knowing smile and made me feel like the most beautiful woman in the room. He made us feel like VIP’s as he coaxed us through the menu in a playful and knowledgeable way that felt equal parts conspiratorial and friendly.
Thanks to his service, the sangria was like nectar, the food was mind-expanding flavorful, and everything he suggested showed us a whole new world in food.
I glowed for days after that dinner. It wasn’t until later, when the gauzy haze of perfection began to fade, I was able to make out some of the key guideposts of what made his service so spectacular. His service was flawless. His movements were graceful. The waiter’s timing was spot on and, above all, the man made us both feel like he wanted nothing more than to be the best server in the world for our important celebration.
The Dali waiter showed me the importance of a guest feeling like they were the best thing that happened to him all day. He showed me the power of making a guest feel like they were taken care of, and cheered on until they had the best time of their lives. This lesson is something I carry with me in all that I do.
Tips on how to give Great Service
1) READ your guests:
When approaching a guest, read the body language, energy, and banter as you approach the table. What are the cues you pick up on? Maybe the guests are on a first date and nervously banters. Maybe the guests are old friends who desperately want to catch up. Perhaps the diners are business associates hoping to get to the meal as fast as they can. Regardless of who your guests are, you can use your powers of observations to figure out WHO your guests are.
2) LISTEN to what they want
3) IDENTIFY what your guests need:
By carefully listening for cues and clues of what a guest likes and dislikes, you will be more able to find a way to identify what your guest wants and how you can get it for them. Be aware of the need to treat guests individually when multiple guests at one table may have divergent desires.
4) Tailor make your response to the specifics of the guests’ needs:
Communicate to the guest in a manner appropriate with their needs that you identify with them and will do everything you can to make sure they are satisfied with their experience. Note: how you deliver information to a guest is just as important as how you deliver food to a table.
5) Ensure the food and service is impeccable:
Match your actions with your words. Stay on top of the ordering, delivering, and clearing of food. Read the energy of the table as the food comes out. Be aware of new needs that will come up throughout the service. Checking in with guests, changing the flow of service as necessary, and reading your table’s energy throughout the course of the meal will help to make a satisfying dining experience for your guest.
Bussing may be the most important aspect of service that is overlooked by restaurant owners and managers. Perhaps it’s because business owners think guests don’t pay attention to the little things like how a table is cleared or when a water glass is topped off. Maybe it’s a pervasive mentality that bussing is a simple job that anyone can figure out. But great bussing is a complicated job that requires experience, training, and passion for the work.
Go to an average restaurant and you may see some tell tale signs of a neglected bussing team. You may see an overflowing bus tub filled with dirty dishes hiding in a corner or see a busser cut in front of a guest on their way to clear a table at the end of their meal. You might watch as the rushed worker clinks plates together as they snatched up the dishes like playing cards. Maybe you’ll be left too long with an empty glass or a pile of empty sugar packets in front of you. You could find your table wet from a fast wipe down or a chair littered with crumbs. Perhaps you’ll cringe when your busser sticks their fingers in a stack of glasses as they carry them away. When a table goes neglected for long stretches and then is suddenly barraged by a fast moving busser struggling to clear the table at the end of the meal, diners feel rushed, ignored, or worse–unimportant or unseen. All of these things may seem minor at first, but when the problems add up during a meal, these little missteps begin to subtract quality points from your dining experience.
“How hard can it be to clear a table?” I’ve heard many a customer say in frustration. I’ve even seen restaurant owners and managers remark that “any idiot can bus a table” while failing to show the staff how to do their job better. But the truth of the matter is, clearing and re-setting tables in a timely fashion isn’t a simple thing. Bussing requires skill, training, timing, grace, hospitality, and efficiency.
Investment in Service
Because restaurants are in the business of earning profit through the pennies and nickles on every dollar, many restaurant owners choose to focus their support staff training in one area alone: clearing tables quickly. Typically, the instruction offered isn’t so much a formal training as it is daily tirades on the need to “move faster!”
The general lack of guidance and good coaching leads to all sorts of sloppy choices. Rather than challenge their staff to work smart, clean, and gracefully, the average restaurant leader pushes their support staff to cut corners, take shortcuts, and do whatever it takes to clear and reset a table in a timely way. Many business sacrifice the quality of their service over the long term in order to chase the short game of getting a single table cleared quickly. The result of this short term thinking: thousands of dollars of loss in breakage, lost silverware carelessly tossed in garbage pails, unhappy customers, and food that is mistakenly thrown away that has to be re-fired for a customer’s to-go request.
Thank goodness the current state of the economy hasn’t stopped plenty of new restaurateurs from opening a new establishment. Since it’s my business to help people open restaurants, I’m incredibly proud of the places I have helped open because they all seem to fill a gaping hole in the food scene that myself and tons of others have been craving. But even with all the new businesses opening, a lot of us are left wanting for more.
So when the New York Times wrote a piece in which they polled the paper’s top food writers to find out what restaurants they wished would open soon in New York City, it got me thinking…What restaurants are still missing in my city and what do my top food blogging friends want to see in their town?
So, in hopes of inspiring a potential new wave of much-needed restaurant openings, I decided to reach out to a handful of my favorite food blogging friends to see what kinds of eateries they were longing for in their neighborhood.
I would KILL for for a fun sandwich place like Beyond Bread in Tucson. They have basically every sandwich under the sun and then even more fun ideas that you’ve never thought of and 123980 kinds of homemade bread.
And I’d also like a killer pizza place that is super inexpensive where you can go and order a slice or two, eat it in the restaurant, and peace out for under 8 bucks.
What I want? Not necessarily in any order: a simple traditional French bistro that served exquisite food, an English pub with great British food, a Jamie’s Italian (cheap Italian with amazing pasta), and last but by no means least, Ottolenghi’s Cafe and NOPI
Not a week goes by that my husband and I don’t whine about how there is no great Jewish deli in Seattle (you know, with real bagels, dill pickles and big sandwiches!) I would also give a toe to have Balthazar to plop right down into my neighborhood. And we are really missing great Italian food in this city- there are very few options.
Well, since we’re making our wish list, I’d like to make an official request plea to Portland, Oregon chef Andy Ricker. Los Angeles could desperately use a Pok Pok LA or Pok Pok Wings on Fairfax would be a welcome addition to my neighborhood. I’d even go so far as offer relocation services to any of the Vietnamese restaurant families from Orange Country’s Little Saigon.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of work we can do in a day. Sometimes when our work becomes challenging, it’s important to slow down. It may feel like you don’t have a lot of time, but it’s important to take the time to appreciate what you’re doing. Because at the end of your day, don’t you want to remember why you do what you do and put in so much effort?
Make a gratitude list for your vocation
When I focus on the good that comes into my life because of what I do, the more happy I get. Making a gratitude list is a great daily practice and one that helps keep me grounded.
Here’s what I’m grateful for today:
The uniform may be the same, but no two days are the same.
Unlimited access to coffee. Lots of coffee.
The surroundings are inspiring. Everywhere I look there’s something (or someone) I want to know more about. Ingredients, techniques, style, craft, food stories, and big personalities abound.
Restaurant people are some of the hardest working, funny, dedicated, big-hearted people I have ever met. Every day they show me how to be brave, be strong, have faith, and be strong–no matter what.
If you pay attention, you can learn something wonderful every day.
My husband and I met at a restaurant we worked at.
Because repetition of a simple act can bring mastery.
Every day is a huge challenge. Every day has its own big rewards.
I may not eat all day, but when I finally do get a meal, it’s usually pretty mind blowing.
I spend most of my time thinking about being of service to others.
It’s quiet in the chaos.
I love food, knives, fire, movement, and the energy of a busy dining room. Oh, and I don’t do well in cubicles.
When service gets tough, the professionals step up.
We live in a time when new is a marker of cool. In Los Angeles, the newest restaurant on the block often trumps well established culinary landmarks–not necessarily because of the quality, but for the newness of the food and the scene. The fickle dining public swarm to what’s new and eat through the menu until they have reached overload and the place becomes “played out”.
The rush to stay current often comes at a cost, since most trend-seeking customers have very little patience for growing pains. Even well-respected chefs who bring along with them their own built in audience, require time and an extreme amount of effort to work out the kinks. Opening a restaurant is hard. Going to a new restaurant is challenging. Customers and restaurateurs need to keep an open mind in the first six months of business.
Take for example a restaurant opening I was a part of a number of years ago before I was a consultant. The city of Los Angeles buzzed with excitement as a well-regarded chef’s prepared to open her third restaurant. The restaurant was speculated about in the city’s gossip rag (Eater LA) more than a year before opening.
Behind the scenes, a famous designer and architect was brought in to create a lush dining room from the shell of a worn out culinary landmark. The chef created new dishes and groomed hungry new cooks for lead positions. Management staff worked tirelessly day and night to hire a great staff, stock the shelves with the best china, flatware, sparkling crystal, and bottles of the best liquor and wine. Service staff trained for weeks on the culinary history of particular dishes, memorized detailed information on wines from around the world, and studied traditions of food regions in Europe.
As opening day approached, LA foodies speculated online about what the food would be like. High ranking Yelpers schemed how to snag a first night reservation so they could be the first to review the restaurant. Curious neighbors peered in through the curtained windows and pulled on locked doors.
The day the restaurant opened, men and women of all ages jammed the reservation lines. Fashionable movie stars and grown adults fabricated lies, elbowed their way to the front of the line, and dropped names in hopes to get the reservation they wanted from the host staff.
After months of non stop work, the team crossed their fingers and hoped that the night went as well as they hoped. The dining room was electric with anticipation as waiters in crisp white shirts delivered the chef’s newest dishes to the guests. Plates flew from the kitchen as the brigade in white worked against time, sharp knives, hot plates, and exhaustion.
Several hours later, when the last dessert left the kitchen, the chef joined the management team in the dining room to measure the energy level of the room. Guests scurried from their seats to congratulate the chef.
Professional diners–men and women who rarely cook for themselves at home and eat out several times a week–gushed with praise and sprinkled well-intentioned suggestions of where the restaurateur could improve. The customers were giddy with ideas: how to re-design of the restrooms, what level the music should be played at, suggestions on what direction to take the business in (catering! delivery! even more expansion!), how to cook a piece of meat, just how much sauce should be poured over a certain entree, the correct measurements on a particular cocktail, and just how many bottles of wine from a particularly popular vineyard in California should be purchased.
When the doors were locked and the music turned off, the chef swore under her breath.
“I’m happy to listen to constructive criticism,” she said. “Just as soon as any one of those people run their own successful restaurant.” Continue reading →