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. What sort of a background do restaurant consultants typically have, he wanted to know. I may not know official statistics on restaurant consulting, but I do know my story. Here is my perspective on the business of restaurant consulting.
How do restaurant consultants get into the industry?
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 started managing restaurants in my 30′s. The more I thrived in my job, the more I discovered that my work in restaurants fulfilled me in a way that writing in solitude never could. Helping a team through a busy service or talking with a guest about a great new wine we were serving gave me an opportunity to connect to people and make an immediate impact on their lives. It was at this time that I began to see that restaurant work was an honorable profession and one that I enjoyed doing.
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. 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 →
Service is a dance that requires partnership. A diner orders a meal from a waiter. A customer asks a salesperson for a pair of shoes in their size. A passenger requests a seat assignment from an airline booking agent. The sequence of service is the required steps of giving and receiving in business transactions. Unlike any ballet, however, plenty of participants are unaware they contribute to the outcome of the service dance. When one half of the partnership is belligerent, demanding, and unmindful of their contributions to the equation beyond the financial, often times the dance becomes contentious.
Customers may have a very clear opinion of the responsibilities of the service giver–complaining about customer service is de rigueur on sites like Yelp–but its rare for the patron to see past their financial role in the dance. The Red Door Cafe is a small restaurant in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco where each and every potential diner is made aware of their role in their service experience and the owner challenges every diner to take responsibility for their part in the service exchange.
Wake up and smell the coffee
My good friend and fellow service provider, Michael Procopio suggested I check out the small restaurant when I recently visited San Francisco. “The lines will be insane,” Michael said. “But you have to go. Really. You must.”
Upon reading up on the Red Door Cafe on Yelp, you’ll see 5 star reviews from diners who rave about incredible food, great service, and an untraditional setting for breakfast. But it isn’t until you arrive at the restaurant and take a good look through the big glass windows that you start to really understand that you are regarding a very unique establishment.
The 12-seat restaurant opens at 10 am, but you’ll more than likely find a line has formed outside on the sidewalk by 10:15. Unlike a typical queue for breakfast, however, the diners-to-be aren’t reading newspapers while they wait. Customers giggle and laugh as they cuddle tattered, plastic baby dolls and sip coffee from Easter egg colored bowls.
A sign in the window spells things out for the curious diner right away: This isn’t a restaurant, it’s an experience. Look around and you’ll quickly start to get an inkling that this place is different. Inside, you’ll see diners cavorting with plastic trolls and headless dolls. If you look close enough you’ll note the risqué, plastic items sold at most sex shops next to the salt and pepper shakers on every table.
Ahmed–known to his regulars as A.D. or Absolutely Delicious–is the gregarious owner/bouncer/server/host of The Red Door Cafe. He’s the man to speak to if you want to put your name on the clipboard wait list.
“I don’t let everyone into my restaurant,” A.D. says as he sashays outside to eyeball you and other potential diners. “You have to prove why I should let you in, honey.”
I went and saw the documentary film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” this week. If you haven’t been to the movies lately, I recommend you skip the big flicks and go check this one out. Grab a cup of coffee, make a reservation for sushi after the film, and slip into an hour and a half meditation on the passion and tireless commitment it takes to dedicate yourself to a life in the food business.
The filmmakers dive into the simple–yet vibrant–world of one of the world’s oldest and most respected sushi chefs in the world. If you haven’t heard of Jiro Ono, it’s probably because his perfect-star Michelin restaurant is tucked into an in an elbow of a corridor the Ginza train station. The space is the size of a walk-in refrigerator. A seat at Jiro’s will take you at least one month to get a reservation and will cost you about 300,000 yen.
Jiro will make you every piece of sushi. He will watch you eat every bite. The 85 year-old chef will not smile. He will measure you up. You will think he is judging you as he presses every glittering morsel of fish with his fluid hands.
Jiro is, without question, a man obsessed. Rather than retire, the chef works seven days a week. He holds himself to incredibly high standards and when he meets those impossibly high standards, he elevates them again. He is always striving to become better. As the documentary’s title suggests, the man eats, lives for, and dreams of sushi.
Jiro’s introduction to the audience comes with a deadpan monologue to the camera about his vocation:
“You have to love your job. You must work hard. You must work long days. You must not complain. You should be grateful for the work. You must enjoy dedicating yourself to doing what you do every day.”
Chef Jiro is a craftsman with simple ingredients. Every item is hand-picked and hand-crafted by true artisans of the food world. Jiro Ono may not be famous, but he is one of the most respected sushi chefs in the world by people who know good food.
Vocation, Not Career
Watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi reminds me about the importance of putting my time and energy into my vocation, not my career. Whenever I wake up with my mind spinning with to-do lists, restaurant priorities, and frustrations with situations beyond my control, I know I’m obsessing over my career. When my sleep is interrupted by an overwhelming feeling of excitement and anticipation for what the day may bring, I know I am working towards my vocation.
A career is something you do in hopes of achieving something. A vocation is a path you painstakingly carve for the love of creating beauty in the world.
Dedicating my life to my vocation isn’t always easy. There are plenty of reasons that come up every day that make me want to wrestle back my ego, start a spread chart on all the hours I work, and create slideshows dedicated to all the things that aren’t fair in the world.
A vocation requires surrender. In order to pursue a vocation, I must give up on the notion of success, prestige, and recognition. I have to submit to the idea that my work should be simple and beautiful. As the Quakers say, “Tis a gift to be simple tis a gift to be free.” In short, there’s a lot less pain and anxiety in a vocation. The challenge is wrestling one’s ego and pinning it to the mat.
So today, I remind myself to push back the drooping ivy of impossible deadlines and negative thoughts that block out all the light. Today, I dedicate myself to creating beauty in everything I do. Starting now.
I know you know that. Most of the time I know that, too. The problem is, sometimes a tiny little piece of me really wants to believe I can control the way things go.
When a guest comes into our restaurant, I want them to love what we do and feel taken care of. To be honest, there’s a tiny piece of me that cross-my-fingers hopes that all the hard work everyone puts into our food and service will somehow change someone’s life.
But every day, I have to remind myself that how things work out in this world is not up to me.
How people perceive the things is entirely up to them. No matter how hard I try, I can’t sway the perceptions of others with my passion, commitment, and East coast willpower. I’m an Aries (read: ram mentality) and the first born of a Massachusetts family, so believe me when I tell you I’ve been trying to exert my will on everyone and everything for years.
The problem with my earnest, heart-felt customer service is that sometimes it backspins. It can hit customers the wrong way. In my earnestness to help I may come across as annoying, or worse, bossy. I may tell a guest something that looks and feels like a YES–but it may come across as a giant NO to them. There are days when my desire to get things right goes awry and the people I work with end up feeling more stomped on then helped.
Being the boss of me
It wasn’t until rather recently that I began to understand that my desire to help and my need to control outcomes was making me–and sometimes the people around me–very unhappy. When people didn’t understand what I was doing for them or to them, I got hurt, defensive, and overbearing. I tried harder to make people understand that my way was the best way rather than try to understand where they were coming from.
There were days when I felt like I was losing the battle in giving great service. I knew something was off. I knew I needed to change the way I did things.
For me, the first step in giving up control is having faith that everything will work out, as it should. I’m learning that if I want to be happy in my life and in my work, I have to accept the results as they come. And boy, is that a hard one.
Luckily, I have a lot of great people around me who are helping me get to a place of acceptance and surrender. These people–my committee, I like to call them–coach me to look at how I can work on myself and leave all the people, places, and things around me alone.
I have to stop making my will to get the things I want the largest factor in the equation of service. In order to be of service to others, my will can’t be bigger than other peoples’. I have to turn the greater than symbol towards love and compassion and put myself on the small side.
So I may or may not be able to make you happy when you come into my restaurant or you come to this website to read what I have to say. The thing I have to keep reminding myself is that As It Should doesn’t always look like How I Want. Everybody hates bad customer service. But customer service isn’t as pretty when it’s delivered like a sledge hammer.
“We should realize that this event [of eating and being fed, is a ritual]…The whole thing of compassion comes in there. What helped me was waking up and thinking of my penny catechism: “to know, to love, to serve God.” I don’t think of God as up there. I think of God as right here in whatever I’m knowing and loving and serving…”
Walk into the 24-seat restaurant I work in and within just seconds you’ll have the entire place sized up: cement walls, high ceilings, a pastry counter, an open kitchen, two tables that hold eight people, and one counter that seats another eight guests. That’s it. Often, we have a line of people that spills out onto the sidewalk of Wilshire Boulevard.
“Where’s the rest of the place?” is a common refrain I hear several times a day. Confused diners scan the room for a side dining area with a hidden cache of tables with extra seating. But our tiny foot print with two tables is all we have. So we have to get creative–which is why every seat in the restaurant is part of the communal seating plan.
Every once in a while, there’s a lull in service and there are plenty of seats to be had. During those quiet times guests seat themselves. Men and women leisurely toss jackets and bags over empty chairs, splay their newspapers across the marble tabletops, and order their meal without any idea that soon—when the glittering-white daylight of Santa Monica fades—a swarm of hungry customers will arrive hungry for food and a piece of what was once their personal space.
The transition between the quiet and busy times is where things tend to get a little sticky. When the number of guests waiting to be seated reach more than four people, the energy in the room shifts. You can feel the tension, as the people waiting begin to covet the single, empty chairs that separate the seated diners. It’s during these moments when the guests who are waiting for a spot need a special kind of assistance. The diners need my help in asking people to share some available space with them.
This isn’t the easiest of challenges a restaurant manager can face. Asking guests to do something for you requires a lot of diplomacy and humility, and even if you bring a lot of kindness to the table it still might not go well. It’s in these awkward moments outside the realm of our comfort zone, however, that magic sometimes happens. Continue reading →
Restaurant people like me need to know who our customers are and what they want and must ensure that our restaurant delivers a high quality product (great tasting food, wonderful atmosphere, and generous service) in a timely fashion. But what makes some restaurants more successful than others is the ability to define and deliver on the unspoken (or hinted at) expectations of customers. A lot of restaurant leaders call this part of our job managing expectations, but really what that means is that we are in the business of reading customers’ minds.
Customers may say they want a salad, but what they really desire is something much more complicated.
When I hear, “Don’t you have a simple salad with chicken?” I quickly run an internal algorythm (based on years of waiting tables and managing) that tells me what customers who typically ask this question want but don’t ask for. perhaps the customer really wants a simple green salad with the dressing on the side and a large portion of inexpensive, poached chicken put on top. The customer expects this salad to cost less than $12-14. The customer may like a smile from the waiter but may be opposed to any chit-chat. The customer may also be of the mindset that any white wine will do, so long as it comes in a big glass and costs less than $10. A customer who asks this question tends not to be adventurous and likes to stay in their comfort zone. Avoid selling specials to the guest, especially if there is an item on the dish that the customer has never heard of before (they will most likely hate the dish).
If you’re a simple salad with chicken person, just know that not everyone insists that every restaurant have chickens poaching in the back kitchen for moments such as this. I don’t mean this in an offensive way, I just mean to say that what your expectation is of a restaurant is much different than the I want a basket of bread and olive oil and balsamic vinegar customer, or the what’s the most popular thing on your menu person.
Expectations may seem like a clear goal that everyone should know, but the fact is, what we think most people should do is not a universal belief system. Expectations are just an individual’s strong personal belief that something specific will happen in the future. None of us know for sure what other people want, we just know what we expect and make guesses from there. Just ask any guy what women expect on a first and second date and you’ll get a whole range of answers. Because here’s the thing–unless the person holding the expectation speaks what they want aloud, no one will ever know for certain the exactitudes of their desires.
I like to joke that I’m honing my psychic powers while I work in restaurants, but honestly it’s true. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m constantly reading the energy and body language of my guests and gathering clues about what’s really going on below the surface.
What do you (really) want?
Let’s talk about general expectations people have of restaurants. For some people, hand picked heirloom tomatoes and small batch burrata mean more flavor. For other people, just the mention of the word heirloom sets their skin crawling and their BS meter on high alert. One guest may like hearing specials recited at their table while another customer may find that kind of thing obtrusive and verging on deceptive. Depending on the expectations, one restaurant could get a five star Yelp review for the same exact experience that garnered a one star review from another.
Getting clear on expectations
If you know what specifically makes you happy at a restaurant then it’s very easy to identify what rubs you the wrong way. Or what it looks like when something goes terribly wrong at your table. “Waiter, there is a fly in my soup,” you may say. Or perhaps you are compelled to call over a manager because your waiter seems to have forgotten you and your order. Regardless of what specifically the restaurant did to fail your expectations, how clearly you can express those shortcomings to the person offering to make the situation better will get you so much closer to a resolution.
Sometimes restaurant managers know how to do the right thing and are empowered to go and get it done. Sometimes they just don’t. In all my years in restaurants, I have seen plenty of mistakes happen. I do my best to sincerely apologize, offer a solution, and go a little bit farther for the guest to ensure I can turn the guest’s experience around.
You wouldn’t believe half the stuff I’ve done trying to win guests back. I apologize, stay away from excuses, take items of the check, and then do whatever I can to connect to the guest. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Along the way of managing expectations, I’ve seen miraculous things happen. In the process of being sincere and generous of spirit, I’ve seen smiles come from the unhappiest of people. I’ve gotten hugs of gratitude. I’ve even minted customers for life. But sometimes, no matter what I do or how much radical hospitality I give, I can not win back a guest. It’s as if that small mistake of a forgotten side dish or a loud song on the sound system were offensive acts perpetrated against these hurt individuals. It is as if I personally attacked them, when in reality all that happened was that someone pressed the wrong button in the computer or failed to get a dish to the table in a timely fashion.
But it doesn’t matter what happened when things go wrong. What matters most to you, the unhappy customer, is what is done to fix the situation. Right?
But what about you? What sort of responsibility does the customer hold? If you have high expectations but can not voice what it is you expect, or you can not accept any resolution that’s offered to you, do you hold any responsibility for your unhappiness?
I do not, in any way, mean to lessen the responsibility of the restaurant in the equation of making customers happy. No way. But what I am supposing is that in every hundred customers who have their expectations met, there are a small percentage of people who will never be happy with any business (or personal) exchange, no matter how hard the business tries to make things better. I mention this because I hope that I might some day one of these posts might help one person realize that if they can never find happiness in any business exchange, maybe it might be time to look at working on the one constant in the equation.
High Expectations of Service
But here’s the thing about expectations–we all have them. How we deal with our expectations and how willing we are to be flexible with what is given to us is an important piece in our long term happiness. If we don’t get exactly what we want, do we experience profound disappointment? If we find people are consistently letting us down do we get angry, sad, resentful, or spring into action to make a change in our priorities? Just how far are we willing to go to be happy? Are we willing to be open to new experiences? Or do we only want things our way?