View from the Kitchen

Good restaurant service is a FOH-BOH joint effort

It’s just a fantasy

It’s not the real thing

Sometimes a fantasy is all you need

—Billy Joel, "Sometimes a Fantasy"

Fantasy? You are probably wondering how this relates to food, cooking and the foodservice industry. The places we work and own are more than just about simply buying food, fixing food, selling food and cleaning up the tables after the customer. Our restaurants serve the grand purpose of letting our customers create a fantasy for themselves. For a few minutes or for several hours, our customers are living a charmed fantasy life. Their every whim is taken care of by someone else. Someone will seat them, someone will take their order and bring their beverages, all with a smile. Their meals will be delivered to them, and if there are any issues they will be corrected. They are told as customers that they are always right.

In the November issue of Restaurant Hospitality, Bingham Lawless wrote a wonderful letter about the importance of service in foodservice. He stated, quite rightly, that there are very few dining facilities where superstar chefs are the draw. He argued that service is what makes a customer happy, and good service is what will bring the customer back. I concur. Don’t believe me? First, read my last blog on good vs. bad service at the reception desk in restaurants. Second, my wife is often asked how critical I am of food when we go out to eat. Her response: “He is always more critical of the service.”

Mr. Lawless assigns responsibility for service to the front-of-house staff. I would argue that great service is not limited to the front, but must be a back-of-house priority as well. The bottom line is simple—the BOH personnel think that taste, creativity, uniqueness and presentation of the food are what make the meal for the customers. The BOH needs to know the reality—a team effort between FOH and BOH determines the quality of service.

Many chefs and cooks harbor animosity toward servers and FOH staff. I have two words for these people: Stop it. Yes I know that the FOH staff gets tips, they get to see the customers enjoy the food, they work fewer hours and earn more per day, they treat the kitchen staff poorly, it’s air conditioned in the front and so on. But BOH people—whether they like it or not—have to help train the FOH staff. If the FOH fails on customer service, the business will fail and everyone will be on the street.

Some ideas for fostering teamwork:

1. Have tastings of menu items and daily specials available for the waitstaff before service. How can they answer guest questions about the dishes unless they have seen and tasted them? By the way, make sure the servers know the ingredients in specials so they can answer questions for customers with allergies.

2. Make sure that the waitstaff is trained and actually does notify the chef or the GM if a customer is unhappy with the food. In my view, if the chef hears that a customer is unhappy with something he/she should go out and personally talk with the customer. Doing this fosters loyal customers who bring in more new customers. People like going to places where they have a personal relationship with the owner, manager, maître d’ or chef.

3. Show the servers the focal points on the different menu items so they know how to place them in front of the customers. Better yet, teach them to put the plate down slightly off the focal point and turn the plate to the proper position. The customer will notice this extra gesture and will be awed by the presentation. Tips go up and when that happens the servers think the BOH staff are heroes.

4. Make sure that your BOH staff does not let servers hang out in the kitchen. They should only be present as their jobs require. No more, no less. Remember, if the servers are in the BOH space they are slowing up the BOH staff, eating the food (and ruining your food costs) and not giving the customers the care that your food and the customers deserve. When I used to run restaurant kitchens I would boot the servers out and say, “The customers will tip you, the cooks won’t.”

5. Kitchen managers and chefs need to be in the restaurant and be seen by the servers. For reasons that I don’t quite fully understand, everyone seems to work harder, faster, better and more effectively when the KM or chef is in the kitchen—even if he or she isn’t doing anything. (One of my tricks was to drop in and out on my days off or tell everyone I was gone for the day and come back an hour later. This kept everyone on their toes—they never knew when I might show up.) I have also found out that even though the servers don’t report to the chef they are better servers (and treat the kitchen staff better) when the chef is there or might come in at any moment.

In the end, better service that results from a BOH-FOH joint effort will improve the bottom line. And, the bottom line is everyone’s responsibility.

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