View from the Kitchen

Is your host station serving your restaurant well?

Last month I blogged about how bad phone manners by your staff could cause the loss of sales. This blog was well received and I not only got a number of e-mails, but people even called me as well to tell me they could relate to the article. I was debating what to write for this month when I had two vastly different experiences in a couple of restaurants. One experience resulted in me never wanting to go back; the other made me a fan. Both results are largely based on the host station.

My wife had a very stressful week, so at the end of the week I decided she needed a date. I decided on a restaurant on the coast south of San Francisco. I was doing fine on the stress meter until that day. I volunteered to teach an after-school program at a local school with a friend. It took me 75 minutes to drive the 11 miles home. After changing, it took over an hour to drive the less than 20 miles to the restaurant. Both my wife and I were now overstressed. I decided, for nostalgia purposes, to go to an area and a restaurant that we hadn’t been to in more than two decades. She was pleasantly surprised when I pulled into the parking lot. “I used to love going here,” she said. “This is great, we haven’t been here in years.”

We walked inside and up to the host stand. There was no one there. A waitress at a nearby table looked at me but (as she should) stayed at the table. She then walked through the kitchen door which was right next to the reception area without saying anything to us, and a moment later walked out again, still ignoring us. A busboy came out of the kitchen, looked at us, then walked to a nearby table to pour water for the guests. A woman came out of the kitchen (whom I later discovered was the hostess) and walked up with dessert menus to the table the waitress had just left. She turned around, walked into the kitchen and about a minute later came over to us. My wife asked to see the menu. The waitress handed one to me! As we tried to read it together—still standing in front of the reception desk—a waitress came by with a tray with a coffee pot and cups and said “Excuse me.” She walked between us and the reception desk on her way to the bar. My wife and I backed up and as we did so—I swear I am not making this up—another server said, “I’m behind you.” I turned to see her carrying a tray of drinks from the bar to the dining room. My wife put down the menu and said: “Let’s go, this certainly isn’t reducing my stress level.”

We took a short trip to the Moonraker in Pacifica. I am not changing the name, and as you can read what happened you will see why. We walked in the door. The bar was on the left, the dining room was straight ahead, and the host stand was perpendicular to and enjoining the wall about 10 feet from the door. In other words, no one had to walk near it except guests and the receptionist. A young woman greeted us. I asked to see a menu. She handed one each to my wife and me. I’m already impressed. As we began to open the menu she said, “We are a bit slow right now so I can get you a table with a wonderful ocean view.” Nice touch! The menu was more expensive than the first place and there were many of the same dishes. My wife joked around, “Well, this looks like it will be a lot more relaxing.” I told the receptionist we would like to stay and commented we were both stressed out. She said that we should enjoy a glass of wine or a custom specialty cocktail before dinner to unwind so we really enjoy the food. Let’s face it: This woman was good! My wife has some light sensitivity issues and after we were seated asked the receptionist to move us so she would not be in direct light. The woman handled it perfectly. No big deal, no sighing, no complaining, as we often get when my wife asks to move. This hostess said, “Certainly, would either of these other two tables be more comfortable for you?”

Dinner was great. The food was exemplary, the view was amazing, the drinks excellent. We spent over $150 (cash flow lost to the other restaurant.) On the way out, the receptionist said, “I hope you enjoyed your dinner.” When I said we did, she asked if we were tourists or locals. When I told her local she said, “Please take a look at our bar menu. We have a great happy hour featuring many appetizers that are not on the restaurant menu.” She then left the reception station to show us some great ocean view booths in the bar area. Now, guess which husband and wife can’t wait to go back for happy hour and take their friends?

In training servers, you always teach them that the first moments and last moments of service make the strongest impression on their guests. Do you teach this to your host staff as well? You teach your servers to upsell and cross-market. Do you train the front line employees in this area? You design your dining areas with good work flow and customer movement patterns. Do you do this with your host stand, or do you just stick it by the front door?

Remember, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. What’s the first (and final) impression, and who gives it, for your restaurant?

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