oak  rowan

The newly opened Oak + Rowan in Boston

Listening to guests drives Caswell Restaurant Group owner

Nancy Batista-Caswell relies on guest feedback as a barometer and inspiration for expansion

To be on the cutting edge of food trends and guest expectations, you first need to understand what your guests want, says Nancy Batista-Caswell, the woman behind Caswell Restaurant Group, which includes Newburyport, Mass.-based Brine and Ceia Kitchen + Bar and newly opened Oak + Rowan in Boston. “Guests’ knowledge and awareness of food trends drives me to be better,” she says.

Creativity flows through the Caswell Restaurant Group kitchens and dining rooms in large part due to an ongoing desire to engage guests with the restaurants. “I want guests to feel like they’re an extension of our restaurant family, so I talk with them, put them at ease and help them understand our culture and what we’re trying to do,” says Batista-Caswell. “This allows us to be more creative, because our guests talk with us and ask questions.”

Guests have embraced a popular weekly surf and turf menu at Brine as well as a monthly Culinary Opus 15-course dinner. “We’re four seasons into offering the 15-course dinner and have featured food styles ranging from Asian to Nordic,” says Batista-Caswell. “For one night a month, guests explore a variety of dishes outside of our regular concept, and our chefs get to create a menu that they’re really passionate about, which translates beautifully to our guests.”

nancy batista caswellJuggling three restaurants can be a handful, but Batista-Caswell says she works the room with “open ears.” “I listen and connect, but not necessarily eavesdrop on guests, to make sure things are going OK,” she says. She seeks out great service experiences to learn from when dining out at other restaurants as well. “I’m always interested to see what’s happening with the service element in our industry,” she observes. “After the economy crashed several years ago, everybody kind of fell back on this industry, but there’s such an art to selling food and guiding a guest through their dining experience. It’s about having hospitable, genuine reactions to how guests are enjoying their food.”

Batista-Caswell admits that no matter how large your management team or how many apps you have to help manage, no operator can see everything. A secret diner service helps Caswell Restaurant Group catch small missteps and correct them. “I’ve used Guest Check for several years and they’re incredibly detailed, covering everything from checking on the maintenance of the restaurant to cleanliness, food, cocktails and the steps of service that we train on,” she says. “They’re used as a form of training versus a form of micromanaging. It keeps all on our toes.”

She offers these lessons for managers and owners:

• Don’t make excuses. “In the restaurant industry we make excuses all the time, such as, it’s slow because it’s raining; but people still need to eat,” says Batista-Caswell. “So don’t make excuses. It can make you a little more critical, but the reality is, if you’re naïve to something, you’re missing an opportunity.”

• Be present. “It can be challenging to be present, especially when you’re juggling multiple restaurants, but be present in a way that’s communicative and direct. Communicating and articulating what we want is important so that everyone knows where they stand with us.”

• Focus on culture. “If everyone is happy, your guests are going to be happy,” says Batista-Caswell. “Work on teamwork and make sure staff members realize that they’re part of a team. Nowadays you need that really good frontline; they control what happens with your guests.”

• Find a healthy balance. “Don’t stretch yourself so thin that you can’t see clearly or work efficiently,” she says. “Find a way to create balance in your personal life.”

Photos courtesy of Caswell Restaurant Group and Katie Noble

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