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First impression, bad impression

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I recently had lunch at an elegant hotel restaurant that once served sophisticated Mediterranean cuisine. Like so many other upscale restaurants during these tough economic times, customers stayed away in droves, preferring instead to eat at less costly, more casual restaurants. So, in response, the owners of the restaurant dumbed-down the menu by offering burgers, club sandwiches, chicken quesadillas and Caesar salads. As it turns out, it wasn’t so dumb after all. The restaurant was full like I haven’t seen it in years. I can’t blame them for a smart business decision.

I do blame them, however, for dumbing down their service levels. Keep in mind that the upscale setting for this restaurant has not changed. But on tables around me I saw cans of Mountain Dew and Diet Coke. Instead of pouring the soft drinks into a glass over ice, the full can and glass of ice were deposited upon the table. It was jarring to see such careless service in a place that was once home to a hotshot French chef.

Cans on tables was just a symptom of what has happened to service in this restaurant. Our server, the only one in a section of 8-10 tables, was gruff and unpolished. She slapped our bill upon the table the way one might on a counter in a diner. Clearly, the server was overworked. In its previous incarnation, the restaurant would have had more severs on the floor. It was management’s decision to change the direction of the restaurant, but I have to think service levels slipped below what they had intended.

The best restaurants, no matter what level they operate at, strive to exceed customer expectations. Consider, for example, The Cheesecake Factory, which builds grand restaurant settings for the casual dining sector. The average wait for a seat in one of its restaurants is 15-25 minutes, but customers will wait in line because the setting and level of service are much higher than one might expect in a so-called casual restaurant. This certainly helps explain why average unit sales at The Cheesecake Factory exceed $10 million annually.

But this hotel restaurant in question was the victim of some very bad math. They must have figured that if they were going to drop the level of food from upscale to casual, then they could do the same with their service. But they didn’t know where to stop. They went too far. A first-time customer will walk in and be impressed with the décor, then with the price points of menu items. But the quality of service will surely disappoint, and that may be a game-changer. Will they return? With a better level of service, I say it’s a slam dunk. Not so as is.

Like everything else in life, it’s all about balance. Your décor, food and service must be in balance or a flaw in any one area is apparent. Of course, the best way to avoid any problem is to exceed expectations in any of these areas. Are your restaurant’s decor, food and service in balance? When you make changes in one area, do you make sure to adjust in other areas? Let me now how you handle such changes without negative effect. Email me.

Michael Sanson, Editor-in-chief
e-mail: [email protected]
Twitter: @MikeSansonRH

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