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Restaurant operators respond to annoying service

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In the November issue, editor Michael Sanson discussed restaurants that might be trying too hard when they insist that servers constantly check on tables and ask off-base questions like, “How are you liking that?” He asked managers to take a look at their service strategies to determine if their service has crossed the line and become an annoyance for customers. These are excerpts of letters we received.

If there is a restaurant owner who believes his staff is performing flawlessly they are lying to themselves. We have a very strict training program and monthly sales meetings to discuss key discussion points, such as attention to detail and knowing when to push and pull, which means knowing when to push the suggestive sales approach or pull back and lightly suggest items that are featured. It also means knowing when to start a conversation or follow up with a table.  

Your point of servers not having the finesse to handle ordering and service without getting in the way of the conversation is right on. Servers tend not to understand that customers are not in the same rush as they are.  But even with our meetings and constant checks and balances, servers still make mistakes.  Our ticket average is approximately $12-14/person. What kills me is when I’m spending $80 -$90/person and I’m treated like I’m at Applebee’s. Brutal!

I’m convinced our industry is in a state of change. It’s very difficult to find quality staff who understand the industry and care about their performance.  Don’t get me wrong, I love our staff and believe they are the best in each city our restaurants where our restaurants are located.  It’s so hard to find people who want to be held accountable and measured and paid based on their performance.  It’s getting more and more evident that employees are becoming more entitled and feel they deserve more before putting in the effort to earn more.  

Is Danny Meyer trying to kill service levels? There is nothing wrong with earning wages based on your performance. By automatically paying a higher wage we’re not going to motivate servers to suggestively sell and achieve a higher ticket average. Why not instead put the back of the house on an incentive program and have them earn their hourly wage, based on performance, such as showing up on time, working well with others, attention to detail, cleanliness and presentation of the product? Taking tips away from servers is going to decrease service levels. I’m standing strong on educating my staff to earn their money, regardless if they are front or back of the house.  

Matt Frey
Bub’s Burgers and Ice Cream
Carmel, IN  
Bloomington, IN  
Zionsville, IN  
Bub’s Burgers
Westfield, IN
Bub’s Café  
Carmel, IN
Bub’s Catering  
Carmel, IN
Lucy’s Bakery  
Indianapolis, IN

While I concur that table service is the priority, failing to ask the guest if they are pleased with their meal falls short of [proper] table service. I am the owner of a restaurant, but operate somewhat as an assistant to our staff. I do this to get to know our customers and to make sure all is well. We have developed a very local and return-tourist following with this service. Our reviews are 4 to 4.5 on media sites, compared with the norm of 3.5 to 4 we see from our competitors.

Clayton Thompson
Clayton’s Siesta Grille
Sarasota, FL

We are in southern Connecticut and you assume correctly that there is a very shallow pool of qualified workers to fill front and back positions. It's why I'm in favor of legal immigration. However, in your experiences with pathetic service, I have to ask: Where is a management presence making sure that your experience is exemplary? In my establishment, there is rarely a time when there is not a manager present making sure that all the moving parts are operating properly. A bad experience falls directly on the shoulders of the people who supervise and manage the employees they have hired, no matter what age those employees may be.

Marty Levine
Martel Bistro
Fairfield, CT

Here’s what’s annoying: After my bread gets delivered: “How’s the bread?” After our cocktails gets delivered: “How are the cocktails?” After our apps get delivered: “How are the appetizers?” Followed by “How are the salads?” “How are the first bites of those entrees?” And finished up with, “You folks don’t want any dessert, do you?” And a check is quickly dropped so the server can move on to the next victim.

This kind of uncaring robotics absolutely makes me want to run screaming out the door and straight into the arms of restaurants whose staff understands that hospitality is at its best when everyone in the place can exercise their inbred desire to be kind to themselves and their guests. The bottom line: We hire nice above all else.  We’ll take someone with lots of experience in “nice” and no prior restaurant experience every time!

Dan J. Rosenthal
The Rosenthal Group

As an owner I agree with you that managers who come from corporate restaurant chains are trained to “touch the table.”  Touching tables should be natural, not something that HAS to be done. It is seen as just something they are doing because they are told to, not because they genuinely want to stop by the table.

Our approach with regards to touching tables is based off guests’ body language. If someone makes eye contact, we will stop by and talk to them about their meal and overall experience. Our goal is to train our serving staff to get every guest to return time and time again. Having management walking the floor at all times allows guests the comfort of knowing there is always someone else they can speak with if an issue does arise.

Dan Whitaker
Lambertville Station
Lambertville, NJ

In a nutshell, we train our staff in the art of observation, intuition and all of the verbal and nonverbal messages that so routinely guide the successful guest dining experience. Body language with eye contact and facial expressions, pace of body movements, dress (as in more casual, more formal), demeanor, time of day for dining and type of dining (a business meeting or friends grabbing a quick bite) are just some ways to gain insight and perspective as to the guest's needs, at what pace they desire to dine and at what service level.

Too many servers believe one style of service fits all or that their service style is award winning and needs no further comment or analysis. Give me the Platinum Rule any day—"Do unto others as they desire to be done unto." Plug in, open up and for just a few hours a day let the "server flair" take a break and listen patiently and attentively to the rhythm and style of your guest. "Legendary" will be your nickname.

Steve Loftis
Harbor Restaurants
Grand Haven, MI

See more responses

(Continued from page 1)

We started calling the gratuity a "service charge" a few years ago. This allows us to withhold some of it for manager and server support staff wages, or if a server gives poor service. We are also able to tier server pay via altering the percentage of the service charge, based on experience and thus autonomy in prepping and loading and delivering food. The servers who require minimum supervision and support get the highest percentage of the service charge. So the service charge, while flexible in terms of what the house does with it, still serves as an incentive for servers to do well.

Dale Vaillancourt
Divine Swine Catering
Lakeville, MN

I cringe when a server or manager asks that question when I know that if I say the food preparation is less than expected it will rarely result in more than a perfunctory response. I once thought that this habit was the norm for diners and chains the likes of Outback, but I find it has crept its way into the better tiers as well.

There are no Charlie Trotters out in New Jersey to spawn well-trained restaurant owners to pass down how to work the front of the house. I recently chased away a manager I saw working her way from table to table before she could open her mouth. Your topic is my biggest gripe. Lousy or no training gets passed along until it becomes the norm.

Nick Newman
Former restaurant owner
Freehold, NJ

Servers today have to leave behind habits learned at home. Questions and actions at the dinner table may work with their siblings and parents, but are not acceptable in a restaurant. There are two habits that really have to stop:

1. Servers asking, “Are you still working on that?” Maybe that’s an appropriate question if you are trying to cut a tough steak, but in most cases, it’s just annoying. Enjoying a meal out should not be “work.”

2. Taking plates and stacking them in front of you. Have restaurants not taught servers how to place plates on a tray quietly and carry them to the kitchen?

If you are able to correct both of these habits, I'll be indebted to you.

Paul Lamonia
Management consultant
Lamonia & Associates
Potomac, MD

Servers bring good and bad traits from their former employers. Independent restaurants run by younger entrepreneurs sometime do little to no training of their own and rely on the service staffs’ prior experience, hence the annoying traits of servers introducing themselves by name and asking if the food is alright continue. Note to operators: Know what you want and train for it, break old habits and create your own unique culture.

Don FitzGerald
Restaurant Project Development Team
Beverly Hills

Having worked for McDonald's Corp. since the 1970s and for the past 20 years working with their franchisees I've spent a lot of time in Chicago. For years my favorite restaurant was Gibson's on Rush St. I was usually dining with someone for the first time and our conversation was important. During our last three meals we were constantly interrupted by manager trainee types in ill-fitting coats and ties stopping at the table to ask up about our meal. It literally happened about every five minutes. The food was always great but I haven't been back to Gibson's in 8-10 years knowing I can get more accomplished service at Applebee's.

Richard Adams
Franchise Equity Group
San Diego

I’ve noticed that same refusal to ask simple questions like, “Could I get anything else for you?” Trying to actively assess the guest needs is woefully lacking and I do feel that it happens when service goals are too high or nonexistent.

Then there are the three phrases that make me want to ask for the check and leave immediately:  “Do you want anything besides water?” “Are you still working on that?” (If it’s work then that meal is just fuel and not an experience) and “No problem” (Oh, I’m sorry to be intruding on whatever is more important than your guests’ needs.)

Matthew Clements
IT Support
Fearrington Village Center
Pittsboro, NC

I'm a Canadian, eh? We are a polite and nonconfrontational people. I swear, however, that I will leap from my seat and throttle the next server who, three minutes after plunking down my food, waits until my mouth is full and then creeps up and asks "How are the first few bites?" Do I glare savagely or choke down the food in order to reply, thereby ruining the "first few bites" and maybe necessitating an ambulance?

Gillian MacGregor
Human Resource & Labor Relations
British Columbia Restaurant & Foodservice Alliance
British Columbia

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