The importance of guest service and satisfaction cannot be learned too early.
At 21 years old, anticipating the needs of others and ensuring guests left satisfied was the last thing on Austin Allen’s mind as he entered his junior year in pre-medical school in El Paso with plans to be an orthopedic surgeon. Bartending on nights and weekends to make some cash, Allen took note early that “wowing” customers was not only good for business, it was self-satisfying too.
Those early days at K Bar in El Paso shaped Allen’s hospitality career, and now eight years later the 29-year-old owns and operates five bars and restaurants between El Paso and Austin. Black Market in El Paso and Hole in the Wall in Austin serve alcohol only; the Palomino Tavern in El Paso focuses on scotches, whiskeys and features a “tight little burger menu,” Allen says; and the Low Brow and Star City Kitchen in El Paso are full-service restaurants.
Opportunity knocked and Allen used his college fund (against his parents’ wishes) to purchase his first bar. Things were going well and he developed some additional concepts. A partner moved to Austin and wanted to open a bar there, so Allen is a co-owner.
Solid customer service defines each of Allen’s locations, he says, particularly in a three-meal restaurant.
“Everyone is kind of a different shade of gray in a bar. Unless we’re blessed with (an extremely talented chef), customer service is really going to have to carry it,” Allen says.
Allen understands that the big challenge in the service industry comes when dealing with a customer who’s extremely unhappy. “In a bar it can be amplified quickly,” he says, “but in a bar we can wash our hands and call them a cab.
In a restaurant you don’t have that opportunity,” Allen added. “It’s really challenging to pacify that single customer. And doing so isn’t always guaranteeing they’ll come back.”
And, as all restaurateurs know, letting a customer leave unsatisfied is especially consequential in today’s age of user reviews and the reach of social media.
“In the restaurant scene it’s word of mouth,” Allen says.
Therefore, Allen has guest satisfaction broken down into three main categories and institutes mandates early in each of his restaurants. Looking at himself as a critic, Allen has placed guest service into three buckets: ambiance, food quality and customer service.
“There doesn’t have to be a hierarchy on which needs to be best,” he says. “We strive to be the best in all three categories.”
To institute a checks-and-balances system on each of those buckets, Allen’s locations offer comment cards that ask questions specific to food quality, customer service and ambiance. “We’ll try to make each customer’s experience as great as it can be, even if it means replating a new dish,” he said.
When a customer complains, Allen’s objective is always to go back to the customer and change it or correct it. “We go out of our way to make that individual happy. You might only get that chance once,” he notes.
Allen credits the ability to grow his businesses so quickly to staying away from tired trends.
“All of our concepts have been pioneering out here, I guess that would be the word,” he said. “I attribute our success to that and listening to our customer feedback.”
An example of that pioneering philosophy is Hole in the Wall in Austin, where Allen and his partners struggled to get a kitchen going. But they eventually got to know Paul Qui, Top Chef winner and executive chef at Uchiko in Austin, and now Qui operates one of his Korean street food locations out of Hole in the Wall.
“(Qui) has got this rad little chain of Korean street food that he serves out of food trucks,” Allen said. “We talked him into a brick-and-mortar location out of Hole in the Wall, so now we have Paul running his kitchen out of there and it’s been a great sort of learning for us.”
As Allen enters his 30s, his heart is drifting from the bar scene into the restaurant scene, where he can have a larger impact on the guest.
“The bar scene was fun and I love it and I’ll always have (the bars), but for me the restaurant is more challenging and satisfying,” he said. “Serving people a plate of food that makes them smile, gives them an experience they couldn’t experience at home with a loved one? It goes a long way.”