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Is there a service crisis?

Restaurateurs say knowledge, kindness key to good hospitality

Food in American restaurants has undergone a revolution over the past couple of decades, with inspired chefs across the country putting both their talent and the local bounty of their communities on display. 

Service, not so much, according to New Orleans restaurateur Ti Martin of Commander’s Palace, Café Adelaide and SoBou. 

“The state of service in America is pretty horrible,” she told attendees of the American Express Trade Program at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen last weekend.

She asked panelists to share specific ways to teach hospitality.

“One of our goals is to remove the idea of hospitality being a transaction,” said Ashley Christensen, chef and owner of seven restaurants in Raleigh, N.C., including Poole’s Downtown Diner and Death & Taxes.

“If I walk up to a counter and hand someone money and they hand me something back, that’s a transaction. I can get that at the hardware store, the grocery store, anywhere. What we do in a restaurant is beyond that.”

She said one strategy for getting her staff away from that transactional mindset is to call patrons “guests” instead of “customers.”

“It’s not just about that one thing, but how it relates to everything else we touch in the space,” she said. 

Gary Obligacion, director of service operations for The Alinea Group in Chicago, said that good service training is at the heart of hospitality.

He said the staff at Alinea need to be “encyclopedic in knowing every ingredient and technique, and they have to be able to translate it to their guests.”

Once they’re comfortable with the subject matter, he said it then becomes effortless to have actual conversations with them, “to engage, and that’s when you have hospitality,” he said.

Will Guidara, co-owner of Eleven Madison Park, The NoMad and Made Nice in New York City, said you teach hospitality by being hospitable to your staff.

“I think everyone has a lot of hospitality in them. They have a lot of graciousness in them. The thing is, you don’t know how to serve unless you’ve learned first how to receive, and I think a lot of people who are not kind … they’ve just never known what it’s like to receive kindness. … We just try to take such good care of our people, that they know what it’s like to be taken care of, because then it becomes addictive to want to take care of people. And it’s one of my favorite things.”

He said taking good care of his staff is one of the best aspects of being a restaurateur.

“We’re in this business because we love taking care of people, and most of the people we take care of, especially at Eleven Madison Park, we’re never going to see again. But if you take that good care of your staff and you get to see them the next day? That’s the best, and it’s one of my favorite things about what we get to do for a living.”

Alon Shaya, executive chef and partner in Domenica, Pizza Domenica and Shaya in New Orleans, agreed that training staff and treating them well are at the heart of hospitality.

He said he’s working on regularly scheduled educational programs, in which every four to six weeks he takes the team somewhere. 

“We have so many people outside of our restaurant that we get to work with — our gelato maker, our blueberry farmer, the person that’s foraging chanterelle mushrooms. Even our chefs and our servers who are really good at what they do can come in and present it to the team,” he said.

For example, the chef at Domenica, an Italian restaurant, can teach the team at modern Israeli restaurant Shaya how to make great salami. 

He said that by showing them kindness and giving them a piece of yourself, “the good ones will receive it well and give it to someone else.”

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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