Fit to Serve: Joe Leftin

Restaurant Manager, Metropole Restaurant at The 21c Hotel

From T.G.I. Friday’s to Teller’s, R.P. McMurphy’s, Honey, LaPoste, and Metropole, the 36 year-old Leftin has crammed a lot into his 16-year career, including a solid grasp on the worlds of wine and beer and a first-level sommelier pin.  

My restaurant career started at T.G.I. Friday’s at Covington Landing, which we called “The Rock.” I started as a server, just after I turned 20. I thought it was just going to be temporary—something to pay the bills while I was in college studying political science and philosophy. Little did I know.

Yes, I wore “flair.” Stripes and hats and buttons and pins of all sorts, mostly sarcastic in nature. A lot of us wore a button that said, “Tipping is not a city in China.”

I was promoted to bartender at Friday’s, which at that time was a big deal. In the wake of the movie Cocktail with Tom Cruise, flair bartending had become really popular. Friday’s was known for their bartenders and a kind of epicenter for flair bartending. It was a month-long training program with daily pour tests and weekly cocktail tests. Pay was minimum wage for training, so I was working doubles every day for some cash to pay the rent. I was there three years.

The opportunity arose to bartend at Teller’s in 2001. Teller’s was my awakening to fermented beverages: wine, beer, and to some degree, spirits. With 15 glass pours and 30 beers on tap, I had a giant beverage program to play in. Within a year or two I was the head bartender and helping with managerial functions.

After four years at Teller’s I left to bartend at R.P. McMurphy’s. R.P.’s was more of a beer than wine environment, so I began schlepping cases of wine part time for Mark Maher at Cutting Edge Selections—working in the warehouse, picking orders, making deliveries, that sort of thing.

Bartending was easy money, and I had the gift of gab. But the late nights and lifestyle were getting to me. I worked until 4 a.m. and drank until sunrise. I’d miss entire days: wake up and go to work again. I just didn’t want to do that anymore.

I took a year and a half hiatus from the restaurant industry and began selling craft beer for Cavalier Distributing Company. It has the largest portfolio of craft beer in the state of Ohio—100 suppliers, well over 500 beers. I loved it. I loved the educational side of it and the ambassadorial side of it, promoting brands. I had a great base knowledge going in but I learned so much more in the business side of the beverage industry. Selling beer eventually made me a better buyer.

I was spending a lot of time chasing bad checks instead of doing what I like. So in 2007 I left Cavalier to work for [Chef] Shoshannah Hafner at Honey. I began as a server, and eventually became the front-of-the-house manager and ran the beer program.

Kelly Lough called one day and asked me to to interview at La Poste, the restaurant she was opening with her husband Bryant Phillips, Chef Dave Taylor, and their partner Jens Rosenkrantz. She and I had worked together at Teller’s. I had met Bryant when he was working at Sturkey’s and I knew Jens from the world of wine. It seemed like a good fit, so I came on as a server.

Bryant was the wine director. He’s a master. Watching him was a great learning ground. La Poste fostered wine education with weekly wine classes, etc. Bryant was very good about encouraging me to get my sommelier pin, something I had considered back when I was with Cutting Edge and never got around to doing. But I would not have the pin without Eric Faber [La Poste general manager and wine director], who was a great mentor.

By the time I left La Poste I had my level one pin. I was somming the floor, assistant wine director to Eric, and running the beer program. I was serving tables on weekends. I was working 65 to 70 hours per week. I thought they had taught me all I could absorb, so it felt time to move on. They were positive and supportive when I got the offer at Metropole.

My job at Metropole is twofold. I do a lot of service and beverage education with the staff—the beer program is really my baby. I take care of customers of course, which I love. And I train staff.

My role as a restaurant manager is to empower my staff. Give them the tools they need to be successful and learn—tasting wines and beers, for example—nd being there for them to help them be successful. The more knowledge my staff has about a table—whether it’s that they like white wine or lobster or are a celebrating something special—the more it empowers them to do their job better.

Service matters. You can have the most wonderful plate of food, but if there’s not someone to create the ambience and shape the experience, that dish is going to be misunderstood. You need service to tie it together.

When I’m a hiring server, I look for likeability first. Chances are if I like you, a customer is going to like you. Well-spoken is another. So is the ability to engage and connect. I’m not looking for servers that “perform” at tables. The best servers are genuine, personable, and present. The connection has to be on a personal level. After that, it’s to be an authority on what you sell, and have a sense of urgency in all that you do. Your pace is critical. That’s 90 percent of doing it well.

Service is a two-way street, an interactive relationship. Every table is different; every guest is different. Some don’t want a show—they want to come in and eat their meal and be left alone. And there are those that want a lot of interaction, that want every dish described in great detail and to know why you chose a particular wine.

Ironically, computers and technology have enabled us to connect with customers on a more personal level. The same online system that takes your reservation also enables us to write notes about customers and track what they like. Anniversaries and birthdays, what they like to eat and drink, what bottle of wine they drank on this date. It allows us to go through your history when you make a reservation. So, for example, I can see the last date you came in, or your pattern of reservations. Maybe a customer likes to dine on Fridays. Maybe they love whole fish, so maybe we need to run a fish special on the Friday they are dining with us.

Is the customer always right? Yes. Does that mean I always agree with them? No. It means I need to manage their expectation a little better or go out of my way to make them feel that they are right.

A few years ago I was waiting on a table that was “special”—very particular from the get-go. Their first course had come out with no issues. I served the gentleman his main course, a pasta dish. I stayed nearby where I could keep an eye on them as they took their first bites. The gentleman took a half-hearted bite and placed his silverware back in the bowl. I immediately returned to the table to ask how everything was. He says “This linguine is incredibly too long. How am I supposed to eat this?” He repeated it several times. I took it back to the kitchen and cut the gentleman’s linguine into bite-sized portions.

On another occasion I was serving a group of ladies, all wonderful guests—up until the entrées. I could tell that one of the women was really unhappy. When I checked to see what the problem was she said she didn’t like the plate. The actual china. She was so bothered by it that she couldn’t actually bring herself to eat the food. I’m not kidding. She asked if I would put it in a “flare bowl.” I did. She was happy.

The way to handle difficult customers? Give them what they want. Way back at T.G.I. Friday’s I was taught to kill them with kindness. It may be a cliché, but it works for me. To be genuinely empathetic with a guest goes a long way. I can’t change their attitude, but what I can do is attend to whatever the source of irritation is. If that means I need to cut someone’s food up for them, or swap out their china, then so be it. Even if you are stiffed or undertipped, you have to shake it off. To be a professional in this business, you can’t take it personally.

The tagline for 21c and Metropole is “we come from a place of yes.” It’s something I think I’ve practiced throughout my serving career. But “please” and “thank you” goes a long way too. I wish there was more of it in the service industry, and in the world in general.

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the March 2013 issue.
Photograph by Annette Navarro

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