Service Matters

When it’s good, you notice. And when it’s bad, you really notice.

The server approaches our table, introduces himself, and asks if we are interested in cocktails before dinner. My companion inquires about which gins the bar carries.

“Hendrick’s,” the server promptly answers.

“Anything else?” my friend asks.

“Um, I’m not sure, I’ll go see.”  He returns several minutes later. “We actually don’t have liquor…just beer and wine.”

“OK, what beers do you have?”

“Um, I’m not sure, I’ll find out.” He leaves again. When he returns we order a bottle of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale and a glass of Riecine Rosato.

“Is that a white?” he asks. I point to one of the two roses listed on the one-page menu. He peers closely at it and turns on his heels.

Had he just been pulled off the street and handed a tray?

At the time of this visit, the restaurant had been open less than two weeks. The chef is talented and has worked his way through some notable kitchens, including that of a famous New York City restaurant. The owner is a seasoned restaurant manager, and the service manager / wine director has been a familiar face in several local restaurants. On this particular weeknight, the owner was acting as host and floor manager, the chef was on duty, and the restaurant was less than ¼ full. While the food was good, the service was incompetent from beginning to end with lengthy absences, rudimentary menu knowledge, an inaccurate bill, and then this:

My companion orders a bottle of red wine from a wine list of about 65 bottles. The server returns empty handed.

“We sold out of that one.”

“Already? But you’ve only been open 10 days and that’s a fairly uncommon wine.”

“Yeah, we sold out.”

We order another bottle. Fifteen minutes later the server reappears.

“We sold out of that one too.”

“Wow. You’ve had a lot of wine drinkers in your first 10 days.”

“I guess so.”

We order a third bottle. And wait. By now, our three courses have been delivered and consumed, but I see the server approaching the table. He is carrying a bottle of wine!

Except… it’s the wrong bottle. We cancel the wine and order dessert.

There’s a school of thought in the reviewing profession – and even among the general dining public – that new restaurants should be exempt from sound judgment while they “get their feet wet.”  I do not subscribe to it.

I’m a little mystified by the unique quality of this forgiving sentiment  (are we this inclined in other product and service environments?), but I certainly appreciate it. As a veteran of the restaurant industry – from dishwasher to cocktail slinger, pastry chef to restaurateur and every job in between – I know first hand how difficult and demanding the profession is. Most restaurant staff work long hours at low pay and warp speed while lifting and carrying heavy loads. If it’s a kitchen position, add a 110-degree sweat lodge to those conditions. Toss in a sense of urgency and it’s a wonder more things don’t go wrong. But still, my position is this: If a restaurant has opened its doors and is charging the public full price, they are expected to provide a product and service equal to or greater than the price points. In other words, they should be ready to rock.

Service is the real product of the restaurant industry; it’s what builds relationships that bring customers – and money – in the door. The recipe for a memorable dining experience always begins and ends with the staff, and the best customer-centric restaurants work to exceed customer expectation by anticipating needs rather than simply reacting to them. No matter how exceptional the food or ambience, bad or mediocre service can deflate the entire experience, while great service can make a humble dish memorable.

No one is flawless, and mistakes are made. While this server may not have been particularly eloquent or quick on his feet, we felt bad for him because he had not been given the tools he needed to perform his job properly, a responsibility that falls squarely on the shoulders of the owner and service manager (at one point the owner came over to comment, “I hear you’ve had some bad luck with wine,” a statement made with an “oh well” shrug rather than clarification or reciprocity).

So what are the qualities of great service? In addition to proper training: organization, focus, product knowledge, and some indication that the customer’s presence and choice to spend money there matters. Passion and personality raises the bar, and an acute attention to detail elevates it to an art form.

How does service matter to you?

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