He Said, She Said: Service Basics

ICE’s Culinary Management Instructors are seasoned industry professionals who are still active in the industry and working on their own projects while teaching classes at ICE. Two of our Instructors, Julia Heyer and Vin McCann, have been looking at topics and trends in the industry, shedding light on some complicated issues and sharing their in-depth expertise. This week, Julia and Vin riff on a simple question — what makes good service in a restaurant?

 Julia Asks

What makes good service in a restaurant? It all really is so simple: be nice. Make the guests feel welcome. Take care of them. Don’t spill on them. Smile. Take your time. Happily and willingly explain each menu item in detail. Know how to open a bottle of wine and polish a wine glass well. Sounds about right? Well, good service would be quite another thing if all I wanted was a Big Mac and two Happy Meals, had the car engine running and had screaming kids in the back seat. In that case, I want, no need, my food, in a bag, in under two minutes flat, now.

No, I don’t want to hear your up-sell spiel to the McRib, or that the Special Sauce is a delicious blend of sugar and cardboard and certainly might not be up for a chat over my favorite type of fries, while you polish my paper cup prior to filling it with soda! All I want here is Formula 1 speed. So as with everything else in life, what makes up good service depends on a multitude of factors, but mostly on what your guests wants.

Vin Responds

When it comes to human interaction it may be simple but it’s not easy, and hospitality service, if nothing else, is interaction on steroids, fraught with emotion, ego, and expectations. Despite the fact that operators design their establishments to meet guest expectations that the operators themselves are instrumental in creating — what, in what manner, for how much, and in what time frame — they often fail. And do so for multiple reasons: poor hiring, insufficient training, lackadaisical supervision, deficient equipment maintenance, etc (I could go on for pages). But even when all the previous items have been done well, service can still fail because the provider is not equipped in the moment to cope with the guest who wants what they want when they want it. In short, two humans fail to read each other at the moment. It’s a binary relationship, not just a matter of satisfying “I want what I want when I want it.”

Julia’s Response

I agree. Although let me get technical because I want to dissect the service “fail” a bit. What makes a fail and what makes an epic fail? While service and human interaction is as far from mathematical calculations as possible, there are some basics that do hold true rather predictably. Service is made up of two components: the technical skills and then the personality and attitude of the service team member. When both components are amiss, it often creates an epic failure — thinks spilled wine, snooty server, waiting for the entrée for over an hour and a big check to top it all off. Now, while technical skills rarely can save the day (someone’s ability to perfectly place a plate in front of me will not save the experience if they do so with clear disdain), a great personality and attitude can absolutely make up for technical shortcomings.

Vin, you are right that so much of service is about reading people and what they want in a moment – but the attempt of trying to solve a problem for a guest, the intent and desire to help and be of service often can turn around a situation that was heading straight off a cliff. Which is why hiring, and hiring the right type of people is crucial to consistent success in our biz. You can teach anyone how to open a bottle of wine properly. But not even you, Vin, can turn someone with the charm of Stalin and the delightful demeanor of Hannibal Lector into a caring people person — “da sind hopfen und malz verloren” (hop and malt and all hope is lost).

Vin’s Parting Thoughts

Not much to work with when you give me Stalin and Hannibal Lector, though my guess is that if they were working under skillful direction, the boys would get the meal to the table on time and the food would be, at the very least, “exotic”. Though we agree on the critical importance of engaging behavior on the service provider’s part, as well as the importance of careful hiring and diligent training, I believe you underestimate the impact of chemistry and the unpredictable nature of when fate and fortune join “server” and “guest” in the kabuki dance we call service delivery. The industry experts all agree on the conventional wisdom.

We often hear, “it’s simple, but not easy,” but the industry has held the wisdom close to its heart for the past 25 years, and I’m not sure that anyone can make a compelling case that the overall service has improved. We see lackadaisical scripted performances and perfunctory thank yous and goodbyes, but we’re nowhere near reaching the warm and fuzzy regions we all aspire too. It just may be time for a paradigm shift.  

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