Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thoughts From The Other Side Of The Check

My favorite part of HowChow has been chatting with people about food in Howard County.  OK, that's a lie.  My favorite part is the tacos.  But you are right behind tacos, and that has to mean something.

My extremely skeletal post that Portalli's had opened in Ellicott City kicked off a rash of comments in which people discussed their meals.  Great stuff, although it skirted the edge of the personal attacks that I'm trying to avoid.  As part of that, I started emailing with Lee Biars, one of the owners of Portalli's and the the Diamondback Tavern.

I invited Lee to write a post about restaurants.  To the great horror of some food bloggers, I don't have any food industry experience -- except that I have been eating for a decade or so longer than those bloggers.  I was emailing with Lee about how average diners see a restaurant differently than professionals, and Lee banged out some thoughts.  This isn't about Portalli's.  Lee wants us to enjoy our dinners out, and these were ideas that he thought might help:
Staffing servers correctly in a restaurant is like walking a tightrope on a nightly basis. We've all been in restaurants where your server is overwhelmed with too many tables.  That is terrible, but you have to know what happens behind the scenes where staffing servers is a delicate balancing act based primarily on guesswork.  A manager staffs by estimating the clientele days in advance.  Servers rely on tips, so the manager needs enough to take care of the guests but not so many that they fail to make money.  A restaurant that repeatedly overstaffs its servers will lose employees to more lucrative jobs.  But if there are too few servers on the floor, then the guests (and subsequently the restaurant) will suffer.  No restaurant staffs perfectly every night, so don't assume your overwhelmed sever means that's the case every night in that particular restaurant.  The nicer the restaurant, the more accurate they should be in staffing because most diners have made reservations and they should be able to more accurately estimate the traffic that evening.  Which leads to my next point...
 The purpose of making a reservation isn't just to insure you have a table; it's also to let the restaurant staff appropriately.  Since restaurants rely on reservations to get a feel for the number of guests on a given evening, it benefits both the restaurant and the guests for everybody who plans on coming in to have made a reservation.  Let me give you an example: say it's a Monday night at a restaurant you know won't be jam-packed, so your group of four doesn't make a reservation. A restaurant will typically have only one or two servers on a slow Monday, so if three other parties make the same assumption you did, the restaurant will not be staffed properly.  Maybe the restaurant isn't full, but they definitely could've used a second or third server to give you the experience you deserve as a diner.  This is why any restaurant worth its salt will always recommend that diners make a reservation, even on a slow night.
The single product that a restaurant will take the biggest loss on is bread service.  Most nice restaurants spend around $1-$3 on bread and butter/olive oil for every four guests.  If a restaurant serves 800 guests per week, that amounts to $10,000-$30,000 a year spent on something that the business never sees a dime for.  I'm not saying to hold back on the bread intake; it's there to be eaten so you should feel free to go to town.  All I'm saying is that when a restaurant has seemingly put a lot of thought into the quality of their bread service, it's something that shouldn't go unnoticed.
A lot more goes into creating an enjoyable dining experience than most people realize.  Waiting tables is more than just being friendly and bringing your food and drinks in a timely manner.  It’s the little things that can push a good dining experience to a great one, even if (and sometimes, especially if) it goes unnoticed by the diner.  Here are some examples of “the little things” that all add up to a great experience:
 1) Removing small stuff like straws and sugar packets from the table when they aren’t being used
2) Not putting their elbows in your face when serving your food
3) Describing menu items clearly and accurately so you know what to expect
4) Timing your food so you have just the right amount of time in between courses
5) Keeping water, iced tea, soda and coffee filled throughout your entire meal including dessert without you having to ask for it
6) Clearing the crumbs off a chair after a guest has left so when you sit down it is crumb-free
7) Folding your napkin for you while you’re away from the table
8) Checking back with you after each course is served to make sure everything is to your taste
9) Pulling your chair out for you when you go to sit down
I could seriously list about 200 things that go into making your dining experience memorable, but I think you get the point.
Restaurants NEED negative feedback.  The only way to improve a business is to listen to what your customers want.  As a diner you may think you’re being nice by not mentioning that the dining room is too cold or the soup needs salt, but you’re really hindering the restaurant’s ability to improve.  If it’s a restaurant you truly want to survive, you should have no problem talking to your favorite manager/server and let them know where you think they can improve.  A restaurant operator would be foolish to not listen to customer complaints with an open mind and try and tackle the issues that are brought up.
Restaurants need positive feedback as well.  If you really liked your server or thought the chicken was the best you’ve had, simply let a manager know on the way out.  This information can be crucial in deciding who gets promoted, which dishes stay on the menu, and other integral decisions that are made every day in a restaurant.  Plus it makes people feel good that you think they’re doing a good job, and that can never hurt.
 Certainly nothing on this list should be used as an excuse for a restaurant that underperfoms and underwhelms its guests.  My goal is to open the “average diner’s” eyes to things that may not be readily apparent in the hopes that they can use the information to help better all of their future dining experiences.
Lee's comments made me think because I have been violating his rules recently.  I had a Tuesday night Restaurant Week reservation, but we cancelled two hours ahead because my coughing and sneezing got bad.  It had never crossed my mind how reservations influence staffing or that staffing could be just as big a challenge on a slow night.   Then we did go for dinner a few nights later, and we stayed silent when the service was bad.  I don't exactly know how to say, "That waiter should have been more attentive."  It wasn't a disaster.  I don't want an enemy when I return.  I'd love to help improve a place, but how can I do that right?


Sarah said...

This is a great post from the other side and I'm really glad it wasn't something to the effect of "HERE ARE ALL THE WRONG THINGS THAT DINERS DO!!" type thing that I keep reading.

I'll be sure to keep this stuff in mind, especially the reservation advice and thoughts. Very interesting.

BeerGuy said...

Good stuff.

Brandon Miller - Milhouse44 said...

I always make it a point to let a server know when they are doing a good job both verbal and monetarily. I never worked in the food business and by seeing what friends of mine do in the business and seeing what goes into it does I don't think I would be good at it.
…..and tacos trump people any day.

Lee Biars said...

" I don't want an enemy when I return. I'd love to help improve a place, but how can I do that right?"

Howchow- I know the feeling you are having; there's a fine line between providing negative feedback and biting criticism, or at least that's how most restaurant guests perceive it. Nobody wants to come off as the type that complains about every little thing, but believe me, a restaurant operator will be thankful 99 times out of a 100 if you are honest about your experience and don't pull back any punches. Of course tell them what you liked about the place as well so they know what they're doing right.

On the way out of a place, I usually say something like "we really enjoyed ourselves and will be back, but I wanted to let you know that the desserts could use some work. Otherwise everything was great." Or something to that effect. My feeling is that if I can help somebody improve their business, why wouldn't I take that opportunity, and hopefully my customers will do the same for me.

Naturally there will be some people that take this type of thing personally and are insulted, but that's on them. You did your part and if they're going to be hard-headed then they will never improve. Obviously you have no obligation to say anything to anybody, but I will be the first to tell you that providing honest feedback will help a business get better at what they do.

Kristi said...

I loved this "from the other side" post, It's great to hear from an owner who really does care. I've read the comments regarding the new place and I'm intrigued. I will definitely post when we eventually make it there!

I usually say something to the host/hostess regarding a negative experience. I feel like if I tell the waiter/waitress, they may not want to pass along the information for fear of getting in trouble. Yet, whenever I have a great server, I always ask for the manager to let them know. So I will probably start asking for the manager regardless when I want to comment on my dining experience!

mike said...

Some of the best food I have ever consumed. The pricing is very reasonable, and the atmosphere is pretty elegant but not overwhelming