Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Thoughts on service

The sad truth of our over-saturated retail environment is this: you can buy just about anything just about anywhere. This is true whether we're talking clothing, electronics, toys, or food. Blindfolded, I don't think most of us could tell the difference between the offerings of half a dozen casual chain restaurants. A waffle fry is a waffle fry is a waffle fry....

So how does a restaurant set itself apart? I'm excluding the very high end here. Certainly there are places where the whole point is the luxury of the ingredients and the inspired preparation of each dish. But for most of the places where most of us can afford to eat, what makes the difference? When we go out for a meal, we're not paying for boneless buffalo wings or a bacon cheeseburger with fries. We're paying for an experience, and you can't separate that from good, old-fashioned human interaction. In a word, service.

Oddly, what most establishments overlook, especially the fancy ones, is that, for many of their patrons, a night out is a special occasion. We've got jobs, and kids, and all sorts of commitments. Often it takes a great deal of creative scheduling even to find time for a nice meal. For starters, what we need is a server who understands the importance of the event. That server may have had a horrible day, and nine terrible, cheap tables before ours. But that is all trumped by the possibility that we may be in their restaurant for the very first time. If you sell anything to anyone for a living, this is an extremely important thing to remember.

Here, in broad strokes, are what I consider the immutable laws of the server/patron relationship.

For Servers1. Be human

I'm not sure why this is confusing or difficult, but it's amazing how few places get it right. What do I mean by this? For starters, scripts don't work. We can all see them coming a mile away, and they're rubbish. You're a real, live person, and that's one of the things I like best about you. Talk to me. And you can relax. I don't need you to entertain me. I'm just hungry, and I already appreciate the fact that you're willing to work with me to fix that.

2. Be honest

No, I don't want to hear about it if you don't like my jacket. I do want to know if you have your doubts about the quiche. If I know I can get a straight answer, I will value your opinion. If you tell me everything is just wonderful (see #1 about scripts), I will probably not consult you again, and my experience will be less enjoyable for not really being able to talk to you.

3. Be kind

Some of us are dense. It happens. It might be our first time in your place. We might be unfamiliar with the cuisine. We need you. Condescension on your part will do nothing to improve this situation. Be patient with us, and help where you can. This is the very best way to win a return customer.

Miss J and I went to Pei Wei a while back on the recommendation of a friend. We had a perfectly nice meal, but what made the experience worthwhile was watching the interaction between the hostess and an elderly couple who came in while we were eating. They had obviously never been in before, and they were adrift, staring at the menu board like it was written in another language. Another 30 seconds, and they would have walked out and never come back. Instead, they were greeted with a smile by the hostess, who came to them in order to say hello and welcome them. She asked them what sorts of vegetables they liked, how much spice they were interested in, whether they enjoyed rice. She walked them through the menu, and made sure they were happy with what they ordered. In short, she took a situation that would have been awkward and embarrassing, and turned it into an adventure. None of these things was very hard to do. She saw what was needed, and jumped in, that's all. But she made two people very happy, and I'm sure that wasn't the last she saw of them. We were so impressed, we dropped them a note to say how much we appreciated it, and we weren't even involved.

For Patrons (Just in case you thought you were off the hook)

1. Be kind

This gets top billing for customers, and for good reason. Basically, you owe it to your server (and to the rest of us who have to share a planet with you) not to be an ass. Serving is hard work. The good ones make it look effortless, but nothing could be further from the truth. That person taking such good care of you is running their tail off, making sure that everyone in their section is having the experience they expect. I believe Dave Barry said, "A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person." I couldn't agree more.

2. Be clear

If your server was telepathic, they would be in vegas, not taking care of you. Be reasonable, and if you have special needs, make sure everyone has the information they need up front. A good staff will do anything they can to help you, if they know how.

3. Be fair

Servers don't make a huge hourly wage. They rely on your generosity. If you appreciate the service, pony up. There are worse things than being known as a good tipper. And remember, if you have some sort of coupon or gift card that lowers your bill, you need to be tipping on what you would have paid, not your revised total.

So locally, where do you go for good service? Two places come immediately to mind. Carmelo's in Saint Paul is a gem. It's one of our favorite date spots. The staff is quirky, but friendly, helpful, and fun. You also can't beat the food for the price. More on that later. For a more formal occasion, W.A. Frost & Company, on Selby down by the cathedral, always seems to get it exactly right. They're a wonder.

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't agree more about WA Frost: my wife and I went there for dinner the night we got engaged and had a spectacular time, with very friendly and helpful servers.

    As you say, not the kind of place you'd pop into for a quick meal on a random Friday night, but definitely worth it for a formal occasion.

    And of course, you're dead on about patrons needing to treat servers with respect and reward them for a job well done. I take it as a point of pride to be considered a "good tipper."