Brooke Burton is a Los Angeles-based service coach, with more than 20 years’ restaurant experience, who specializes in diner retention. Restaurant clients include Luna Park, Sotto, and The Spice Table, We G-chatted recently regarding Alan Richman’s recent remarks about how the level of service at very hip restaurants seems to be slipping.
me: Hi Brooke!
Brooke: Hi Caroline. It’s an honor to speak with you today about a subject that’s near and dear to my heart!
me: So, you’ve heard about the kerfuffle that restaurant critic Alan Richman had at a restaurant in New York recently that spawned an interview with Grub Street in which he accuses some unnamed-but-presumably-hip NYC restaurants of taking casual dining a bridge too far by providing careless service. I’ve seen some of this, but, thankfully, not at restaurants on OpenTable. Are you seeing any of that on the West Coast?
Brooke: Oh, absolutely. Here’s the thing — I think a lot of restaurant owners who open casual restaurants assume that giving great service in a casual way is easy. But the thing is, hospitality is an EXTREMELY difficult thing to do. No matter how casual the concept. Giving great service is an art form.
me: So, I have some theories as to the root of the problem. One is that maybe restaurant owners are hiring people who are interesting and bright, but they do not have affinity for hospitality. So, even if they fit the vibe of a restaurant, they could lack the warmth and hop-to-it-tiveness that makes great servers?
Brooke: Maybe. Hiring is key to the success of any business. But, it’s up to the owners to define what great service is, create clear expectations, and teach their staff the tools they need to give great service. Hospitality may come naturally in some, but it takes constant nurturing to grow it.
me: It’s really a customer service job at its core…
Brooke: Removing your ego — as a business practice — is not an easy concept for anyone to do.
me: For servers, it’s not about if you forget something, it’s how you address the issue
Brooke: Mistakes will happen. They always do. But how you deal with the mistakes is the mark of a great business.
me: So, what advice do you have for diners who are eating somewhere and they feel as though they are imposing on their server for asking her/him to, you know, be a server? Do you finish and not return?
Brooke: As a diner, you have many ways to communicate with the restaurant. Firstly, if you have experienced a complete breakdown of service, it’s a good thing to communicate your concerns with a manager. Hopefully, the ownership will respond in a positive way and will try to amend the situation. If the ownership doesn’t respond, I recommend you not go back. I suggest you find a restaurant that does cater to your needs, patronize them often, and tell all your friends about the great place you’ve found!
me: I always say, if you have so-so food but warm, attentive service, you’ll remember the service and probably go back. If you have amazing food and terrible service, you’re moving on for good. So, what advice do you have for restaurateurs who are already juggling a million things every day? What should they watch out for?
Brooke: Most importantly, they need to foster an atmosphere of hospitality — that the front of house staff’s top priority is to make the guest feel like they were the best thing that happened to them all day. What to look out for is a manager or a server who spends a lot of time complaining about the problems about the customers. Also, another key thing for restaurateurs to keep in mind is that their staff is a reflection of their attitude. If a chef says to their staff, “To hell with that guy and his request for sauce on the side,” then the staff will take an approach that mirrors that “The guest isn’t right” perspective.
me: Is it possible that the restaurant culture has become so focused on the food and pulling the next big thing out its hat, menu- and trend-wise, that the hospitality is a lesser part of the equation — and that’s become somehow acceptable?
Brooke: There are a couple of really hip restaurants and coffee places here in LA that serve incredible food and beverages, but the entire vibe of those places is, “We’re too cool for you.” I gotta tell you, my vote is if that kind of service makes you uncomfortable, don’t go back. They’re never going to change.
me: So, will those restaurants survive in the long term?
Brooke: I really don’t think the “customer sucks” mentality is sustainable.
Diners, do you think service is becoming too careless at restaurants? Share your thoughts below. And, check back next week for another chat with service expert Brooke Burton.