In honor of the announcement of the 2011 Diners’ Choice Awards for Restaurants Providing the Best Service, we sat down with Boston blogger Patrick Maguire, a longtime service professional and champion of service providers via his popular Server Not Servant blog.
Patrick, as someone who sits on both sides of the equation, server and diner, how hard is it to execute service at these award-winning restaurants?
A lot harder than most people will ever know. I heard about what went on behind the scenes at Menton, arguably the new pinnacle of fine dining in Boston (Ed Note: Menton is on our list!). The planning, training, role-playing, and practice required to provide consistent, seamless service requires a huge investment of time, effort, and energy by everyone involved. Service is only one part of the overall dining experience. As I have said before, great service is execution; great hospitality is a mindset, an awareness, and a culture focused on making a meaningful and memorable connection with guests. If you make a memorable connection with your guests, you can convert them from being guests to becoming ambassadors for your restaurant.
What’s the most difficult aspect of being a service provider?
Staying on top of all of the information that you are bombarded with. With all of these new movements — the cocktail renaissance, snout-to-tail butchery, sustainable sourcing — the list is endless. And, diners have so much information, literally at their finger tips, that they expect servers to know exactly where their food is sourced, in addition to knowing the ingredients of each dish and how it is executed in the kitchen.
I’m exhausted just listening to that! So, what was your biggest novice mistake as a server?
Thinking that it was possible for all customers to leave happy. Some people aren’t happy unless they are miserable.
I didn’t know you waited on Charlie Sheen! Ha. Forgetting for a moment about the people who are impossible to please, what’s your secret for bringing a smile to a diner’s face?
Just reading them, picking up on their cues, and doing as little — or as much — as possible to complement their experience. I loved joking around with fun people. Some people want to know the history of the restaurant, take a tour and talk to the chef, and others want to order, read their book, eat, and leave. It’s important to know your place.
Back to the less-than-cheery diners…any advice for winning over someone who’s not in a good mood?
Listen, be empathetic, and respond appropriately if the grumpy guest chooses to engage you. If they’re from out of town, ask if they need any recommendations for other restaurants or anything else during their visit.
Is tipping the only way for customers to show their appreciation?
No! Engage your server without being intrusive. Exhibit mutual respect and common courtesy. Take an interest in the unique offerings on the menu. Offer your server some wine if the situation warrants it. Find your server and their manager to thank them before you leave, and tell the manager what a great job your server did. Send a round of beers or shots to the kitchen. There are so many creative ways to say thank you in addition to cash. Cash is king, but a sincere, “You did a great job, and we really appreciate it,” goes a long way. Last night I brought a packet of Nutter Butters to my friends at Coppa, one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants. Sometimes the simplest measures go a very long way.
I love Nutter Butters! On those rare occasions that a diner gets bad service, is it appropriate to appeal to a manager?
I recommend trying to communicate with the server first. Most situations can be rectified with good two-way communication. If you don’t think the relationship with your server is salvageable, escalate immediately to save your night. If service is offensive or inappropriate, don’t delay. Ask for a new server. If you don’t speak up, you’ll regret it the rest of the night.
One of the biggest mistakes that less-seasoned diners make is to say nothing and then unmercifully rip the restaurant to shreds on an amateur review site. It amazes me that some people have so much to say after the fact yet they won’t speak up to someone who can often fix their problem while they are dining. If you speak up, most restaurants will bend over backwards to ensure that you have a great experience. Don’t ruin it by silently seething.
It seems that as we’re becoming more connected to our food, we’re becoming less connected to each other.
Dining out is such a personal, intimate experience. When you take a step back and think about the concept of a group of human beings preparing and bringing you food, and everything you need to enjoy consuming it, it’s a bit of a strange concept. We all have so many preferences and quirks on both sides of the interaction. I think it’s important to be open, empathetic, and bring good energy to the interaction. Remember that fellow human beings are serving you. The diner has almost as much to do with the success of the interaction as the server does. Have fun!