On Hospitality: James Liakakos, Jean-Georges’ VIP of Operations

Jean-Georges Vongerichten owns 11 restaurants in New York and 19 around the country and the globe. The guy who jets around the world launching his new restaurants, all while making sure the day-today operations of those restaurants are running smoothly—from teaching servers how to properly make a latte to instructing them on the seven essential napkin folds— is James Liakakos, VP of Operations.

Born and raised in a restaurant family in Long Island, Liakakos graduated from the Cornell Hotel School in 1999 and went to work with Daniel Boulud before joining the Jean-Georges group in 2003 as part of the management team at Mercer Kitchen. Since then he’s become Jean-Georges’ right-hand man, working to execute the JGV vision while ensuring quality of operations and financial performance. Andrea Strong spoke with him about reservations, faster dining, and how to get a guest to put down their phone and order.

How has hospitality changed over the years?

We have evolved considerably.

When I started out we didn’t even have OpenTable, and when we began working with them in 2003, it was just a few reservations. Now more than 65% of our total reservations are automated web reservations.

So we have shifted the focus of our training. Phone etiquette was so important to us before, and it still is, but now the focus is shifting to making sure our profiles are optimized and taking advantage of all of that new technology has to offer in terms of optimizing availability and anticipating no shows.

Depending on location, we have it down to a science. We can look at software products like OpenTable and Avero that help us analyze the data from all our restaurants. We can look at table trend times and how many large parties we can accommodate and what are ideal dining times, and provide balance between what guests want and what we can provide.

Has there been a change in the way service is delivered?

I think Jean-Georges has been good at economic transitions and anticipating how people want to eat and the environment they want to eat in. He has really been the one that has led us to reshape the way we think of guest priorities.

The mechanics of technical service doesn’t seem to be as important from the standpoint of our guests. Some of our most casual restaurant have the highest OpenTable scores when it comes to service, even on par with some of our Michelin star restaurants.

So what we take away from that is that it comes down to being friendly and being a good person. That hasn’t changed, and we place more value on that, because we see how important that is. What has also remained consistent is product knowledge—doing our best to make sure our service crews are masterful with their knowledge of menus and ingredients.

How have phones changed the landscape?

Folks can be so engaged with their devices that they don’t look at the menu for 15 to 20 minutes, and when it’s time to look at the menu they are like, we have been here so long and servers didn’t come over. They complain, but the server didn’t want to be impolite.

So we try to have waiters be more assertive, as long as you excuse yourself and “pardon my interruption” and just point out a few things on the menu to get the attention back to ordering. Also, the days of reciting six minutes of specials are over — we need to be concise people’s attention span.

What do you read that keeps you inspired or gives you the news you want for the business?

I follow lots of people on LinkedIn. I read the Harvard Business Review and Fast Company to identify how other organizations are working and how they are making hospitality work for them.

Are you developing any new technology, should we look out for a Jean-Georges app?

We don’t have an app yet, but we are looking for ways to improve learning and training for our staff. There are so many new and innovative ways of delivering content.

Handing a server a 100-page handbook on “How to Serve” is no longer effective, and maybe never was. We are working on how to extract the 25 most important messages we want to deliver in the most dynamic way. We present them with slides and videos.

We had a napkin folding video to demonstrate the seven different folds we have in one restaurant. It’s much easier to teach a napkin fold with a video than words on a page. Though I think I was much more excited about this video than most of my staff!

Photos courtesy of Jean-Georges.