Dinner Guest: Rewarding good service, lamenting bad

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Chef Jay Pierce (courtesy photo)

People and pundits alike complain about the sad state of “service” in the service industry. Some trends back it up. The talent pool for all restaurant positions is at an all-time low, partially because the proliferation of food outlets all along the price spectrum has exhausted the supply. Since Gordon Ramsay, David Chang and “Top Chef” burst into our consciousness, the industry has rediscovered technique and quality, and not just “eating with the eyes first.” But a corresponding back-to-basics movement in the front of house, heralded by Danny Meyer’s hospitality-driven empire, failed to materialize nationally to any degree.

Really good service centers on eye contact, anticipation and concise communication. Most guests want to be attended to, but not fussed over. They want efficient transactions with the staff, whether that is a beverage refill without prompting, not being interrupted mid-conversation, understanding non-verbal cues indicating the need for an increase or decrease in attention, or knowing how to expedite a brisk meal or facilitate a leisurely experience.

It is human nature to remember events more favorably than perhaps they existed, so I asked a few food-industry friends: What gives? Does service just suck everywhere, or have we grizzled industry veterans become too jaded?[pullquote]

Really good service centers on eye contact, anticipation and concise communication. Most guests want to be attended to, but not fussed over.

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Mary, who has owned and operated restaurants in the Triad for a few decades, thinks it has to do with our hectic modern lives. Our industry can’t quantify hospitality and therefore doesn’t value it as much as measurable “controllables” like food cost, pour cost and payroll.

“Everything has gotten so automated and basic manners have been lost,” she said. “Employees are trained on how to work the point-of-sale systems but not trained in the basic niceties, how to interact with the guests who walk through the door and support the business in which they work. There is no time for the extra. It’s all about taking the order and then moving along to the next customer, who is in a hurry. We all need to slow down. But I think America in general is always on a fast track. How fast can I get food? How fast can I make dinner? It’s all about convenience. Manners and mindfulness have been lost. I hope it circles back around.”

Justin, a seasoned server and an avid home-brewer, relishes his role of helping guests navigate the restaurant’s offerings to tailor their experience for that particular visit. Guests love to sit in his section because his tableside manner is always engaging and comforting. His positive outlook shines through the “Groundhog’s Day” aspect of waiting tables — the sometimes-maddening feeling of repetition that the work demands.

“I get to see people on their best days,” he said. “I have friends that have gone to law school and medical school, who routinely see people on their worst days. How is that a way to go through life? Working weddings is the best. Everyone is dressed up, in a great mood to be there. I didn’t realize that until I got a job as a valet and the company sent me to work at a hospital. The finest cars I’ve ever sat behind the wheel of. But no one wants to be there. No one wants to be bringing in an injured child or an ailing parent or visiting a critical patient. Waiting tables is so different. How can you not find the joy in that?”

John has manned every position possible in a restaurant through his six decades, most of those years tableside or behind the bar. He attributes today’s culture of lackadaisical service to the dearth of empathy in our modern society. Most food-service employees in small- to medium-sized cities are itinerant; they transition through on their way to careers in other fields, and are not invested in the idea of service. Cash is their motivation, instead of refinement of a craft. The clearest tell of a lack of hospitality is the response of, “No problem” when presented with a service request. That rejoinder is far too casual to be comforting and is less preferable to the “My pleasure” service of the chicken-and-pickles chain.

Hospitality is about reception, entertainment and the communication of goodwill. In great service, commerce is secondary to the experience.

Feeling that our grievances have been heard by sympathetic ears is not enough. It is incumbent upon us to support businesses and institutions that embody and employ values we hold dear, and that treat us in a way that reinforces the feeling that we are having our best day by choosing to drink or dine with them. Reward the most hospitable businesses with your patronage, as they reward you for your choice.

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