Ask anyone who runs a restaurant and you’ll find there is a hell of a lot to do. As managers get promoted it becomes easy to take on the many responsibilities of the business…
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As a business expands there comes a moment when you can’t spend all your time on the floor watching what's going on. Ask anyone who runs more than one site and they’ll tell you spending time on the floor watching what's going on, is pretty rare. As you expand, you have to make sure your staff are delivering the same levels of hospitality and service you would, taking the same care and attention to make your guests feel nourished and valued.
So how do we make sure they’re delivering on our expectations? One way is to create very detailed “steps of service”. Telling an employee what to say, what not to say, how exactly to greet a guest, precisely which words to use and when to use them.
Job done, right? I am now pretty certain my employees are saying and doing the right thing all the time. Wrong. They might be saying the right thing, but what they’re doing is anybody's guess. Let me explain. I might train my hosts to greet everyone with a friendly “Good afternoon Sir / Madam. How are you today?” Sounds great, right? But now my host is so used to repeating the phrase that it becomes empty, valueless. I might as well record the greeting and play it every time someone walks in. They might be saying the right words, but the thought behind the words has gone.
That’s the real point here. If you are over prescriptive in the way you want people to behave, you stop them thinking for themselves. Once they’re not thinking for themselves, you have a team of people who are disengaged with what they do. You’re essentially saying, “I don’t trust you enough to think for yourselves”. The good ones will put on a fake smile and feign interest and the bad ones will most probably stop following your instructions altogether - neither will be paying much attention to your guests.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there shouldn't be procedures or steps of service. But there has to be a balance. Do you really need twenty three steps of service when seven will do? Allow your employees to choose how they greet a guest, but give them guidelines on how you want them to make the guest feel. They can then make a decision in the moment that best suits that particular guest. Now they have to be thinking on their feet, they have to be adapting, they have to be present in their work.
Although it may seem scary giving more freedom to your staff, it’s essential for their wellbeing, and the wellbeing of your business. Employ good people, train them about your culture, show them your vision and then give them the freedom and trust to do their job. That’s how you create a team that makes your guests feel nourished and truly valued.
Love it or hate it, but customers who don’t enjoy their experience have a whole host of public platforms to voice their disgruntlement. No matter how great your restaurant is, there are always going to be some people who don’t like it or perhaps don’t have a great experience (any restaurant can have a bad night). Sometimes a guest's grievances are valid and other times they can be completely unjust. Sadly, Trip Advisor and the like can’t tell the difference. Once a poor review has been published it is there, permanently, for everyone to see.
If your restaurant has been open a few years, perhaps the odd bad review won’t make much difference, but for new enterprises these types of reviews can be hugely damaging. Not just for the success of the restaurant but for the morale of the staff who have all worked so hard to get it open.
I’ll be honest, we’re not big fans of people who don’t mention their grievances in the restaurant (especially new restaurants) only to then go and write scathing reviews online. If they knew how much time, effort and sheer courage it takes to open a restaurant, I’m sure they would take a much softer and rational approach. Let’s be clear it’s far more beneficial for guests to air their grievances to the restaurant privately instead of publicly trying to shame them.
One new restaurant recently came under fire for candidly replying to reviews that they felt were unfair and unjust. Although they were arguably acting in self defence, the owner still had to publicly apologise for his actions. So it does still seem a bit of a one-way street when it comes to public reviews the customer can say whatever they want, but the business’ response still has to be professional and measured.
So what can we do? There are always going to be people who, given the opportunity, will write scathing reviews if they’ve had a bad time. We’re never going to change that. So the changes have to be at our end.
A manager's first response when reading a terrible review is usually something like, “If only I’d known - I would have put it right before they left.” I have no doubt most managers would do everything in their power to resolve an issue and not let the complaint ‘leave the restaurant’. But people aren’t always going to tell you that something’s wrong. People may be shy, embarrassed, scared or there may be a number of other reasons why they aren’t willing to come over and tell you they’re upset.
But here’s the thing. No guest should have to tell you something’s wrong. If you know what you’re looking for, it’s obvious. Any guest who is unhappy will give you a whole host of signals that identify they are not satisfied. It’s all about awareness. Managers and servers alike should be incredibly sensitive to those signs. Looking for the slightest shifts in body language, conversations stopping, people looking around anxiously or straight down at their food, lack of smiling, lack of interaction with the server or their dining partner…there’s so many signs to be looking out for. Even though your guests aren’t actually speaking their concerns, their body language will be telling you exactly what’s going on.
Notice your guest's mood when they come into your restaurant, if this changes for the worse during their meal, perhaps something has gone wrong. This is then the time for you to step over and subtly interact. Find an excuse to go to the table; pour water, pour wine, clear some plates, make eye contact and they’ll quickly let you know what’s going on. Then you have an opportunity to fix it. Empathy and understanding are key here.
The morale of the story is thus; don’t wait for guests to come to you. It’s you and your team's job to spot things before they happen, and unhappy guests can be spotted a mile off. Of course, not all unhappy guests are going to write scathing online reviews but most of them won’t come back and that's even worse. Guest awareness is the key to not only reducing poor reviews but also to gaining life long customers.
Motivating floor staff can be an uphill struggle. Getting your front line employees to hold the same values and enthusiasm you do for your business can be incredibly frustrating. Speaking to any manager or company director you’ll hear similar frustrations: “I just wish they’d get on with - it’s not rocket science”. Perhaps it isn’t. But without the right perspective, it can become impossible to deliver great service consistently.
Take a moment to think about the frustrated front line employee dealing with your customers. Their interior monologue could run something like this: “These customers are all so annoying today. Why I am here? I don’t want to do this anymore. Why is that person so rude? Another idiot I have to deal with. I don’t get paid enough for this!” Sound familiar?
It’s interesting when you look at comments like these how self focused and insular they are. There’s no real perspective. It’s also interesting that depression, anger and other negative feelings follow a similar cycle: An inability to see past the current circumstances to the bigger picture.
One of the techniques we’ve used recently, to great success, is to involve these front-line employees in other aspects of the business. Buddying them up for a few hours with senior managers explaining the details of how the business operates. Going through budgets, labour, forecasting and exactly what the business needs to do to be successful and where things can go wrong.
We’re trying to achieve a few things here. Firstly, we’re creating a greater sense of trust between management and staff. This can be really useful one-on-one time that staff rarely get with management. Secondly, we’re hoping to crate a sense of enthusiasm and interest as team members feel like they are learning useful business skills. Thirdly, we’re creating a sense of perspective, and ownership. The employee realises they have a role to play in the business and that their actions have a direct impact on the financial success of the company.
By creating a new sense of perspective we are removing the self-focused negativity and creating a sense of responsibility and shared ownership in the business. That’s the real key - you want your employees, not to mention your guests, all to feel like they have a sense of ownership in what you do.
The world seems to be a pretty divisive place right now. Post-Brexit and perhaps pre-Trump, we’re living in the most turbulent of times, certainly since I’ve been alive. As society seems to become increasingly divided, with many people retreating into the safety of the known and rejecting the unfamiliar, for me, the hospitality industry is sending out a beacon of hope, cohesion and community.
Let me explain. We’ve been doing a lot of research at Hop HQ on prejudice, how we become prejudiced and how we can overcome it. Race, immigration and religious beliefs are all volatile topics at the moment, spurred on by politicians, news groups and social media.
We are heavily influenced not just by what we read and see, but by who we hang around with, who we care about and who we work with. The most deep-rooted prejudices, and the hardest to break down, are the ones we inherit from our parents.
If there was less prejudice in the world I have no doubt it would be a better place. So what is the best way to get rid of it, even in the most deep-rooted cases?
So there’s been lots of studies and on this and many different approaches to diffuse or change someone's prejudice. One was training courses, week long workshops, educating people about other cultures to make them seem more human and develop empathy and understanding. Initially the students did feel less prejudiced but shortly after the courses the old feeling returned. However the most successful trial was when individuals from different backgrounds had to work together towards a joint goal.
The sharing of skills, and cohesion needed to complete the task, removed the prejudice and permanently altered the attitudes towards one another for the better.
So if we want to reduce the amount of prejudice knocking around at the moment we need to bring people together and get them to work towards a common goal.
That’s exactly what a good restaurant does. The last restaurant we opened had, Polish, Spanish, Italian, Nepalese, British, French, Turkish, Indian, Moroccan, Dutch, Saudi, Sri Lankan and Syrian employees. You can’t get more cohesive than that. I’ve learnt so much from all the different cultures I have been fortunate enough to work with over the years. Diversity really is something we should be proud of in our industry, it should be celebrated. I’ve always thought the world would be a more empathetic and understanding place if everyone had to work in a restaurant for a year, perhaps now more than ever.
Get Trump on pot wash for a month and let’s see how his attitudes would change.
The Secret to Great Customer Service.
If there’s one secret to delivering excellent customer service it’s empathy. Human beings are a pretty complicated bunch and trying to make all of them happy can be a pretty exhausting experience.
I find it fascinating that most businesses, for whom customer service is a key factor to their success, do virtually no training on Emotional Intelligence. We should embrace the fact that human beings are complex, and what makes one person happy, may not work for another. That’s ok, in fact, it’s a good thing. If the same thing worked for everyone customer, service would be pretty easy, but it would also be pretty dull.
I see so many employees who get frustrated when their usual customer service dialogue doesn’t get the response they want. For example, a guest walks into a restaurant, the host gives them the warmest welcome and the biggest smile, and the guest does not smile back and simply states “A table for one, I’m in a rush”. The host is now resentful of this guest and his rude attitude.
But is it rude? Perhaps, perhaps not. In fact the answer is immaterial. The host is upset because the guest hasn't behaved in the way the host anticipated. How is the rest of the night is going to go for the host do we think?
If we expect someone to react a certain way and they don’t it causes us distress, and that becomes tiring over time - that’s why working with the general public can be so draining.
We need to teach employees in the customer service industry that people are different and that’s ok. Some people won’t smile back at you. Embrace that. Understand that for some people it’s just not in their nature to be open and friendly, and you must adjust your style and expectations to suit their needs.
The more we can empathise with the emotional state of our guests, the more resistance we have to their behaviour. Instead of forcing everyone into the way we would like them to behave we start to change our behaviour to suit them. Instead of working with resistance we are working with fluidity and purpose. It’s way more rewarding and way less stressful, not to mention more genuine.
Ever been to a restaurant where everyone seems to be running their socks off, sweat pouring down their brows and steam rising from their team t-shirts, and yet the level of service is slow and messy? Or perhaps you've managed a shift like this (I know I’ve had a few in my time?) Restaurants are unpredictable beasts and we can all get caught out at times. Sudden spikes in trade for no apparent reason can cause havoc for anyone. But what about those shifts where the labour budget is not to blame, and for some reason, despite everyones best efforts it all goes a bit wrong? Welcome to the Hop Guide to Front of House Productivity.
So I want us to think about productivity in two ways. Firstly the productivity of the whole team. The group output from all the individuals combined. And secondly the individual productivity. How productive each team member is.
Now you may think, the more productive the individuals are, the more productive the team will be. Not quite, it’s a little more complicated. The key thing we’re looking for is ‘Equal Productivity’. If all your employees are equally productive and working at a similar rate (their work rate) then the overall productivity for the restaurant will be good. You can see the graph below.
Pretty obvious, right? Ok, but what happens if just one member of my team decides to slack off a bit. If you’ve got a good team they will usually pick up the slack. Their work rates go up, perhaps service suffers a little, but overall productivity of the restaurant goes down only slightly.
If this is just a one off it’s not such a big problem. However, if it starts to become a regular thing, the rest of the team will start to notice and the sense of cohesion and team work will start to erode, “Why should I help him if he doesn’t help me?” What you end up with is six individual servers only interested in their own sections. If it’s not busy, it’s not too noticeable, perhaps guests will pick up on the negative energy, but productivity isn’t affected too much.
However, once it get’s busy, disaster strikes. Because the team is divided and the servers have become used to working on their own, they can longer generate the Team Productivity needed for the volume of trade. Individual work rate soars but Team Productivity is low.
All because one person in the team started to slack off a bit. I hope you’re getting the point now. It is far more important for everyone to be working at the same rate, being equally productive, than it is for a few to be doing the majority of the leg work. It only takes one person to upset the balance.
Teams where individuals are working at different levels of productivity don’t last long. It’s the quickest way to upset employees and can be a nightmare, not to mention costly to fix. The key is spotting it early - that means even on quiet shifts. You need to notice the behaviour, then stop it, before it becomes habitual.
So remember, every time a server is not pulling their weight they are starting to create conflict within the team. If that carries on, it will divide the team, which in turn, will have a devastating effect on your business and your employees.
OK I admit it, at first glance the idea of finding time to be mindful, in a hectic restaurant may seem a little crazy. Taking fifteen minutes out to meditate on a Saturday lunch (although it would be wonderful) isn’t the most practical of ideas and certainly wouldn’t help your labour budget. But what if I suggested that there are ways to get a good dose of mindfulness even in the most hectic of shifts, and these moments of consciousness, aren’t just good for your mental well-being but are, in fact, vital to the growing success of your business? Even if you’re not sold on the idea of mindfulness and presence, read on, you may just find it useful.
So let’s imagine you’re a waiter, it’s a Saturday lunch, it’s busy, it’s hot, the bar are running a little behind on drinks and the host has just given you one too many tables. Just take a moment, imagine this situation (I get a little tense just thinking about it). Now, I want you to start thinking about your thought process at this point, the stream of consciousness inside your head. As the pressure grows that interior monologue gets quicker and quicker, louder and louder, “where are my drinks? "I told that host not to sit me any more tables!" "I hate this job? What am I doing here? Where’s the spinach for table 6?” Our heart rate increases, tension grows, and we start to become less and less present and more and more locked in our heads. Awareness decreases and stress increases.
This scenario is not uncommon, go into any busy restaurant on a Saturday night and you may just see it. But is it really that bad? Surely that’s just part of working in a restaurant isn’t it? Well yes and no. Yes it is bad, I’ll go into why in a second, and yes it is part of working in a restaurant.
So why is it bad? Firstly, for the waiter. Health wise, both physically and mentally that amount of stress is simply not good for you. It’s exhausting. I’ve just been reading The Art of the Restauranteur by Nicholas Lander. There are so many incredible people who have founded wonderful restaurants only to tragically die of a heart attack ten years in. Leaving their business partners to carry on alone. That’s the pay off for working with all that stress. Secondly, for the customer. The customer is on the receiving end of distracted service. Nothing frustrates a customer more than when they feel the waiter is not giving them their full attention. Thirdly, for you, the owner. As stress increases our ability to make rational decision decreases. There's proper scientific studies into this. The more distracted we become the more mistakes we make, the more wastage we create, the less productive we become. Not to mention the fact that your customers are now not having a great time either and might not be too keen to return.
That idea of mediating for fifteen minutes doesn’t quite seem so crazy now does it? I jest... But we do need to get present, and we need to be able to do it quickly. It can’t interrupt service and it has to be done on the floor. So here’s how we do it. Every time you go to a table it is an opportunity to be present. Think about that for a second. The waiters have to talk to the tables. So why not use this time to bring yourself into the present. To stop all that interior monologue. A three minute break from all the stress to enjoy being with your guests. When you’re at a table, you don’t have to run food or drink all you have to do is be present. Listen to them, speak to them, enjoy that human connection. If you find that connection you will become present. Simple.
On a busy shift you need to see tables as a gift, a gift to be present. Like a mini pit stop during service. So many waiters go over to a table so distracted and rushed they completely miss this golden opportunity.
Here at Hop there’s a little mantra we teach all of our students to remind them how to get present on busy shifts. Before they go over to a table they take a second, I literally mean one second. They take a breath and say the following in their heads. “Establish. Engage. Enjoy.” Now let me explain. Establish: they establish good body language, usually just letting go of tension. Engage: they genuinely try to engage their guests, great eye contact, good smile. Enjoy: now they have the engagement from the guest they can enjoy that connection, enjoy that human experience. That’s why we all do this job because, at the heart of it, we are social beings who enjoy connecting with other people.
Establish. Engage. Enjoy. At first waiters will say I haven’t got time for all that. But it only takes seconds. At first they will feel like they're spending longer at the table, because they are speaking at a more relaxed pace. But in reality the actual time at the table is the same.
Furthermore, whilst they’re at the table their stress will reduce, their awareness will increase, the guests will be getting a much more unique and genuine experience and you will have a happy restaurant with a better atmosphere.
That’s how to get a good dose of mindfulness in a busy shift. Joss sticks are optional.
Sometimes, what you see, isn’t always what you get. Don’t judge a book by its cover my dear old Gran used to say. And the same is true with people, as we found out at a training session last week.
We’re in a big new, beautiful restaurant a week before soft launch. We’re mid-session and a shy, nervous student gets in front of the rest of the class. She moves to the front of the room to see if she can put into action some of the things we have been talking about. She starts the mock scenario with our actors. To begin with, her style is cold at best, at worst a bit scary, intimidating, aggressive almost.
Now, at first glance you may have thought there is no way this person could provide gentle, empathetic and fluid service. She obviously hasn’t got ‘it’ and there’s no way she could learn ‘it’. ‘It’ being that elusive, effortless ability to make guests feel relaxed and welcome. Some people may have thought she’s never going to get ‘it’. Just let her get on with it and maybe she’ll leave eventually. Not us. We try a couple of things. She has a go at the scenario again. Not great but better. The girl has heart and determination. The pressure is building as the rest of the class watch on. The actors look a bit scared. We work on voice, body language, intention and then boom! I can’t do justice to the transformation; all of a sudden there is the most incredible smile, a warmth, a joy, a sense of humour. She has ‘it’ and not just a bit but she has ‘it’ in spades and all in under fifteen minutes.
I have no doubt this particular student will go onto to be a General Manager, the feedback from the management team has been incredible and this particular student has discovered a side of herself she didn’t know existed. Transformations like this are incredible and they create the most loyal and dedicated employees; but sometimes you have to get through the hardback cover to discover them. I just wish my Gran could have been there to see it.
Yesterday I went to a very high-end, swanky restaurant, famous in many quarters. Sadly, I ended up on the receiving end of the type of service I can’t stand. Robotic, generic and soulless. Nothing can suck the very being out of me quicker than fake generic service; it reminds me of the dementors from Harry Potter (apart from fact that I have to pay for this agonising privilege).
The food was great, the wine was great, plates laid down with sophistication but the atmosphere of the place was non-existent, no one smiling or laughing, not many people even talking. The staff slowly draining the life out of each and every guest.
I watch intently as our waiter goes around to each table, speaking in exactly the same rhythm and tone, lifeless and all one-way (clearly not listening). There was absolutely no attempt to connect with any of his guests. He was on autopilot, spitting out the same old drivel, locked in his own thoughts, with no regard for any of his guests. Not present, or enaged at all in what he was doing and the scary thing was he thought he was doing a great job! We ask to make an alteration to a dish, the waiter say "yes fine." The dish comes out unchanged; the table next to us have no mains as the waiter forgets to order them. The table to the other side get the wrong starters. Our side dishes are wrong. All because someone isn’t present in what they are doing.
Why does this happen? Because the joy has gone in what they do. There’s no heart or soul in what they do and they don’t know where to find it. Perhaps more worryingly they don’t even no they’ve lost it.
We all get distracted and caught up in our own thoughts from time to time, but to find joy in what you do you must connect with your guests. Whenever I’m distracted I make an extra effort to really listen to my guests, to really give them my full attention. To make them feel valued, and that will make them happy (well most of them) and if you are genuinely part of that experience that will make you happy. The joy of the job is found in the way we communicate with our guests and our colleagues. It defines the energy of a restaurant. Happiness is nothing unless shared.