Defining Restaurant Excellence: Serving, Selling, and Finding the Right Balance
May 28, 2017
As a consultant I visit hundreds of restaurants a year assessing their skill levels of service and salesmanship. Teams typically struggle with finding the right balance between serving the guest (hitting industry standards) and selling (controlling average check rates). Managers too often are unsure of which to emphasize. To complicate the issue further it is often a regional issue. Depending on which country I am in, some cultures lend themselves to aggressively approaching the table and making suggestions, while other cultures interpret good service strictly by approaching a table and asking, “Do you know what you would like?”
This article is my attempt at looking past daily business challenges to examine the heart of what every restaurant owner likely wants to achieve:
An excellent food and beverage product that customers enjoy and return for.
An inviting atmosphere and service that customers are happy to experience.
The highest average check possible, the most customers possible, and for both business and customers to feel there is a good value for their money.
These are virtually everyone’s goals, but sometimes people lose sight of the simple and true.
Start with an excellent food and beverage product. The servers must be proud of what they are selling. Cooks must be proud of what they are turning out. The menu must offer variety but have a clear theme or message. If you want people to come back, the quantity, pricing, and presentation have to be right for the market. Beware of over feeding or under feeding guests as both are money losers. Heaping lots on a plate (U.S.A. – I am talking to most of you) does not signal bounty, but waste. It often shows that the product is cheap and not special.
I travel the world, and so do your guests – knowing where most of your guests come from and understanding their cultures will help better to feed and serve them. Example: Western European luxury guests often tell me that they are amused or turned off by U.S. portion sizes.
Here is what I am looking for when I visit a restaurant and check their food and beverage product:
Food and drinks should be innovative or traditional. They should be true to the chef’s vision or region they are from.
If the restaurant features expert mixologists, decorated sommeliers, or local offerings – great! Just make sure these features are presented to every table consistently. I am also a fan of wine flights, beer tastings, and vintner events – so long as they are well marketed, executed creatively and priced right.
For every stage of the meal there should be a balance of light and rich menu options with a good price range and balanced choice of meats, seafood, and vegetarian plates.
If bread is served, the portion should be tailored to the number or people at the table (this is a huge pet peeve of mine). Serving one person a huge basket of bread shows a lack of caring, wastes food, and loses money once the guest fills up on bread.
If appetizers are offered, they should be small enough not to spoil the diner’s appetite. Large, rich appetizers should offer the choice to split or order a half portion. All appetizers should be about the same size (in weight not calories) so that servers do not need to warn guests about ordering too much or too little depending on their choices.
If the restaurant offers specials, then they should be fresh and delicious. Most people in the business know when the item is a showcase of the chef’s talents or an off loading of old product.
I cringe every time I hear these words, “Our chef cooks in the traditional style of (fill in blank here with any cuisine) but only uses the freshest, local ingredients.” That is what EVERYONE says and is what EVERYONE should do. Please stop saying that… You are making me crazy… Instead, if I ask what type of food is served at your restaurant, answer with something interesting. Like, “Our chef is from (wherever) and has brought the cuisine of his home to our city.” Or try, “Our chef trained at the (wherever) and brings his vision of this cuisine to life.” Or simply, “We specialize in (whatever) cuisine, and the foods from this area are a perfect match for our chef’s passion/experience.”
Provide the right atmosphere! Restaurant owners/managers, try the following challenge: Go for a walk around your neighborhood (or resort) for 30 minutes then come into your restaurant and sit down. Here is what you should look for:
How does the restaurant smell? Sounds basic, but I am often assaulted with the scent of rubber mats, stale beer, dishwasher steam, old food, or mold… gosh, my job is soooo glamorous… Even some of the best restaurants in the world are guilty of this. The restaurant should smell clean, or like fresh food, depending on your cuisine and ventilation. If you are hit in the face with old garlic and happen to hate garlic, you will want to turn around and leave.
How is the lighting? This requires doing the walk about and re-entering the restaurant several times, but it is worth it. Are you blinded by the contrast of sunshine and darkness when you enter? Can you see the menu clearly? Can you see the details of the food on your plate? I was recently at a (very) expensive restaurant where the lighting was so dim; all I could see were the bread crumbs glowing on the dark wood floor.
Menus must be clean, in large print (this is not an eye test), and use proper grammar. If you cannot be bothered to use spell check, I will assume the worst about other aspects of your business.
How clean is the view? The kitchen better be spotless, but also check the restaurant – floors, under the table (go on gum patrol weekly), linen must be perfect and pressed, ceilings and fixtures must be flawless, check glassware, silverware, plates, and chairs. See to it that there is nothing that would ruin a diner’s appetite. Open the doors to the kitchen and look at work stations from every chair in the house – are you seeing anything you shouldn’t. Guests notice every detail – after all, they are sitting in one spot for over an hour.
Offer amazing service, train and respect the employees. Restaurants owners often overlook this crucial detail, but the businesses that hire me understand their team’s importance. Here is my mantra: “Whatever you are hoping to achieve, the employees are actually the face of your business. They are talking to the guys with the wallets.” I am an ex-server and now as a trainer it is clearer than ever employees hold the key to a well-run, happy restaurant. No matter how great the food is, if the service is awful, guests will not return. Here are my rules:
Hire employees that you will want to keep for years to come. Interviews should explain what your expectations are and what your vision for your business is. Employees should show a passion for the industry and an interest in learning. Hire quality – a host should be able to turn tables and have an instinct for diffusing conflict. He/she should be able to speak intelligently about the restaurant and match the experience of making a telephone reservation match the experience of walking through the door. I have had countless meals ruined by rude, pretentious, or uncaring hosts. The name “host” or “greeter” should give a clue about why they are there; often they act more like “bouncers.”
Make an investment in employee training. Providing a clean uniform, training manual, trusted trainer, and allowing them to taste the food are the basics (many business don’t cover even these items). Continue to keep the team informed of business developments, marketing strategies, and changes to the menu. Act as though all employees in your restaurant are your business partners (they are). If you treat employees like they are disposable, they will act accordingly.
Monitor individual’s progress and share the results. When I speak to a service team that knows their average check targets and where their sales numbers are performing, I know I am dealing with a team of professionals. Celebrate successes publicly, and work on challenges privately. Once a server realizes the power they have over the average check and customer satisfaction, that individual makes better choices – even unsupervised.
I have lots of methods of increasing the restaurant’s average check, and train these techniques in my classes. The most important is to ensure consistency of service, know which servers are succeeding, and allow servers to learn from each other. Floor managers must be allowed to manage (and not simply act as fill in help bussing tables). See my other articles on middle management leadership development for more on that subject. Knowing a server’s bad habits is not good enough. Being empowered to act on what they see is the way to keep in control.
Take in what people are saying – guest feedback, server ideas, floor manager innovations, all ideas are worth listening to. When I hear employees say, “Our manager is old school and only wants things done this way.” I see the challenge before me. Owners want results, but their willingness to evolve and grow is what makes a restaurant live in the present and not get stuck in the past.