Chris Parr discusses the importance of service and how excellent service can carry lesser dishes, but poor service can ruin great food.
Why don't more owners and managers understand that the perception of their establishment – large or small; high, middle or low end of the market – is affected, dramatically, by the quality of the service delivered throughout their customer's stay? Excellent service can carry lesser dishes, but poor service can ruin great food. Why is this not obvious to everyone in the industry?
First, a word of caution: service is subjective. What I look for may not be what you seek. So, I'll try to be objective here; and I'll make it clear when I'm being me!
Service can be, and almost certainly needs to be trained. Responsibility ultimately sit with management for service as staff are unlikely to know what to do, or what is expected of them. It is not some lucky accident of birth. Management must set the stage and tone and ask the questions. What sort of establishment does it want? How does it want customers treated?
These questions open the scope extensively: from formal to informal; from homely to business-like. There's no right or wrong here. But this element is necessary; otherwise, there's going to be confusion all around.
Service is also more than just the staff. Recently, we stayed in Nice, and two incidents stand out. First, our hotel was in a reasonable part of town, off the main street and owned by a global chain. However, the service entrance was by the front doors. So, every day, we saw garbage, washing and other detritus of hotel life coming and going; as well as staff having a smoke in their break time. The impression was not good. This aspect of "service" cannot be overlooked. Our view of the hotel was coloured by poor design before we'd even entered and each time we came or went.
Second, we followed a TripAdvisor recommendation for a local restaurant and turned up at a beautiful looking, well lit, but an empty building, with nobody seated in the main room. But, there was a nicely written notice just by the door – "We're in the garden" – and then a well-dressed man appeared to usher us into a sort of dream-scape out in the back courtyard. This place had thought about the service it wanted to deliver. We were slightly disturbed by the emptiness, but that was quickly dealt with by the welcoming notice and the maitre d'. The rest of the evening just got better.
Service achieves a range of objectives: it removes anxiety – as a host, the fear of failure can be huge. The restaurant in Nice dealt with that so well; it lifts the experience of being out, as when at home we serve ourselves, often carelessly.
Eating out is supposed to be better than eating at home or, if not better, then at least different. Therefore, we want better or different. Service is a massive part of that. Also, if we're paying for the experience we want it to be right; to be special.
Service doesn't mean that we expect linen napkins and silver service in the "greasy spoon" café, but it does mean that we don't want the spoons or chairs to be greasy!
A smile is a great start - a simple acknowledgement of our presence. Finding a place to sit should be easy – if it's hard to get in, guess what… people won't come in or won't stay. The menu should be easily accessible and, for me, water (tap, unless it's not advisable) should come unrequested. Then there should be a pause. Too often, before we're all seated, someone is asking what we want to drink. That's hustling, in my book; and it irritates me hugely.
Recently, in a lovely Borough Market restaurant, we got the full service: smile; a personal welcome; seats at the bar while our table was set (we were early); water dispensed as we waited; time to think once we sat down.
Previously, at a much grander place in Soho, we had a different experience. First, the front door stuck - we couldn't get in! The lady on Front of House had to yank it open. She laughed and said something to the effect that "that always happens" – so fix it. Then two questions: how are you today? And, have you eaten with us before? The first sounds innocuous but, for the questioner, it's a bomb! What if I've just had terrible news? What if my cat's just died in my arms? Why does the restaurant want or need to know how I am? The second question suggests that there is something secret and, perhaps, difficult about eating in this place. There wasn't, so what's the point of the question?
My expectations had been changed and then knocked back - that's not a good start. We ate little, left quickly and did not tip, and we won't be returning. That is poor service of the worst sort. The owners need to look at their approach, and they need to make some changes – simple, but oh so valuable.
Once seated and ready to order, I have to agree with the late Michael Winner. He saw no point in the waiting staff using memory, rather than pen and paper (or iPad) to record the various requests. It's not a memory test and should not be a lottery.
Then, once served, I'm with Gordon Ramsey – he argues that the waiters should not ask "how's your meal?" or any form of questions that suggest the food or anything else is not as good as it should be perfect. There should be no doubt among the staff. The question to be asked (according to Gordon and me) is: is there anything else that you need?
This question then addresses us, the diners. The waiter can't know that I like shredded radish with my ice cream; or that I always eat pudding with a ladle rather than a dessert spoon. So, this is a valid and helpful question that adds something to the service.
Wine can be a source of many issues in restaurants. Firstly, few of us are connoisseurs such that we can identify every wine on the list. So, advice needs to be available. Then, offering the cork is not enough and may not be necessary at all (corks smell of cork and wine). That may not be what the wine smells or tastes like. Knowledge must be passed onto the diner to ensure there is a structured mix of personal taste and experience. Dealing with that is a diplomatic test of excellent service! Finally, I feel the table should decide whether it wants the wine to be poured, or is it self-service? There's no right or wrong, just a choice that should be offered.
The end of the event is a critical point for everyone. The guests want to leave – unless it's been genuinely memorable – and the restaurant wants payment. Someone on the staff should be watching the room – always, but especially for those offering money – and should despatch the bill quickly. Then they should watch for a sign that the payer is ready to do the deed. I've sat for ages waiting for someone to bring the credit card machine. That's irritating and can mar an otherwise enjoyable experience.
Excellent service ends with coats easily retrieved alongside an acknowledgement we've been there, with a farewell and a thank you. Something to anchor us to the event as a whole – entry, eating, leaving – it is essential to feel like we will be welcomed back. Isn't that the manager's dream? Repeat custom is the best custom, surely?
So, what's it all about, this "service" lark?
It's about drawing me in; making me feel comfortable, un-rushed, wanted. It's about style, not class. It's about the whole experience of being out – food, drink, service – a coherent whole that leaves me feeling that I had something worth paying for and, in this commercial world, worth tipping for.
Chatting Food Contributor: Chris Parr
International commercial lawyer, business advisor, mentor and mediator with a passion for good food and drink from across the world. I love to cook, but use recipes as starting points. I love farmers’ markets and artisanal products, especially cheese, fruit and vegetables. I’ve lived in Europe and spent time in Japan, India, Hong Kong, Korea and the USA.