APOLOGIES: A family matter kept me from blogging yesterday…here’s what I was working on…
Foodies hate bad restaurant service and love to talk about, like soldiers comparing war stories.
I heard one the other day from my mother that, when I told another foodie about it, caused cold chills to run up and down her body. My mom and her special friend used to go to this one Kahului, Maui, cafe for lunch pretty often, and liked it. Then one day, the waitress,  who had been somewhat surly throughout the meal, greeted their gratuity with the words: “We work for tips, you know. This isn’t enough.”
They’ve never been back. And they do tell the story. With the name of the restaurant.
Recently, someone emailed me a link to piece by famed restaurant guide editors Tim and Nina Zagat from their ZAGAT Buzz blog: http://www.zagat.com/buzz/op-ed-should-servers-get-a-degree-in-hospitality
I can’t disagree with their premise that front-of-the-house staff in restaurants ought to receive professional training and, as a result, more respect, which might not only produce improved performance but a greater willingness to consider service as a respectable, long-term career. (One of the problems plaguing the industry is that few servers stick with the job over time, with all the downsides that turnover creates — increased costs for hiring and training, fumbling beginners exasperating customers and so on.)
But I don’t think training is the solution. You can teach someone where to place the fork. You can instruct them to look for misplaced or missing utensils. You cannot teach them to care; to treat others as they wish to be treated — to notice, for example, that there are no knives on the table but someone ordered a steak, the kind of small act that cements a long-term relationship.
Who would ever wish to be told their tip was niggardly? Who would be fluffy-headed enough not to realize that a short-changed tip might be sending a message: “your service sucked,” or possibly, “there’s something wrong with this restaurant.”
I generally don’t penalize servers for acts not their fault. And I favor using words when I’m trying to communicate. But the truth is, most local folk won’t draw poor performance to a server’s attention, or even a manager’s — not face to face. Confrontation is anthema to us. We’ll talk to each other. We might whine anonymously on Yelp. But, mostly, we just never go back.
I am, as the English say, gob-smacked whenever I hear restaurateurs blame other factors for their failure when the problem was not the economy, not the chef, not even the lack of parking. The problem, more often than not, was service, or some supposed cost-cutting service-related measure that the owner probably instituted: complicated ordering procedures that make things easy for the kitchen, tough for the customer, for example.
At a recent hospitality training session I attended, I asked the instructor, a chef with more than four decades’ experience, whether everyone could be taught service or whether some people just don’t belong in the front of the house. The latter, he said, without a moment’s hesitation.
In other words, you can train someone to say, as the Ritz-Carlton requires of its employees, “MY pleasure!” But you can’t infuse the words with meaning. And we have hyper-sensitive radar for this; we just know when it wasn’t a pleasure for them at all. And we don’t go back.