Sweating the small stuff: Restaurant service

As a food writer wandering within a community of friendly vocals, I get a lot of feedback. (Sometimes more than I deserve, which I consider tremendously beneficial for me and for the Herald.)

Usually the suggestions I get are about covering community non-profit organizations sponsoring food-related fund-raisers. Every event organizer touts the need for more publicity.

The two topics Iím hearing about non-stop lately are amateur, poorly-written, online restaurant reviews that offer no recourse or rebuttal for restaurant managers and owners. And that obtuse umbrella of dissatisfaction: poor service at local restaurants.

For years Iíve struggled with writing a useful feature about restaurant service. But where do you go with it? Is good service not in the eye of the beholder?

Is it about offering white-glove attentiveness or is it about how to train employees to be observant? Is it about knowing a menu well enough to be useful to the diner or is it about interfacing with the kitchen staff when an entrťe is incorrectly or inadequately prepared?

Iíve decided that we may not know how to define what good service is, but we can agree on how its absence feels.

I recently went to one of my husbandís favorite diners, a place where weíve celebrated breakfast for several decades. My son recalled his dad taking him there for clown-faced pancakes when he was in preschool. It seemed like a fitting way to launch Fatherís Day and to thank him for all those pancakes, my son reasoned.

Naturally it was crowded at 10a.m., three hours later than when we usually knock back a couple of cups of coffee and cold cereal. In the interest of getting the line to move forward, we agreed to sit at the counter.

Within two minutes and before the order was placed, it was apparent that the seating offered no comfort for my husband, who is having some trouble with his left leg. We switched stools trying to get him maximum space so he could stretch. Finally we asked the waitress if we could have the now empty table immediately behind us, offering an explanation of our change of heart.

The waitress, who asked her manager, said no to our request. The manager had a line at the door to seat and it would be hard to fill those counter seats once the guests in line saw the empty table, she motioned.

A few more tables emptied before our breakfast came.

The breakfast was as good as we remembered. Our coffee cups were kept topped. There was nothing wrong with the meal. But the experience was far less than ideal, because the service was simply inconsiderate.

If I were writing that feature story, my lead would be about the definition of good service. Itís about putting the needs of the guest first. It is about being useful.

Finally it is about being useful to the guest on his terms, not yours. Meeting the dinersí needs first, rather than those of the restaurant, is where good customer service begins.

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