At your service

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Michelle Gelles, a waitress at Olde Tymer’s, shows genuine interest in a guest arriving at the restaurant for lunch. Interpersonal skills such as caring for others arises from the heart, but is reinforced in good service training.

By Karen Brucoli Anesi
Special to the Herald

Call it what you will, in today’s lightning-paced world of sound bytes and instant everything, people have about a 90-second window in which to be “wowed.”

Some local restaurants, conscious of that reality paired with increasing consumer demand, continually train staff to respond with a sense of urgency when serving guests.

For other restaurants, it’s those who are seeking jobs that need to be “wowing” the managers who are hiring. A candidate with a happy-to-help attitude can ace out another applicant who boasts a more impressive skill set and food-industry experience.

“We preach smile,” said Paul Gelose, owner-manager of The Palace. “We want nice people, folks who smile and treat each other well. That’s what we hire on.”

Sue Fusco, an owner of Ken & Sue’s, echoes Gelose.

“The key is finding dynamic individuals who wow you in the first two minutes of the interview. That’s how long they get at a table to create their ‘first impression.’ I have hired servers that have never waited tables before because you can teach how to wait tables, but you cannot teach them how to have a personality,” Fusco said.

Both Fusco and Gelose say there is no shortage of talented personnel in Durango. Fusco said her employee training formula has not changed much over the last 15 years – she sets high expectations, establishes solid guidelines and preaches a mantra of exceeding guests’ expectations.

Gelose said what was important two decades ago remains important today. The fundamentals have not changed, but the content of the message is a direct result of guests being more food-savvy.

“When it comes to what’s on the plate, they want to know how it’s grown, where it’s grown and if it’s sustainable,” Gelose said. “None of that was on the radar screen way back when ... Today, everybody’s green.”

Gelose gives credit and blame to technology, social networking and the Food Network.

“Cellphone use by employees and guests are a little bit of a distraction. Smartphone interruptions are a harsh reality ... but as soon as the guest sits down, then the technology needs to go away. They (servers) form a one-on-one relationship with guests. It’s all about that moment of tranquility,” he said.

Mike Shepherd, general manager of Olde Tymer’s, who has about 25 years of industry experience under his belt, agreed that the basics of service delivery have not changed. Knowing the restaurant’s product and anticipating guest expectations is still of utmost importance, but technology alters the picture.

He cited the common practice of customers pulling up Wine Spectator reviews from the Internet right on site, having instant knowledge to know the difference between one vintage and another.

“Guests read reviews right then. They’re savvy and more educated,” Shepherd said.

Wait staff have the added challenge of staying ahead of guests who are better informed than ever.

Today’s servers must be trained on a point-of-sale system, but they also need to know how to continue to deliver good service when the computer goes down. It can be a challenge getting a younger workforce to learn how to write a hand ticket, he said, reminiscing about the way drink orders used to be taken before technology became commonplace within the industry.

And young employees must be told to leave their cellphones in the car and not to call in sick by texting.

“I want to hear their voice, not read a text, Shepherd said. “We’re just dealing with a different type of employee. They’re all so plugged into technology that it’s difficult to bring them back to earth.”

Jon Park, one of several managers at Francisco’s Restaurante y Cantina and a 28-year veteran of the industry, is keen on getting staff to respond to guests quickly and appropriately.

“From the time they walk in the door, you have about two minutes to get to them. At least you need to acknowledge their presence,” Park said.

Park, who has worked the local restaurant circuit, is familiar with the differences between service standards and styles among Durango’s diverse pool of dining establishments.

“Wait staff tends to gravitate toward the type of restaurant that fits their personality,” he said. Fine-dining restaurants tend to attract waiters with a better eye for detail, what he calls a “mental presence” that differs from the casual response typical at “ma and pa places.”

“Ma and pa places might have a more laid back, casual mentality,” he said. “‘Need water? It’s on the table. Pour it yourself.’”

That’s not an attitude of indifference but rather a reflection of societal change in which people may be less sensitive to the needs of others, compared to the values and work ethic of our grandparents, he said.

Park says Durango has more advantages than many communities because it is a college town with hires interested in building a track record. Still, the biggest challenge facing restaurant managers training staff is “getting the right personnel in the door.”

Guests today are more likely to be food- and menu-savvy, not hesitating to ask for restaurants to prepare variations of popular dishes, often pairing one ingredient seen on the menu with another. Wait staff needs to be trained to know what can and cannot be done in a restaurant’s kitchen, Park said.

Karen Barger, longtime owner and general manager of Seasons Rotisserie & Grill, like Fusco, has a multistep training program in which employees shadow, mentor and quickly become intimately familiar with what is on the menu and how items are prepared. Both owners do much or all of the training themselves. Both restaurants have servers routinely sample all food and wines. And both say they emphasize teamwork.

Barger said she uses patterned interviews to find good fits among the 200 applicants they get each year.

“For example, we ask them ‘Have you ever played a team sport?’” she said.

Barger said she wants employees who pull for each other and for collective success and who work effectively together to create a seamless guest experience.

Tips are shared among the servers, bussers, hostess and bartender because all contribute to creating an experience “in which nothing goes wrong from the time the guest walks in the door to the moment he leaves,” she said.

Employees are not permitted to use cellphones when at work, Barger said. Seldom do guests use phones at the table, but occasionally a diner may step outside to answer a phone call. While technology might expedite service at some restaurants, Barger doesn’t see the day when handheld units will be used at Seasons. “We’re here to engage the guest,” she said.

Other routine exercises, such as cross-training, helps staff walk the mile in each others’ shoes, building esprit de corps.

Because Seasons changes its menu quarterly, a 15-page detailed food information packet is given to all 35 employees at staff training meetings, where all get to sample new menu offerings and chef’s specials.

Barger said she works to build a culture that is on board with what she believes: “Every guest is our best client.”

That means that every guest has an equal chance to land his or her favorite table and all are treated with respect. Training by the four-person management team emphasizes meeting or exceeding guest expectations.

Barger said that Seasons’ training methods have not changed much and that the basic amenities of service apply across the board and are not exclusive to higher-end establishments.

“It doesn’t matter if you are standing in line at the Wendy’s or eating at Seasons,” she said.

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