Sunday, January 31, 2010

Great service is hard

I ate at many fine restaurants while in Austin and Boston. Though in most of them the food was very good but never great, many clearly aspired to greatness. They had focused on making inventive, interesting menus and on executing them as well as they could. Even when their ambition outstripped their ability, the focus was clear. To be a truly great restaurant, though, requires more than just superb food; a topnotch place must also provide great service.

In all of the restaurants I tried, the service was not up to the food.

Given their lofty goals, I couldn't help but wondering why that was the case. Restaurant service is something amenable to rules and practice. When and how to clear, when and how to serve, monitoring the guests to make sure they don't lack for water, and so on--all of these problems are small. So, why don't more places offer great service?

The answer is obvious: Great service is hard.

For one thing, it requires an obsessive focus on the customer, not on yourself. You may not want to pour water right then, but if a glass is approaching empty, you need to do it. You might want to serve the next course, but if a guest just left for the restroom, you must hold it--maybe even remake it so it arrives at the table as it should. To be a great server, you have to put the wishes of your customers ahead of your own over and over and over again. That alone is very hard.

It's even harder than it should be, however, because most restaurants don't spend enough on service. If you give a server too many tables to cover, he or she is doomed to fail. Similarly, if no one has trained you on serving on the left and taking from the right, then no one should expect you to have that data. And, of course, there's the money factor: Great servers should make livings commensurate with their skill. If that means raising the prices a bit, so be it.

Finally, great service demands a very difficult level of subjugation of your own concerns. When you deliver a perfectly cooked medium-rare steak to the man who explicitly ordered it that way, and he then declares in a loud voice that he wanted it cooked brown all the way through (an abomination, by the way), you have to take it back--even though neither you nor the kitchen did anything wrong. Dealing with difficult customers is part of the job. (I have to say that I try very, very hard never to be such a customer.)

It's no surprise, then, that great service is rare. When you find it, however, it is a joy to behold and to experience. Dine at The French Laundry or Joel Robuchon, to name but two pinnacles of service, and you will understand how good service can be. If, however, you're eating at a less lofty place and the service lags the food, try to be understanding; the odds are that the servers are understaffed, undertrained, underpaid, and doing the best they can.

And always, always, tip a full twenty percent (or more) unless you have a very specific reason for tipping less--and even then, be sure the problem you have is with the servers and not anyone else.


Michelle said...

Being a former member of the waitstaff at a popular chain while working my way through college, I can tell you two things. Men are usually better tippers than women (who often tend to give you the minimum or less-unless they are former waitstaff themselves), but are much more demanding. And, the larger the party, the less the tip, especially if they give money to one person to put on their credit card (I was always tempted to do the math for them!). However, there were always the breakout stars that overtipped and told you what a great job you did which made your day.

Mark said...

I hate that people do that with larger parties, which take tons of time from servers.

Anonymous said...

I'm former waitstaff, so I think I'm one of those women who are the exception to the tipping rule. That said, nothing pisses me off more lately than bad service. Not just at restaurants, but all retail outlets. Maybe it's just because I live in a college town, and lots of young people work at service jobs. -- Toni

Kyle said...

Specifically, I think it's safe to say that men are better tippers when they're being waited on by women. :)

Mark said...

Toni, I have to agree that bad service can be extremely frustrating.

Mark said...

Kyle, you may be right; I have no data here.

Michelle said...

I think Kyle is right. Men are easy to charm, you know you are are, women much harder to do so. Hence, a pretty smile and good service go along way, whereas women don't really care, they just want what they want. Of course, this is just my experience, I am sure this doesn't apply to all female patrons. And, you are right, Toni. College students are just trying to make money, some are better than others, I like to think I was, but most were just in it for the paycheck.

Mark said...

Michelle, though I agree men in general may be easier to charm, I also believe that men are often more rude.


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