Longtime restaurateurs: They share their experiences of what works and what doesn’t
It’s not the easiest way to earn a living.
A report compiled earlier this month by the Washington Restaurant Association shows that 76 percent of state restaurant owners saw a decline in September sales compared to sales in September 2008. The results also revealed year-over-year declines in customer counts, the number of full-time employees and employee hours.
September – a year ago – saw the first signs of declines due to the recession. Anthony Anton, WRA president and CEO, said, “What’s most discouraging about the (recent) numbers is that this is the first set of figures that really compares recession-to-recession figures, and yet sales are still down.”
The National Restaurant Association’s monthly composite performance index, which tracks the health of and outlook for the U.S. restaurant industry, fell to 97.5 in September, down 0.4 percent from August and marking the 23rd consecutive month below 100.
Sixty-five percent of operators nationwide reported same-store sales declines, according to the association.
“Collectively restaurants are the state’s largest employer, and our communities depend on us for jobs and a tax revenue base,” Anton said. “It’s critical to all of us that our industry emerges strong coming out of this recession.”
So it’s not easiest place to earn a profit. As examples, restaurateurs list a recent increase in wholesale liquor prices, and a proposed increase in workers’ compensation premiums, plus taxes and fees that continue to grow.
Still, people own restaurants.
Still, restaurants succeed.
The News Tribune recently asked Anton to assemble a panel comprising some longtime restaurateurs from Pierce County. A few weeks ago, seven restaurant owners met over coffee and pastries at The Poodle Dog in Fife.
Here’s how it went.
The News Tribune: So, how’s business?
Warren: Actually, not that great. We’ve been hit in the last three years – the freeway construction, utilities, and the area has changed dramatically. It’s been a real struggle. I’m constantly trying to change our approach, adding a dance floor, adding karaoke. The no-smoking law was devastating. We had a robbery in May. It’s been a constant battle.
Rothwell: It’s been the same at Gertie’s. We’re looking at roads being torn up. The City of Lakewood makes more money from our gambling than we do. Also, people don’t drink like they used to.
Warren: We have new daytime cooks and bartenders. That should help. But look at the places that have closed, just in October. The Friendly Duck, the Chieftain, McCabe’s. Grandy’s, the Western-R –it changed its name – now it’s closed.
Suprak: We just took over Charlie’s this year. Our business is actually up. In September, we were up 12 percent, even with the fair. I had to run the numbers five times. We’ve brought some new enthusiasm – and happy hour, a wine list, a dessert list. We’re trying to keep the essence of what (the previous owners) did. We wanted our guests to get to know us.
We love this business. We’re just going to try not to screw it up.
How do you become – or stay – successful?
Anton: Fifty percent of the restaurants in Pierce County have been in business less than six years. The people in this room have beaten the hell out of the odds. What makes their brand do that?
Burgi: We’ve grown every year. Now, we’ve had the best year we’ve ever had. With outside dining, we’ve had good weather. We work hard at it.
I love it. I love meeting the people. We’ve been blessed.
Prine: We try to make sure our food is fresh. I’ve seen places keep the prices down, and the quality goes down.
Tweten: I bought a business from my folks 24 years ago – the Harvester. I paid my dad $325,000, and he charged me 10 percent interest. I did it because it was challenging. You learn something every day.
You could open a new restaurant.
Tweten: The risk is too great for me. Furniture, fixtures, equipment – and you hope people will come to you. It’s really risky.
But what is it that keeps a restaurant successful, one over the other, with others, even longtime names, closing their doors?
Suprak: Reputation is everything. People want to know what kind of experience they can have before they arrive. And you have to hire people who are friendly and outgoing.
Burgi: Your product has to hold up. And with some of my older customers, it’s the only thing they do every day.
Warren: You have to be friendly. You have to know what you’re doing.
And what about maintaining – or building – a reputation? All of your restaurants have been in business for decades. Some go back to the 1930s.
Rothwell: It’s really important. My mom started it in 1952. Later it was sold – they had it eight years. When Rob and I bought it back, we put out the sign: “Gertie’s kids are back,” and people came back. Soldiers tell me, “We talk about Gertie’s and coming home.” The SOS and biscuits, I’m always getting stories. You feel like you’re really a part of a community, also history.
Warren: People come in and tell me, “My father came here, My grandparents came here.”
Rothwell: People have a sense of ownership in the restaurant.
Mason: We see the soldiers – these guys are so young. A year later, you ask them, “Did everyone make it back?” It just makes you feel so good when they come in. We serve a breakfast, it’s on two plates. Soldiers say, “We’ve been dreaming about this all year.”
What advice do you have for someone thinking of starting a restaurant – or any other business?
Prine: Be willing to go the extra mile. Someone might be gluten-intolerant. Be willing to help people out. And just say “please” and “thank you.”
Mason: Have fun with the people you’re dealing with. Know your product.
Rothwell: Don’t you think the world is too impersonal? My advice would be to make eye contact. So much of it is simple.
Burgi: Attitude. Watch when you go into a store – it’s attitude.
Tweten: Restaurants are a number-driven business. It comes down to numbers. Successful businesses pay attention to how they make money. It’s tracking your business. It’s controlling your costs.
Anton: I’d be surprised if everyone in this room didn’t know their labor costs and their food costs. Everybody’s different, but you’d better know what yours is.
Have any of you made any interesting errors over the years?
Tweten: When espresso started. I said, “No, that’s not going to catch on.”
Warren: I did the same thing.
Mason: In England, years ago, Soho, we called it “frothy coffee.” Spend an outrageous amount of money – but Starbucks was on to something. I never thought it would last.
Tweten: You change very slowly, but you have to change or you die. You have to continually make room for new guests.
Where are things going in Pierce County? How are things changing?
Warren: Bar-Bingo, we have it from 7 to 9 on Sundays. Another thing – dinner, movie and a drink for $10.95.
Tweten: The health department – labeling menus (with calorie and other information). A couple of our stores have embraced it, and it’s been received well. I think for us, our food profile will slowly change.
Mason: With certain things, it’s hard to make too many changes. We make changes very subtly.
Rothwell: Remember the Atkins Diet? We went gangbusters. I put out special menus. That’s gone by the wayside.
Tweten: Technology is changing. We used to be a 100 percent cash business. Now we’re 60-40 the other way. Web pages, twittering, wireless. That’s a big part of what’s happening – and being able to see what sells. I spend a lot of time looking at where we’re making money a line at a time.
In the end, why do you keep at it – with long hours, regulations, short margins?
Tweten: I do what I do because – who would hire me? It’s a people business, and I like people. With employees, I like to see people be successful.
Warren: I’ve been doing this for 16 years. At my age, where would I do something again? I enjoy working with people. This restaurant was owned by my in-laws. I just want to keep it going. I’m hoping I can still be here in five years, 10 years.
Well, maybe eight years.
Peggy Warren: Flying Boots Cafe, Tacoma
Sue Rothwell: Gerties Grill, Tillicum
Rob Mason: Gerties Grill
Joe Burgi: Pick Quick Drive In, Fife
Teresa Suprak: Charlie’s Restaurant, Puyallup
Diana Prine: Fife City Bar & Grill, Fife
Tim Tweten: Poodle Dog, Fife; Harvester, Knapps, Hob Nob, all of Tacoma; Burs, Lakewood; Lighthouse, Port Orchard
By: C.R. Roberts
Garces is the Next Iron Chef!
Jose Garces, Philadelphia's "it" chef-restaurateur, was announced Sunday as the newest member of the Food Network's Iron Chef America team -- not only earning him bragging rights, but also directing an international spotlight on his fast-growing empire run out of Old City.
On The Next Iron Chef, Garces, 37, won a cooking duel against New York chef Jehangir Mehta, capping a season that began Oct. 4 with 10 contestants.
Garces hosted a viewing party last night at his West Philadelphia Mexican restaurant, Distrito, that attracted hundreds of fans and members of his close-knit staff. Chef Seamus Mullen, who was eliminated on last week's show, came down from New York to see Garces and Mehta create a multicourse meal out of various ribs.
The show, hosted by Alton Brown and "The Chairman" (played to a campy hilt by actor Mark Dacascos), was taped last spring, around the time that Garces was a no-show at a James Beard Awards ceremony at which he won best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. Whispers began that Garces could not attend because he was working on something substantial.
As an Iron Chef, Garces joins the roster of Mario Batali, Cat Cora, Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto, and relative newcomer Michael Symon, who won the first season of The Next Iron Chef in 2007.
By: Michael Klein
'Restauration Rapide' Nation, France
As France's frosty attitude toward fast food thaws, master chefs offer up interpretations
Until last year, eating the food of Paul Bocuse, one of France's most celebrated chefs, required a visit to L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, his restaurant with three Michelin stars near Lyon. Diners there lounge beneath chandeliers and eat spoonfuls of his famous truffle soup—at €80 (about $120) a bowl.
But there's now a cheaper option in Lyon—twin restaurants run by Mr. Bocuse called Ouest Express.
There are no truffles on the menu at these ultra-modern eateries. Instead, Mr. Bocuse offers hot plates of salmon ravioli for €6.40, and "le César Classic" burger for €9.40, made with local beef and served with a drink and a side or dessert.
Customers carry their trays to tables arranged in a bright, airy dining room or on a sunny terrace—or they take their meals to go. After opening the first Ouest Express early last year, Mr. Bocuse opened a second location last month in Lyon's Part-Dieu district downtown. Planning has begun for a third.
"A chain? Why not?" says Pierre-Yves Bertrand, director of operations and development for the Ouest Express brand. "Maybe even franchises. The objective is to expand."
Plenty of chefs in the U.S. and France have opened bistros, brasseries and other relatively affordable alternatives to their Michelin-starred eateries. France's master chefs now have taken the next step—designing and serving their own takes on fast food. Their interpretations are American-style lunches of salads and sandwiches, often priced as meal deals and packaged to be eaten on the run.
The enthusiasm for la restauration rapide comes as consumers in France continue to feel a financial pinch. Meanwhile, the nation's historically frosty attitude toward American burgers and fries appears to be thawing. Once, McDonald's franchises in France were met with protests. But at the end of last year, McDonald's France says that the more than 1,100 Golden Arches throughout France rang up sales of €3.3 billion—an 11% increase over 2007.
"Fast food is the sector that is growing the fastest" among restaurants in France, says Claire Cosson, spokeswoman for Union des Métiers et des Industries de l'Hôtellerie, a French hospitality-industry group known as UMIH.
In 2007, slightly more than half of the approximately 9.5 million meals purchased away from home in France were in traditional restaurants. "But every year they lose ground," Ms. Cosson says.
Another trend working in the quick lunch's favor, Ms. Cosson adds, is that the French are eating smaller lunches. In 1975, the average French meal lasted 90 minutes, according to the UMIH; by 2008, that time had shrunk to 30 minutes.
In the U.S., Wolfgang Puck was a pioneer in high-end fast food in 1991, when he launched a lower-priced alternative to his Beverly Hills, Calif., restaurant Spago—Wolfgang Puck Express, a chain of eateries at airports and other locations. Those, plus his line of packaged foods, quickly made the chef a household name.
But in France, where marathon, multicourse meals have been a revered and deeply ingrained aspect of the national identity, master chefs have only recently begun whipping up takeout. Their interest in interpreting fast food is another sign of change.
Chefs say their use of fresh, local ingredients and their attention to detail sets their quick lunches apart from corporate fast food.
"The fact that we're eating quickly is not the problem," says Jean Lhéritier, president of the Slow Food France group, which promotes local products and agriculture. "If you can eat well at a fast-food restaurant, then I'm not opposed."
Marc Veyrat, a master of France's lauded nouvelle cuisine, once split his time between l'Auberge de l'Eridan and la Ferme de mon Père, his three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the Rhône-Alpes region near Switzerland. Last year, he turned his attention to an organic casual eatery, Cozna Vera, overlooking Lake Annecy, where he serves a soup du jour for €5.80, and a burger piled high with fresh and roasted vegetables and served with a side of organic fries for €9.80.
Loyal to local farmers, he has this for his motto: "Respect the planet, savor nature."
Alain Ducasse, one of the most famous names in French cuisine and the head of an empire of restaurants, culinary schools and cookbooks, has two sandwich shops in Paris called Be Boulangépicier and Café Be, where a fresh baguette Parisienne costs €4.75 and the popular César salad, €8.25.
At the two-Michelin-starred Le Grand Véfour restaurant in Paris near the Palais Royal, customers can sample chef Guy Martin's "menu plaisir"—a spread of the chef's selection of entrées, mains and desserts for €268. It's a far cry from Mr. Martin's sandwicherie Miyou, where a salad of fresh cod, fennel and spiced orange sells for €9.80, and a foie gras and mango confit baguette for €7.10.
At Thierry Marx's two-Michelin-starred restaurant Château Cordeillan-Bages, in Pauillac, innovations include dishes decorated with ice cylinders and "virtual sausages," a rich meat-and-lentil soup served in a thin sausage-shaped casing, which a waiter snips open and spills onto a plate. Mr. Marx had once hoped to open a fast-food restaurant in Paris; instead, he is giving the rapide movement a different sort of boost, opening what he calls a "street-food academy."
The culinary program, hosted by the Lycée Hôtelier Saint-Michel, near Bordeaux, emphasizes "nomadic" foods that can be held in hand, eaten at a counter or taken to go. It has already welcomed its first group of aspiring restaurant-owners and chefs.
Mr. Marx traces his attraction to street food to his childhood in the Ménilmontant neighborhood of northern Paris, a place still known for its diverse immigrant population of Eastern European Jews, Maghrebis, East Asians and West Africans. At Mr. Marx's academy, students learn to make the street foods of the Mediterranean basin, North Africa and Asia, and they take classes on making fresh pastas, healthy pizzas and other updated versions of regional specialties.
"The idea of takeaway food is very useful," says Mr. Marx, the chef. "We have 15 to 20 minutes for lunch, and often we eat in front of the computer."
The idea, he adds, is to prepare chefs to open their own corner fast-food stands—"good, independent corner boutiques."
By: Susana Ferreira
Five restaurant chains owned by private investment firm Sun Capital Partners, Inc. -- Bruegger's Bagels, Fazoli's Restaurants, Friendly's Ice Cream, Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill and Timothy's Coffees of the World Inc. -- are joining forces to target nontraditional concession opportunities around the country, including food courts at airports, universities and hospitals.
The joint strategic development initiative will enable the chains to bundle and leverage their brands and key personnel to efficiently expand into these nontraditional locations, which are estimated to attract three to five times the traffic seen in traditional locations such as shopping malls, shopping centers and strip malls.
The program's concept is to create a competitive value proposition by making it possible to offer nontraditional retail operators a diversified choice of restaurant formats from a single point of contact.
Unlike traditional retail -- where the process is essentially one of finding a desirable retail location in a targeted market and negotiating a lease -- nontraditional retail location concessions are typically already designated for a particular type of format, such as deli or fast-casual bakery, and chains compete to win a location when an opportunity opens up, explains Chris Cheek, VP, franchise development at Bruegger's. In the case of airports, which are all government-owned, a governmental bidding process is involved, he notes.
Combined, the five chains currently operate nearly 1,300 restaurants and outlets in 28 states, and each has strong brand recognition within its respective market and a format that does not overlap with the others, Cheek says. (Bruegger's announcement last week that it is acquiring the retail restaurant holdings of Timothy's adds the important coffee format to the mix.)
Cheek says that while it is likely that in most cases a single chain would seek to occupy an available retail location, in part to preserve clear brand identity for the consumer, the companies may in some cases (based on space availability or preference for certain brands) offer a combination of two, three, four or five nameplates.
Having agreed to make nontraditional expansion one of their strategic goals, with the backing of Sun Capital, the chains will now prepare to meet nontraditional retail concession requirements, including the smaller space of these formats (about 700 square feet, on average), selective menus and volume and traffic demands, Cheek says.
In addition, all of the chains will benefit from the learning and business relationship network established through three years of nontraditional retail development efforts for Bruegger's. Nontraditional retail involves "a steep learning curve," both in terms of identifying the right opportunities and maximizing success once in operation, Cheek points out.
Bruegger's successfully expanded into four airports in 2008 (Boston's Logan Airport, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Cleveland Hopkins), and Bruegger's Bakery-Café was recently nominated for five of Airport Revenue News' 2010 Best Airports & Concessionaire Awards.
Sun Capital Partners' portfolio of restaurant affiliates also includes Boston Market, Sweet Tomatoes, Souplantation, Real Mex, Souper Salad and Restaurants Unlimited.
By: Karlene Lukovitz
NEW ORLEANS, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- The Louisiana Restaurant Association has begun lobbying against a proposed federal regulation that would ban the sale of raw oysters in the summer.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says requiring oysters harvested between April and October to be sterilized would curb a rare but lethal bacterium. The regulation would take effect in 2011.
The restaurant group's campaign encourages people from the fishing and restaurant industries and the public at large to put pressure on the Obama administration and Congress, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reported Friday. Jim Funk, the president of the group, called the proposed change "too extreme."
Many traditional Louisiana dishes involve cooked oysters, stewed or served in po boy sandwiches. Funk said requiring those oysters to be sterilized is "particularly offensive" to our restaurant establishments.
Louisiana is the largest oyster producer in the country with the majority of its catch shipped out of state.
Herewith is a modest list of dos and don’ts for servers at the seafood restaurant I am building. Veteran waiters, moonlighting actresses, libertarians and baristas will no doubt protest some or most of what follows. They will claim it homogenizes them or stifles their true nature. And yet, if 100 different actors play Hamlet, hitting all the same marks, reciting all the same lines, cannot each one bring something unique to that role?
1. Do not let anyone enter the restaurant without a warm greeting.
2. Do not make a singleton feel bad. Do not say, “Are you waiting for someone?” Ask for a reservation. Ask if he or she would like to sit at the bar.
3. Never refuse to seat three guests because a fourth has not yet arrived.
4. If a table is not ready within a reasonable length of time, offer a free drink and/or amuse-bouche. The guests may be tired and hungry and thirsty, and they did everything right.
5. Tables should be level without anyone asking. Fix it before guests are seated.
6. Do not lead the witness with, “Bottled water or just tap?” Both are fine. Remain neutral.
7. Do not announce your name. No jokes, no flirting, no cuteness.
8. Do not interrupt a conversation. For any reason. Especially not to recite specials. Wait for the right moment.
9. Do not recite the specials too fast or robotically or dramatically. It is not a soliloquy. This is not an audition.
10. Do not inject your personal favorites when explaining the specials.
11. Do not hustle the lobsters. That is, do not say, “We only have two lobsters left.” Even if there are only two lobsters left.
12. Do not touch the rim of a water glass. Or any other glass.
13. Handle wine glasses by their stems and silverware by the handles.
14. When you ask, “How’s everything?” or “How was the meal?” listen to the answer and fix whatever is not right.
15. Never say “I don’t know” to any question without following with, “I’ll find out.”
16. If someone requests more sauce or gravy or cheese, bring a side dish of same. No pouring. Let them help themselves.
17. Do not take an empty plate from one guest while others are still eating the same course. Wait, wait, wait.
18. Know before approaching a table who has ordered what. Do not ask, “Who’s having the shrimp?”
19. Offer guests butter and/or olive oil with their bread.
20. Never refuse to substitute one vegetable for another.
21. Never serve anything that looks creepy or runny or wrong.
22. If someone is unsure about a wine choice, help him. That might mean sending someone else to the table or offering a taste or two.
23. If someone likes a wine, steam the label off the bottle and give it to the guest with the bill. It has the year, the vintner, the importer, etc.
24. Never use the same glass for a second drink.
25. Make sure the glasses are clean. Inspect them before placing them on the table.
26. Never assume people want their white wine in an ice bucket. Inquire.
27. For red wine, ask if the guests want to pour their own or prefer the waiter to pour.
28. Do not put your hands all over the spout of a wine bottle while removing the cork.
29. Do not pop a champagne cork. Remove it quietly, gracefully. The less noise the better.
30. Never let the wine bottle touch the glass into which you are pouring. No one wants to drink the dust or dirt from the bottle.
31. Never remove a plate full of food without asking what went wrong. Obviously, something went wrong.
32. Never touch a customer. No excuses. Do not do it. Do not brush them, move them, wipe them or dust them.
33. Do not bang into chairs or tables when passing by.
34. Do not have a personal conversation with another server within earshot of customers.
35. Do not eat or drink in plain view of guests.
36. Never reek from perfume or cigarettes. People want to smell the food and beverage.
37. Do not drink alcohol on the job, even if invited by the guests. “Not when I’m on duty” will suffice.
38. Do not call a guy a “dude.”
39. Do not call a woman “lady.”
40. Never say, “Good choice,” implying that other choices are bad.
41. Saying, “No problem” is a problem. It has a tone of insincerity or sarcasm. “My pleasure” or “You’re welcome” will do.
42. Do not compliment a guest’s attire or hairdo or makeup. You are insulting someone else.
43. Never mention what your favorite dessert is. It’s irrelevant.
44. Do not discuss your own eating habits, be you vegan or lactose intolerant or diabetic.
45. Do not curse, no matter how young or hip the guests.
46. Never acknowledge any one guest over and above any other. All guests are equal.
47. Do not gossip about co-workers or guests within earshot of guests.
48. Do not ask what someone is eating or drinking when they ask for more; remember or consult the order.
49. Never mention the tip, unless asked.
50. Do not turn on the charm when it’s tip time. Be consistent throughout.
Next week: 51-100.
As a seasoned diner, you've been through it all.
You've listened, dumbfounded, as the opinionated fantasist held forth. She's the server who tells you her favorite dish – never mind that she hasn't had the opportunity to taste a single thing on the menu. You've fallen victim to the Champagne pusher, the maitre d' who offers you a glass of bubbly, with the implication that it's on the house. (It's not. It turns up on your bill at $18 per lovely flute.)
You've suffered the BFFW, the waiter who introduces himself, squats down next to you to tell you the specials and later in the meal jumps into the conversation because, hey, we're all friends.
Just as great service can turn a mediocre meal into a jolly good time, poor service can ruin an otherwise excellent dinner. Last month I put the question to readers of Eats, The Dallas Morning News' food blog: Which service mistakes bother you most?
And readers responded, passionately, in more than 90 comments describing an array of miscues that drive them crazy. The list paints an interesting picture of some of the biggest service issues facing Dallas restaurants.
Here's the good news: All the mistakes are easy to fix. In the interest of polishing up our dining act as Dallas steps into the national spotlight, let's take a walk through the problems (listed in order of how frequently readers mentioned them) and their fixes.
1. Servers with boundary issues
The miscues readers mentioned most often involve servers who have problems with boundaries in one way or another. "Servers interrupting my conversation, introducing themselves, chatting, constantly asking if we're 'OK,' " was the way one reader put it.
"I actually prefer professionally aloof to friendly," another chimed in.
Elisio Ruiz, a reader in Dallas, objected to being touched by a waiter. "I can't explain it," he wrote. "I am generally a warm and cordial person. But for some reason, I cringe when a server thinks it's OK to put his or her hand on my shoulder or my arm."
Sometimes the boundary being crossed is the plate, as the server describes the dish she's just placed before you, pointing to each component. "The closer the finger gets to the food, the more it bugs me," wrote one reader.
In fact, servers may be trained to touch customers. "There's some research that shows that it improves tips," says Alex Susskind, associate professor of food and beverage service management at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily appropriate. "I don't consider it friendly," he says, "I consider it intrusive." In a casual or fast-casual restaurant, people have a higher level of tolerance, he says, but servers should be able to read the guest and guess at their comfort level.
The fix: One reader, a former server, suggested that it's up to the customer to voice preferences, such as whether he minds being touched. Susskind disagrees. "The server has to figure out what the guest wants," he stresses. In any case, he says: "Never interrupt a guest. There's nothing you have to do as a server that's more important than a guest's experience."
2. The AWOL waiter
Another constellation of annoyance concerns the waiter who does a disappearing act.
Sometimes he fails to materialize. The host or hostess shows you to your seat, and then – nothing. No one. If you're lucky, you already have a menu. But sometimes you're left stranded for five or 10 minutes before being greeted. Diners search the room futilely for the AWOL waiter when they're ready to order, when the steak's overcooked, when wine glasses are empty and the bottle's been set out of reach, when more bread is required.
The fix: This is a management issue. The manager needs to make sure the restaurant is properly staffed, that each server isn't responsible for too many tables. And he or she needs to be on the floor surveying the scene. If a table needs attention, the manager can make sure the server gets to it.
3. Mea culpa? Not!
The clumsy or inadequate handling of mistakes got under the skin of many readers: servers who don't know when a problem requires the attention of a manager, servers who don't apologize for mistakes they've made or who don't ask whether there was a problem when you left most of the food on your plate. "Don't make me ask for the manager after determining that the black speck in my wife's wine is moving on its own and is a live insect," commented Tom Mueller in Dallas.
The fix: It's the server's responsibility to make sure diners are enjoying the experience. Are they pushing the food around their plates? Find out what's wrong, beyond just asking generically, "How is everything tonight?" And then make it right. Not cooked properly? Take it back to the kitchen. Did the guests suffer crazy-long waits for their food? Comp a dessert or two. Not sure how to handle it? Get the manager.
4. Diner held hostage
Dinner has gone swimmingly, with great food and wonderful service. But now you can't get your check. You've been there, right? More than a few readers have.
The fix: "There are two things that management and staff have direct control over that will always help the guest's experience," says Susskind. "The beginning of the meal and the end of the meal. You can never get a guest seated too quickly, and you can never get a guest the check and get them closed out quick enough." Just do it.
5. The hard-sell
Whether it's a server overselling the side dishes to the point that you wind up with a table full of food you can't eat, or suggesting a wine that's twice the price of the one the restaurant has run out of, readers resent the hard-sell. "I never return to a restaurant when, after dinner, I feel like I have been victimized by a huckster," wrote one. Still, part of servers' job is to sell the restaurants' dishes and wines. How to find a balance?
The fix: Servers should suggest side dishes or wines they honestly think will enhance the guests' meal. Don't push the side order of roast potatoes if French fries come with the main course. If a diner asks about a $50 bottle of wine, and you have an even better one for $40, suggest that; the diner will appreciate it and may well leave a more generous tip. The corollary is knowing the menu and wine list. If you can describe the way something is cooked and make it sound as good as it probably is, or know the relative bargains on the wine list, that's a much easier sell.
6. The pace flub
Diners don't like to feel rushed, nor do they want to have to wait too long between courses. Even if the server nails the beginning and end of the meal (getting customers seated quickly, making sure they have a drink, getting them the check as soon as the customer's ready for it), pacing the meal in between those two endpoints is much trickier.
The fix: Servers should watch their tables and try to estimate when diners will be finished with a course to know when to fire the next one. Kristin Kinowski, a server at Salum, says that four or five minutes before diners are finished with their appetizers, she'll tell the kitchen to fire the main course. How does she know? She watches the tables closely. "That's why you see us pacing around the floor," she says. "Watching closely is key to providing good service in general."
7. Uh-oh, it's Mr. Unclean
A number of readers objected to bussers or servers who sweep the floor while guests are dining, who wipe the table with the same cloth used to wipe the chair, who generally disregard hygiene or noisily drop dirty dishes into bins within diners' earshot. One reader is bugged "when the waiter is clearing the plates and tries to make it into a logic puzzle by seeing how they can stack the plates and mush all the remaining food together so that they can take it all away in one trip. Disgusting."
The fix: Offending bussers and servers, clean up your act.
8. Tip shenanigans
"Do you need change?" This is a question that irked a number of readers. The server who rounds up change from a cash tip in his own favor, or who brings the change in big bills in the effort to land a bigger tip also fared poorly.
The fix: Bring the change, bub, even if you're not sure it's necessary. If some smaller bills are needed for the diner to leave a 20 percent tip, then by all means, include some smaller bills.
9. The plate escape
"I cannot stand it when a server begins removing plates before everyone at the table has finished the course," wrote Liz Ginsberg, a reader in Dallas. "The person still eating feels rushed, and the person whose plate is cleared before everyone else feels like they ate too fast." I have to say that those are my sentiments exactly, and they were echoed by a number of readers. But Jerri Joles in Richardson commented: "It bothers me when they don't pre-bus or remove some of the dirty, used plates, bowls, etc. from the table. They clutter the table and are unappetizing-looking." So who's right?
As it turns out, it depends on the type of restaurant and on the specific policy of the management. "Some restaurants allow servers to clear plates before everyone's done," explains Susskind, and it's usually the casual spots. In more upscale establishments, he says, "The standard is you don't clear till everyone's done."
And what about in-between places? "There is no one convention," he says. "It's up to the feel they want to have in the restaurant."
But how confusing for customers! And how disturbing to the diner who finds one or the other objectionable.
The fix: At Ellerbe Fine Foods in Fort Worth, a server came up with a smart solution. "Normally I don't clear plates until everyone has finished," she said, when one of my dining companions had finished his soup. "But perhaps you'd like me to take this now?" Problem solved, though it was a mouthful for a busy server.
10. The wine squeeze
A server pours the wine all around the table, overfilling the glasses, and comes up empty before getting to the last guest. "Another bottle?" he asks perkily. It may or may not be an honest mistake, but it's a mistake nonetheless, and in any case it can leave the diner feeling had. Of course, you have to spring for that second bottle.
The fix: This one's easy. "You've got to do the math," says Michael Flynn, wine and beverage director at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek. A bottle has 25.4 ounces, "so you do some quick division. You have to make sure you're pouring the same amount in everyone's glass, no matter how small that portion may be." And if it's just three diners, and you're on the second round of pours? If someone hasn't been sipping, don't top off their glass.
Turns out it's just like most other points of service. "You have to keep an eye on them," says Flynn. "It's actually being involved in service, in serving people as they need it."
By LESLIE BRENNER
News from our manufacturer's & re-posts from publications around the hotel and restaurant industry.