In many cases, the only contact a guest has with a restaurant - other than the food, of course - is through the server. This was brought home to me in spades several years ago at my restaurant near Washington, D.C. After being open for a few years, we finally received the long-anticipated visit from the big-time food critic for The Washington Post. In short, she loved the food, and that made me happy. But then she went on to complain rather bitterly about how the server handled the table in terms of clearing plates, etc. I was devastated. Was I was so focused on the kitchen that I failed to understand the importance of the server, busser, etc. on the customers’ experience? Apparently so.
I went out and hired a restaurant consultant who specialized in front of house (dining room) training. It wasn’t even a month before my numbers increased substantially. Every last bit of what I learned from this guy still stays with me today. And, like what you are reading right now, pops up regularly in my various and sundry newspaper scribblings and radio ramblings. More often than not, people will quickly forget if a server brought the green beans instead of the slaw. But customers do not easily forgive bad attitude or offhand service. Especially in a seasonal resort where diners have a virtually unlimited number of choices.
Successful restaurant groups have figured this out. Hillstone Restaurant Group, with their 15 upscale/casual brands, is one example. In fact, the trainer I hired for my restaurant had been a staff trainer for Houston’s, now one of Hillstone’s popular eateries. Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is another example. This franchisor’s job is particularly challenging since many of the employees actually work for the franchisee. A six-foot-long shelf at the Ocean City Ruth’s Chris groans under the weight of training materials, tests and procedures manuals. SoDel Concepts, one of the biggest restaurant groups in Delaware, tackles the training process with an entire department that administers programs specifically dedicated to ensure a consistent dining experience.
Director of Training & Development Meghan King and Corporate Chef Ronnie Burkle outlined for me the “culture of training” that is the hallmark of service at SoDel Concepts. Both Meghan and Ronnie remember late founder Matt Haley’s insistence on adherence to standards. So the cornerstone of their program rests on “food, cleanliness, service, and keeping people accountable.” The practical and written exercises impart certain expectations to trainees; underlining the practical reasons for the training and what is expected after each level is completed.
Meghan says it best: “We try to instill in our employees that actions have consequences. There can be many ways of doing things,” she continues, “but we insist that tasks be done according to our standards. One of the benefits is that an employee can move from restaurant to restaurant and things will remain familiar to them. But personal accountability and self-responsibility are the prime goals.”
Printed training guides and what they call “developmental sheets” for both front of house (dining room) and back of house (kitchen areas) allow an employee to succeed in his or her particular station and perhaps even progress through the company - if that is their desire. “It’s not going to be given to you,” smiles Chef Ronnie. “You need to go out and get it.” The restaurant group’s reputation of promoting from within - in some cases all the way from dishwasher to executive chef – bears this out.
The process is very real for the new hire. He or she is asked to read and internalize a specific training packet focused on the particular station. He or she then shadows a more experienced employee who has qualified as a trainer, then takes on tasks like running food and bussing tables before serving customers.
For example, there are 15 separate steps involved in properly bussing a table. One of them is that the busser doesn’t set clean plates on a dirty table. And touching your face or nose while handling the clean dishes and utensils is a no-no. Ancillary duties such as side work (e.g., rolling silverware into napkins, filling salt and pepper shakers, etc.) all revolve around teamwork and … there it is again: Standards. Server trainees undergo five days of intense training. If they are successful, they’re assigned a small section where they can hone their skills on live, hungry guests.
Procedures are just as strict in the kitchen - especially when it comes to cleanliness. If a new employee makes a mistake, the system has improvement plans that review key elements of kitchen operations and expects the employee to be accountable for them.
SoDel Concepts hosts events such as the monthly Boot Camp, where guest speakers address subjects like beer and wine knowledge, the history and vision of the company, employee health and fitness, and even managing personal finances to help young workers grow as people. I was honored to be a speaker at a Boot Camp several months ago where I spoke about customer expectations and what they might - or might not - tell you when dining in the restaurant.
Another event is the Strategic Retreat. Employees have spoken to Carla Markell, Delaware Restaurant Association Executive Director Carrie Leishman, SoDel Concepts Director of Finances Alan Levin, company President Scott Kammerer and even Cape Gazette’s very own Dave Fredman Frederick addressing what he knows best: Teamwork.
Other activities available to employees include twice-yearly ESL courses for foreign workers, and the availability of the internationally accredited ServSafe Program. Ronnie tells me that SoDel Concepts employs the greatest number of food workers in the area who have successfully completed this food safety and sanitation curriculum. The company regularly stages mock walk-throughs where experienced chefs and managers act as food sanitation inspectors. Again: Accountability.
After demonstrating proficiency in every station, outstanding employees can earn server/trainer certification that allows them to interact directly with new hires and trainees to keep them accountable for their actions.
Both Ronnie and Meghan agree that everyone in the organization (and, of course, any organization that employs similar methods) must, first and foremost, lead by example. Obviously the goal of all this is to improve the restaurants, which directly impacts the employees’ bottom lines. “High standards bring high rewards,” says Meghan King. She’s right.
Bob Yesbek is a serial foodie and can be reached at byesbek@CapeGazette.com.