I once had the pleasure of working at an exclusive world-class restaurant located in one of the busiest airports in the world. The restaurant featured international cuisine with southern flair, an award-winning bar program and a James Beard nominated level of service. One day while I was at work, I had the pleasure of serving an older lady who was deeply moved by her experience with us during her travels. She mentioned she was a professor at a University and went on to explain that although service is a vocation, some aspects cannot be taught. She also expressed that service, in general, is a dying art that may soon be lost. The kind lady continued going on to say that many might not understand how vital this work is, and she thanked us profusely for providing this experience. She made sure that I realized no matter where my life would take me, the skills I developed in the service industry would serve me in ways I can’t imagine.
As I contemplated the prophetic insights of this gracious woman, my mind began to drift. I began to think back to my first restaurant job waiting tables, I half lied to get the job, and I had no idea what I was doing. My primary focus was to get through the shift without getting in the “weeds” or drowning in anxiety. Eventually, I would find my footing, and even though I did not see myself in the weeds every shift, I still felt like I wasn’t quite hitting the mark. What was I doing wrong? I covered all of the bases, and for the most part, people generally tipped. I was good, but I wasn’t great, and at the time, I did not have the framework to pinpoint what people were always trying to articulate when it came to my level of service. It was as if they craved something I did not now know how to give them; I began to ponder what guests were expecting outside of getting their food and drinks. I knew enough about my character to know that being polite and having manners is always my priority, but, I couldn’t help sensing an invisible cup people were desperately hoping I could refill.
My intuitive hunch and natural desire to be on top would find me observing the veterans servers that I worked alongside. A little something we call “peeping tight game” in the South, I watched their individual talents and found ways that I could incorporate those skills into my own. Most notably, identifying and anticipating guests needs, consolidating steps, and providing a level of knowledge that allowed guests to make well-informed decisions. My new skill-set gave me an edge that allowed me to become more engaging and self-assured, and I was able also to put the personalities that I was serving at ease. My tip percentage began to reach a new high, and it was becoming more consistent among diverse clientele. I was excited, not so much about the money, but about the mastery of a new skill, learning how to do something I did not know how to do before. I can remember sharing my enthusiasm with a well-seasoned server and friend, and she said: “One thing I have noticed is that your care and your concern for your tables has grown tremendously.”
The word concern struck me deeply as it planted seeds in my subconscious that would later bloom. However, in the present, I was still puzzled as to how something so simple could cover so much ground and be so effective? I came to realize it’s because people often like to create ideas about service that are rigid, and in most cases, automated. They are like computer generated, preset templates designed to fit any given situation. This approach is problematic because it is devoid of any real critical thinking to assess each situation accurately. In every scenario, service requires an active and agile thought process and a degree of emotional intelligence to be adequate. Throughout my years in the industry, I have learned the aspect of service that will enable the success of the restaurant and protect the experience of the guest is a genuine concern.
Stumbling across this small gem is one of the greatest epiphany’s I would have during my time in the service industry. The idea of concern is often dismissed because people in the industry and guests alike don’t realize how much of our emotions are connected to our food, and how much vulnerability we are displaying while dining. When people sense a level of genuine concern, it triggers a response on an emotional level, and it opens a door for the server to sell the most important thing in the restaurant that is not on the menu: themselves. If a server can successfully sell themselves to the guests, then the rest of the experience is a cakewalk as any mishaps are easily dismissed based on the established rapport. The solidarity created by that kind of poise in your work ethic and knowledge of your craft can protect you from the arbitrary and subjective pitfalls of guests perception as reality. Restaurants are an ecosystem of people and personalities all working together to communicate an experience. To quote the famous poet Maya Angelou: “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”
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