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The State of Service

Restaurant owners weigh in on the challenging issue of servers.

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It’s been said that good service can save a bad meal, but there’s no level of food that can offset bad service. But finding or creating good servers? Therein lies the rub.

You don’t have to be a restaurant owner to know that it’s a tight labor market and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. The flip side of Richmond’s embarrassment of restaurant riches is that the sheer number of new eateries opening every month ensures intense competition for the same pool of talented people.

On the plus side, our thriving scene hasn’t gone unnoticed in larger cities such as Washington and New York.

“I’m seeing more people with solid food and beverage experience from outside of Richmond apply and that’s encouraging,” Secco owner Julia Battaglini says.

Another major advancement is Lindsey’s List, a Facebook page created by Lindsey Scheer of Heritage, for industry people looking for jobs and housing. “We get much more qualified applicants from her page than we ever got from Craigslist,” Battaglini says.

Jaynell Pittman-Shaw, owner of Maple Bourbon, is convinced that the toughest part of finding qualified help is wages.

“More than others, independent operators are limited in the number of hours they can offer because operators with more than one location can absorb costs that single-store operators cannot,” she says, referring to franchise owners and multiple restaurants owners. “So, even if you can offer high enough wages, you lose qualified employees to limited hours. And the ability to offer typical benefits is practically nonexistent.”

One of the main hurdles that Nota Bene owner Victoria DeRoche faces is finding staff willing to stay in one place and not move on every six months. Although she considers her restaurant a relaxed atmosphere, she prefers servers with fine-dining experience.

“We look for people skills and attentiveness, all while having the ability to fit in with our current team,” she explains. “We also try to accommodate the schedules of folks who work for us, whether they’re in grad school or have another part-time job.”

One reason, perhaps, that owners are willing to be so accommodating is that they’re looking for the whole package. It’s not enough just to be customer service-oriented, punctual and a people person. Servers need to be attentive, problem solvers, good under pressure, kind, personable, have great memories and menu knowledge, good time managers, invested, team players and quick. It can be a lot to ask of a person.

After owning her own business for 21 years, Battaglini is convinced the secret to hiring is simply to hire nice and train the rest.

“We can’t teach you to be kind or curious or respectful,” she insists. “We can teach you wine and service, and [the] chef can teach you technique, pacing and best practices.”

Staff is treated with respect and kindness and she expects the same in return as part of a mutual trust. That said, she not only checks all references and contacts previous employers but makes a point to scan public social media sources for red flags.

After hiring comes retaining good people and that can be just as challenging.

Pittman-Shaw tries to hold good staff by offering reliable hours and above-average pay.

“Even so, it’s hard to retain workers who often move on to the promise of more hours or higher pay, only to realize these are seasonal offers,” she says. “I’ve actually found it easier to retain employees by offering fewer hours, which gives them more flexibility.”

Anyone with restaurant experience can testify that the less drama and the smoother the interpersonal relationships are, the easier it is to retain people. DeRoche likes to aid the cause with team building by going out as a group to help break down walls and encourage solidarity. One thing Battaglini finds key to retention is offering a consistent schedule, acknowledging that while it seems like a small thing, it makes a huge difference in a staffer’s quality of life.

Even with a limited pool of qualified servers, one practice the three owners agree is always bad form is poaching, despite that it happens regularly.

“I find it disrespectful for an operator to go into an establishment and actively pursue an employee,” Pittman-Shaw says. “It should always be the worker’s choice to look for work at another establishment.” Battaglini allows that it’s acceptable to thank someone for good service or food and let them know where you work to reinforce the professional angle, but openly recruiting — especially while you’re in their place of employment — is just plain tacky.

And in a town the size of Richmond with its close-knit restaurant community, it’ll likely make the server question an owner’s character as well as business ethics. Owners who scour other restaurants to augment their own staff all but guarantee bad restaurant karma is headed their way. According to DeRoche, “it breeds resentment.”

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