The server standing over me responds to my question about which tequilas the restaurant carries. “Patron, Cuervo and Sauza 901,” she says. Then, without missing a beat, she adds, “The 901 is Justin Timberlake’s favorite tequila, but just the smell of tequila makes me want to throw up.”
Too much information? An amusing start? Or just an indicator of the server’s quirky personality?
In a trend that’s trickled down to Richmond, the new service standard for many restaurateurs is Danny Meyer’s 2006 book, “Setting the Table,” the origins of his concept of enlightened hospitality. Its guiding principles emphasize employees over customers, a radical notion to some and common sense to others.
Most importantly, it draws a clear distinction between service and hospitality. “The service is the technical delivery of a product,” Meyer writes. “Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel.”
What that means is that many managers choose employees who have better emotional skills than technical and try to build a welcoming environment for them.
“I can’t teach you to be nice,” Secco owner Julia Battaligni says. “I can teach you about wine and food. My goal is to hire nice people, smart people, and then trust them. If I don’t take care of my staff, how can I expect them to take care of my customers?”
Spend time in local restaurants, and it becomes obvious that servers don’t need to be the very best in the business to be customer favorites. The best servers make diners feel as if they’re welcome guests at a friend’s warm and inviting home rather than a stuffy restaurant where servers flaunt knowledge and withhold personality.
“My goal is to not hire jerks,” Pasture co-owner Michele Jones says. “We want people who understand this is the hospitality industry. If a customer asks about a wine, we’ll learn about it together. If there’s a joke, we’re all in it together.”
She likes nothing better than when customers tell her that her restaurant is staffed by happy and friendly people.
Meyers’ theory, that customers come second — counterintuitive in a culture that has always put customers first — results in attracting better employees over time, he believes. And that increases the odds that a restaurant’s technical, emotional and hospitality performance will be competitive.
“So much of what we try to accomplish here is generate a positive experience,” says Saison owner Jay Bayer, whose original mission statement cites a lack of pretension in service. “There’s a blurred distinction between the guest and server. It’s more homey, more like a dinner party with friends. We’re trying for a synthesis between laid-back style and stepped-up service.”
The three restaurateurs agree that it’s essential to shape work environments that value staff, allow people to express themselves and maintain the element of fun. “People want to stay in a place where their opinions are valued,” Bayer says.