Thursday, 2 April 2015

When Service Slays Satisfaction! A Restaurant Case Study – Part 2

The central gravitational force for the business of hotels is, unarguably, the guests. The reason why mega monies were paid to renowned architects and builders to create those magnificent edifices, bundles of bucks are put into defining and presenting the perfect branding, pretty pennies paid to hire the right mix of staff, all kinds of material are brought in – from Italian marble to mood lighting, expensive crystal to candles, special ingredients to spa treatments, many man hours put into presenting differentiating experiences is single fold. It is the guests that are at the heart of hoteliering. It is the guests we put out our services to, who come and spend their income with us, ensuring that we keep our bottom-line healthy and stay afloat in the marketplace.

Yet, so many times and in so many ways we as hoteliers lose focus of this important entity; falling below our own expectations and standards by failing to live up to our guests’ requirements.
In this part of the Case Study, let us look at the remaining four points that can spell doom and bring in our nemesis. Our painful tryst with Spaghetti Kitchen was such a culinary disaster that it urged us to look at the realm of restaurateuring with a lens. Here are some more learnings -  

1.     Sizing up guests

It started with our steward of the evening trying to tell us what a Margherita pizza was and ended with the lady at the next table loudly ordering her wait staff to get a Baou-al (vernacular rendition of bowl) of water for “hand washing” while dining at an Italian restaurant. With such beginning and end, how could I have wished for a pleasant dinner outing!

I think since we refrained from ordering any wine, our first waiter, I presume, thought we were some jungle folk that needed culinary education more than a fine dining experience. And what can you say about his training or the lack of it when he expects to be instructed three times for every request we made. He continued to smirk and throw attitude as we dashed straight into our choice of courses - with pizza as our antipasto and pasta as our secondo. But not before telling us in his broken use of language and improper tone what a ‘Margherita’ in the selection of pizza was. You see my reason for always diving for a Margherita is three-fold - I don’t consume non-vegetarian food, I don’t like strange toppings like Spinach, Baby Corn, Arugula, Zucchini etc. on my pizza and I am quite a cheese addict. I am certain the Server was digging his heels because a basic cheese pizza is often the cheapest fare on the menu unless and until one opts for a Double-cheese or a Quattro Formaggi. I am sure the bloke had the honourable intention to urge us to order upwardly but at the cost of becoming cheap and completely non-customer-oriented it was a sore loss for him and his workplace.

Five Star hotels too, all over, have such a chip on their shoulder. I have seen hotel staff size up guests on the basis of clothes or jewellery they wear, the cars they alight from, the kind of luggage they carry, the choice of food and beverage they order and so on. A lot of people working in starred hotels up the hierarchy thrive on such affectations. But at the bottom of the day, it is actually a training thing and a decision made by the mandarins early enough on what the ethos of their brand philosophy should be.

Underlining what I state above, there are these two distinct anecdotes I love to share as tall examples of both kinds of attitudes – guest attentive and respecting on one end and not even self-respecting on the other!

I once had this well-established and feared food critic share her exasperation on how the Doormen made her feel small each time she came to the hotel in a tuk-tuk / auto rickshaw. The disdainful behaviour of one team member made her feel spiteful of the hotel at large.

On the other hand, I fondly recall the spotlessly liveried Doorman of The Pierre (then a Four Seasons Hotel) who was such a joy to have the first interface with as I got down from a public transport that was carrying me from around Newark Airport to the heart of Manhattan. The wise, well-behaved, thoroughly groomed Gent set the tone for one of the best hotel stays in my life.

It is only when we let the strange people at Spaghetti Kitchen know that we were "industry folk," that some sense of respect was brought forward and the erring waiter quickly replaced by the Manager and the Maitre'd.

In today’s times when the guests are spoiled for choice with the restaurant business having bloomed so much as to bring in the best to even one’s door step, it is professional hara-kiri for staff and establishments to size up guests, make small talk about diners at different tables and generally be offensive in their attitude towards the guests.

The staff in the near empty Spaghetti Kitchen would have done wisely to be attentive to each guest (whether there were only five that evening or when the restaurant may be running to a packed house) and their overall experience.

With the resurgence of the social media, every guest is a potential food critic, with the power to put out a good vibe on the web or destroy a brand with an acerbic comment that has the propensity to snowball into a major issue.

However, regardless of the Draconian sword of the social media / traditional media, service industry has a moral obligation to serve the guests with honesty, respect and enthusiasm. Otherwise they are definitely in the wrong game.

2.     When up-selling ends up in short-selling

I remember ordering only Spaghetti at a rather fine restaurant run by an immigrant Italian in the heart of Engelberg, the tiny sleepy town in Switzerland. We were accorded as much respect and attention as they would have given to someone ordering a six-course meal, with the Owner stopping by to ask after us. Now that is what is called immaculate attitude and perfect training. The ambience, the attitude, the food, the concentration on guests was such that we returned the next evening and the next to try out their menu. They had made quite an impression on us with their complete package of good food and hospitality standards of the highest order.

On the contrary, Spaghetti Kitchen, by being so aggressive about all that up-selling – from pushing heavily taxed bottled water to diners who do not drink water with their meals, to openly snickering at our small two-course order for the late, late-night quick meal we went for, to pushing desserts to a table that was disinclined towards them, to at least try to shove overrated coffee to the couple that wished to finish the meal with a simple tiramisu – managed to short sell their reputation and image, pushing the guests even farther from their brand. 

Up-sell by all means but first and foremost understand what the guest really wants and then move around that parameter; scooping in and pulling out with finesse, élan and refinement. And drop the hard sell like the proverbial hot potato; it is known to dispel guests far, far away.

The business of restaurateuring has to be about grace and decorum, subtle hints and subliminal suggestions leaving the guest as the main orchestrator of the experience that you double up to deliver on a silver platter of fine food and finer service.

3.     Not being nice to guests

Should I even be talking about this? Should the Food & Beverage business have such a void where the providers fall short of basic standards of civility and politeness? In the arena of hospitality, service should speak not of servility but of substantive, sensitive stimulation of a sublime, sensory experience.

Yet, guest books, comment cards, TripAdvisor responses and Company website feedback are replete with examples of staff not being genuinely nice to guests, or being nice only when they see a hefty tip coming their way.
In fact, Jacob Tomsky, an erstwhile waiter who couldn’t handle the diversity of guests and their basic demands, became a celebrity of sorts by peddling his questionable views on hoteliering in his autobiographical tome aptly titled ‘Heads in Beds – A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality.’ The book lists out despicable examples of service and puts forth ideas that rely more on sensationalism and sordidness. It is astonishing to see that somebody actually wrote it.   

Not being nice to guests is against the very grain of hoteliering. Forget about innumerable hours of training, huge amount of monies put into defining brand standards and the sinful number of trees cut down to produce those sacrosanct manuals; if you are not basically nice and inherently service-oriented then you are in the wrong line of business. You may as well be shovelling up soil or working in solitary confinement at a Space Station.  

4.     Half an Apology

Once restaurants have goofed up with guests they tend to resort to the easiest trick in the trade. As a half-hearted apology they shove a cup of free coffee under the diner’s nose or perhaps a slice of cheesecake or whatever else is cheapest on the menu.

Once we let our displeasure known at SK, the Manager, quite expectedly, offered to get us a dessert: "Tiramisu from my side please or have coffee at least." We had to insist that we were in a no-dolce mood and coffee was being consciously avoided before he let go; without perhaps realizing that we simply wanted the right service orientation and attitude to be in place with his team.

Because our evening went wrong on so many levels, we kicked up a bit of a fuss and wrote about our discontent on a food forum, only to get a quick, standard, thoughtless response from the PR Representative. “Sorry that you had such an experience. We have spoken to the headquarters, somebody will get in touch with you.” Because PR is non-operations, or are too centred on jargon or because they are known for their superfluous paint job, not too many people believe that they will do justice to bring an issue to a positive closure. But when they are late in responding and do not manage to work well with the team to revert to the guest promptly, the trenches dug are deep and difficult to fill.

In the case of Spaghetti Kitchen, the PR Reps., who call themselves PR Pundits, picked up the rant on the Food Forum and came back with too little, too late and too dispassionately. I gave the PR lady a reminder (reminders are sacrilege in the PR world of work); she gave me a passing apology perhaps only to go back to write her nth note to the restaurant management. The Management eventually wrote to me with the standard invite to ‘come try them again “on the house”’ without realizing that faith is never won with a free meal.

If you really are apologetic about things that go wrong with a diner; be real, genuine, caring enough for your brand, the guest and your line of work. Display a sense of rectitude in your tone and behaviour, truly seek out guests and put in your best foot forward to correct the wrong. Guests can see actual steps taken to make amends as against a sham put up by so many hotel people who fail to attach importance to guest satisfaction and guest retention.

In the present times when the written word has the power to travel all over the globe with just a click of a button and the guest feedback can garner quite a momentum in the virtual world with strong repercussions in real life, guest focus and guest orientation are paramount like never before!

But more importantly, you must learn to be sincere in your service to guests for your own good and for your own sake!


Note - Picture Courtesy - Google Images

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

When Service Slays Satisfaction! A Restaurant Case Study – Part 1

While in the Hotel business, each of us has the power to enchant, attract and bind guests into the brand fold; we also have the negative power to serve as killjoys, brand misRepresentatives and elements that turn guests away from us and towards Competition.

Be it the General Manager, the Sales and PR force, Front Office, Security even Horticulture and Engineering – every one of us can be a ‘Guest Magnet’ or a ‘Guest Repellent.’ But this holds significantly true and more impactful for those who are in the direct line of core hoteliering vis-à-vis the guests. Think housekeeping, F&B Service, Banquetting!

We, recently, went to dine at Spaghetti Kitchen, an Italian eatery founded by a resident Italian who used to lord over the Italian Specialty Restaurant for one of the leading hotel chains but later branched out to start his own franchise. The brain and the team behind the Restaurant seemed to have the right background and knowledge; hence we went with an expectation of having a great evening in all respects.

But that was not to be and we came away feeling disenchanted and cheated. However, they are not the solitary offenders. There are scores of restaurants – stand-alone and those in the confines of glitzy Five Stars – that kill guest satisfaction with their indifferent service and sub-standard offerings.

Taking the Spaghetti Kitchen (SK) experience as a case study, here’s how folks in the food and beverage field can ensure that guests never return to their hyped up but unsatisfactorily run places –

1.     Lukewarm Welcome

This particular branch of Spaghetti Kitchen is located in a grand mall that houses some great mid-segment and high street brands; which means that the restaurant would enjoy an eclectic guest mix spanning ages and exposure. It further means that the restaurant would have to be tuned into the guest expectation of such a varied audience, both menu wise and attitudinally. But everybody likes a cheerful welcome, whether it is at a fast food place or fine dining.

We walked into SK without the entrance greet and escort and looked around confusedly for a table. The staff was tardy and slow in coming to our rescue and leading us to our seats. The welcome greeting was conspicuous by its absence, the smiles were crooked and forced, no seats were pulled out and drawn in and the staff member left rather awkwardly after our ill placement.

When we go out dining, we want a pleasant time-out that we can cherish, recount to others and in today’s Instagrammed-times record as a happy one.

A faulty entry can set the wrong tone for the rest of the evening. We should have been warned yet we ignored the initial signs of our intuition and risked ourselves in for an evening that left a lot to be desired.

A memorable dining indulgence starts at the entrance of the restaurant and ends at the exit. Stellar or botched up service and erring attitudes can decide what part of the memory – good or bad - the experience rests in. Sadly, bad memories tend to linger on and resurface easily!

2.     Disinterested, nonchalant, ill-trained Wait Staff

When we go out to work – in any job or industry – we cannot afford to be uncaring, perfunctory and uninvolved. It is a moral binding that we bring ourselves fully to our positions regardless of internal irritants that exist or imagined issues that we wrestle with.

And when we are in the show business of providing experiential service to guests who come and spend their top dollar with us, such dismal disregard is completely inappropriate and unbecoming.

Once we were almost self-seated, we waited for our table server to arrive. When the wait time became uncomfortably prolonged by those extra minutes, we beckoned a soul in sight who looked at us, looked elsewhere and unceremoniously told another colleague to attend to us with a very uncharacteristic “you go.” The second uninterested bloke descended upon us with menus and enquired in an untrained voice about our preference for regular or mineral water. We usually do not drink water with our meals and this evening we were not in a mood for a glass or two of wine, so we told him to serve regular water to one person and take the glass away from the other setting, I had to ask the waiter to remove my tumbler at least three times before he grasped the request that seemed strange to him.

I find Mise-en-place stations and Micros centres to be such terrible breeding grounds for overly germ-y behaviour that I dread being seated anywhere close to those. Unfortunately, the layout of this restaurant was perhaps such that you were always at an arm’s length from those chit-chat coves. This evening, we had staff joking around, gossiping and doing anything but work at those hubs in a near empty restaurant. This behaviour pattern is such a dead giveaway for bad training, lack of interest in one’s job and lack of respect both for the Company and the guests.

One of the final blows to our disastrous evening at SK was by the 'better' steward who was entrusted to take care of our table after the smirking smart alec was unceremoniously removed. The somewhat better steward thrust the gadget in front of me for feedback, not knowing how to operate it himself and when asked to return to a previous page he said resignedly in Hindi "woh toh chale gaya. Ab nahin milega. (The page is gone. I cannot retrieve it)." I felt like leaving the same sentence and sentiment as our comment on the contraption!

Staff which is not trained to be brand proud and customer-oriented, Staff that lacks passion and commitment and is there to do just a job but fails even to do that, completely destroys the brand value and ruins the reputation of the Company for good.

3.     Attention to detail is amiss

We walked into Spaghetti Kitchen to get to a table that was not clean. Even a Fast Food restaurant with a packed house, pick-eat-go nature of service and fast turnaround cannot afford to seat guests at tables that have not been wiped; this place certainly had no excuse for that.

We were seated on a table that was not ready - missing napkins and sundry other things. Soiled mats is never a good way of showcasing a restaurant and you do make matters worse when simple additions of EVOO and Balsamic Vinegar are missing from the table of an Italian restaurant.

The lighting of the South-west Delhi branch is abysmally low making it difficult to read the menu. How can restaurants miss the basics while planning the structure? Hotels and restaurants have to have a 360 degree view of issues: – light – natural and artificial, temperature control, noise, location, pollution, traffic, accessibility amongst a host of other pertinent aspects.

My biggest woe, however, at any restaurant is their complete negligence of cleanliness – telling-tales in the tines of forks, stain marks on glassware, napkins with stubborn reminders of rather sharp gravy, staff uniforms that bear the stench of climate and callousness.

In the trade of Hoteliering, there is no space or scope for tardiness and lack of attention to the tiniest detail at all the multitudinous levels we function in. At least here, we must sweat the small stuff in order to present our best selves forward to the guests.

4.     The Heart of the Matter is grossly questionable

Much before experience, ambience, aspirational value and lifestyle statements, restaurants are about food. The hiring of specialty chefs, specialized ancillary team members such as the distinguished sommelier and the like, huge investments in F&B training, menu creation, planning and execution, sourcing of exotic and special ingredients, importing of fabulous flatware, appointing of renowned entertainers who are believed to stimulate the appetite and stir up the spirit by their pulsating music – all this is brought into a grand performance to present the main act, the act that defines the raison d’être of restaurateuring.

At places with ill-trained staff, the food and atmosphere can be a great saviour. Suffice it to say that at our ill-fated outing we were denied even that. The pizza was most ordinary. Domino's does far better. The little accoutrements were missing, the breads were far from fresh - yes all three, the Parmesan was floor dust massed-up in little balls and not freshly grated. And the tomato and basil spaghetti from the eponymous restaurant left a lot to be desired - the sauce was a thick, over stirred mass, overly salty and robbing the pasta of any taste or flavour, the spaghetti was not quite al dente. If you get your two basic dishes so wrong, how would you instil confidence in the customer to try out your trumped up menu that is heavy on the design value and comes out as a piece of literary fiction because your heart is not in its place.

Why do so many restaurants short-change on this and compromise their standards so appallingly? Why is good quality of food so hard to find with credible and creditable restaurants being only a handful?  

In Part two of this Case Study, let us review four more scores on which the restaurants fail so miserably and consistently.


Note - Picture  Courtesy - Google Images