lulu, hillsider companion

lulu, hillsider companion

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Our vanishing service culture (and how to turn that to your advantage), and an update on Mt. Shasta UFO activity

I know I can be a little annoying with my persistence in returning to the subject of restaurant staff competence (or the lack of same), but I can't help myself; a lifetime spent immersed in the day-to-day world of waiters, cooks, bussers, dishwashers, and all the other elements of chaos that come together to make up a functioning dining establishment entitles me to an opinion, in my opinion, and I'm compelled to express it on a more or less regular basis. Sometimes it's appreciated and heeded, other times not so much. Either way, I'm not likely to stop.

I should make it clear that there are a lot of things about the general state of affairs in the American restaurant/foodservice industry that bother me, but the one thing that rises to the top most days is the increasing lack of professionalism to be found in the front-of-house (wait staff, primarily) of many dining rooms, and I include eating establishments of all stripes in that statement. People just don't seem to be grounded in the fundamentals of the craft of providing fine table service; a great many of them try hard, but they aren't being adequately trained in most cases, or at least that is the perception of many of us who discuss this on a regular basis. Nor does there appear to be a commitment to excellence on the part of many of the folks charged with managing these people, which bothers me even more.

The argument is made by some managers that the problems are attributable to the quality of employee they are able to attract. They say that the demands placed on employees' time and the odd schedules they must work necessarily limit their ability to hire and retain the best and brightest, and to some degree that argument holds true in a lot of instances: for the most part, no one really wants to be working during the hours that employees of most other businesses are off. They are expected to be available many evenings, weekends, and holidays, and that is not much of an incentive for most folks with other options to find gainful employment.

Having said that, however, I think it's a pretty weak argument in general. There is a certain type of individual who thrives in the hospitality culture, whether hotels, white cloth restaurants, clubs of several stripes, chain-concept foodservice organizations, or straight-on fast-food operations. The successful operator is the one who is able to IDENTIFY, RECRUIT, TRAIN, and RETAIN those individuals, to show them how to carve out a rewarding (and lucrative) career, and then mentor them into their primes as contributors to the good of the company and the satisfaction of the customer. This can be done; I know it can because I have done it throughout my own career, and I am no genius, as many of you already know.

The owner/manager who can create an environment that attracts the best recruits, train them properly, then motivate them on an ongoing basis to perform at the highest level within their capability, will be a successful operator, and one who is admired and respected by his competitors and, maybe more importantly, by his staff. Maybe the best example I have ever seen of this was one of my own early mentors, W. R. "Red" Steger, the long-time general manager of Houston's River Oaks Country Club. For those of you who are not familiar with Houston, or with River Oaks, suffice it to say that the club is located in the heart of one of the city's wealthiest enclaves, and claims as members hundreds of well-educated, well-traveled, sophisticated individuals who uniformly have very high expectations about everything and from everybody. They don't see much humor in poor service, poor food, or poor conditioning of their golf course, or poor anything else, for that matter. Steger, like many club executives, spent a great deal of his time each and every day seeing to it that they were kept happy, and they were, ecstatically so, and demonstrated that fact by rewarding him with contact extension after contract extension, and by making him one of the best-compensated executives the industry has ever seen. All this success came not from the fact that Red was a brilliant agronomist or executive chef, because he wasn't, nor was he nimble and skilled in precision dining room management. What he was, without question, however, was one of the most inspirational leaders I've ever known: a quiet, thoughtful, straightforward gentleman who hired good people, trained them to be "Steger people", led by example, and inspired fierce loyalty in all who served under him. They gave him their best each and every day, with no excuses or stories, and would do anything Red asked of them, because they knew he was going to be there for them come hell or high water. The end result was that everyone benefited: employees, River Oaks' members, Red, the club industry, and in many ways, the city. Red understood the one central truth of the service industry: there is no more valuable asset than good people. Hire the best people you can find, train them well, support and inspire them, and you will separate yourself from the pack. Your people will make you a star.

In closing this rant, just a note to let you all know that you can rest easy: no UFO activity on Shasta since my last post, at least on our side of the mountain. We'll keep you informed.




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