Hotel Professionals

Back to basics in the food service industry


Eating out, and take out food are entrenched in the lives of urban North Americans. In the U.S.A more than 40 per cent of food expenditures occur in restaurants, or though take out foods or delivered foods. Young singles living in downtown New York, or for that matter in many other large urban centers, hardly ever cook, and new apartments and condominiums have very small kitchens just large enough to prepare coffee or tea, maybe a simple breakfast and little else.

Demand stimulates supply, and daily, new restaurants near condominiums and tall apartment buildings increase the need of skilled service staff and cooks.

Yet, new restaurateurs seem to be oblivious of the basics of the restaurant business. They open their restaurants hoping that everything will fall into place, and rely mostly on consultants and managers who profess to be seasoned professionals.

This, simply, is the wrong way to start a business, especially a restaurant or food establishment.

According to statistics 80 percent of new restaurants declare bankruptcy within two years.   While it is undeniable that good food, fine beverages, attentive service, and appealing design are of crucial importance, competent administration and management are key to financial success.

An aspiring restaurateur must master all the intricacies of the restaurant business, including purchasing, storage, preparation, accounting and controls, service, marketing, human resources management, repairs and maintenance, the law as it applies to the business, psychology, hygiene, and more.

After finding the most suitable location, compiling and pricing an appropriate menu (the market segment envisaged), and beverage list, hiring competent help and training by far the most important first steps before opening.

It is no secret that most food service employees are at least in major industrialized western countries poorly trained. Some individuals   attempt to learn on the job either by observing, or occasionally, through superficial training which is provided by a sympathetic supervisor. Such practice often yields poor results and more often than not, employees just function without the benefit of a thorough grounding in the principles of foodservice, cooking, or administration. It has become, and continues to be, more and more difficult to find skilled employees, with the right attitude.

Young North American city dwellers are simply not interested in foodservice jobs mostly due to long and irregular working hours, low pay, and stress. Only students, actors between jobs and new immigrants accept service job offers.

Restaurant industry remuneration has never been very lucrative, although gifted servers who master the art of superlative service can more than make up the difference through lavish tips in busy, high-end establishments.

Luckily, high demand and short supply of skilled employees are forcing at least some restaurateurs to pay higher wages or add perks.

Many experts claim most of today’s servers to be “food carriers” or actors between jobs.

Often the food brought to the table is poorly or inappropriately presented. It may be cold, or the sauce may be poured all over the plate, and this makes the dish look unappetizing. It is surprising how many servers have no idea of the food they serve, the way it is prepared, and therefore cannot explain how it tastes, let alone all the ingredients the dish contains, should a patron ask, because of allergies.

Frequently, servers are unaware of the soup of the day, or the name of the house wine(s), and where they originate, or portion sizes. Occasionally, some young European-trained servers   display a condescending attitude.

Good service requires that orders be taken properly with all the details required, all dishes and beverages be served in a timely manner, courteously, and cheerfully.

Servility and service are two entirely different things and must not be confused. A servile but incompetent server may even turn off a loyal guest. Attentive service anticipates guests’ needs and provides them quietly.

The restaurant business requires devoted employees with a positive attitude, willing to work hard, and learn through the direction of knowledgeable supervision.

On the production side, i.e. the kitchen, the business needs employees who take their work
seriously and are proud to serve superior quality food consistently.

Each BOH (back of the house) department is responsible to ensure that everything required for food or beverage preparation is available at the level of standards established by the management.

All observations, studies, and reports, indicate that operators fail to hire suitable and skilled employees, and provide only cursory training before letting them serve. The results are predictable.

It is best to hire talented individuals with a positive attitude, and train according to company standards.

Many articles in trade magazines stress that servers should never be put under undue stress., as the job itself creates enough stress.

Servers must satisfy guests, and follow the rules of the establishment, deal with belligerent cooks, difficult, problematic “guests”, hide personal problems, and handle cash responsibly.

Ideally, individuals should be able to do what they like best and are most suited for; unfortunately this is seldom possible.

Restaurateurs must set attainable objectives amply reward employees. Instead they hire according to need, and train inadequately to achieve perfection. Every position in a restaurant or any multi-task position involves at least one tedious or unpleasant task and this must be explained before anyone is hired.

Frequently, middle or line management fails to perform according to management policy and line workers perform even less satisfactorily. Ultimately, guests receive poorly prepared food, inferior presentation and sub-standard service. Unfortunately, these days poor service is prevalent in all service industries in North America, and even in many industrialized European countries. Self-service triumphs in most cases, but those who value good service and are prepared to pay for it demand competent service. Unsatisfactory service turns off even loyal patrons. According to researchers, a “lost” patron is very expensive to replace through advertising and other marketing techniques.

Unsatisfactory service is prevalent in all businesses, especially in western industrialized countries.

Only long term planning, considerable effort, and good human resources management can eradicate sub-standard performance and poor attitude. Employees want to be informed of policy changes which may affect them, and wish to be part of the enterprise rather than being made to feel “disposable”. Good communications is key to success. You cannot expect employees to second-guess management policy or philosophy.

Japanese managers understand that a successful business can remain so only by motivated and dedicated employees, and managers who act as if the enterprise was their own.

Workers must be indoctrinated into the mission statement of the company, and feel as an
important part of the establishment. Studies show that the best ideas for products or satisfactory working conditions originate from caring employees. The worker with a brilliant idea should be appropriately rewarded. Workers performing a certain task day-in day-out know best what action results in better performance, high output, or quality or consistency.

Restaurant managers must train new hires adequately to perform according to company standards. Even educated and experienced individuals must be trained thoroughly in a new environment with a different level of service standards. Guests, even in a humble eatery, expect first and foremost, friendly, competent, and unobtrusive service, provided by employees genuinely concerned about their well being.

Any guest asking for a specific table should be accommodated, or shown to the next best available, without comment or hesitation. “Selling’ desirable tables with a view is highly unethical and unprofessional. Supervisors displaying such behavior, contrary to house policy, must be severely reprimanded or even their services terminated, pending on the gravity of their error in judgment.

Hospitality business employees and owners must understand that guests are the prime reason for their existence, and act accordingly. Both staff and owners must understand that guests are doing them a favour, and not them to patrons.

Professional servers address repeat guests by their name, remember their favourite dishes and drink, wines, and table(s).

Patrons made to feel important and welcome will favour any restaurant that provides personalized service. Such patrons will undoubtedly recommend the restaurant and the server to their friends, family and business associates.

Before the food order is taken, daily specials must be pointed out and explained, if necessary. If guests indicate to be time-constrained, appropriate dishes must be recommended to accommodate them.

Successful managers inform servers of daily specials, important people expected, and any other relevant information before service.

Servers must know all the ingredients of each dish and cocktail, as well as the method of preparation, and be able to recommend appropriate wines at several price points. These days, many diners have allergies. They want to know all the ingredients a dish contains. Their questions must be answered honestly and instantly.

Servers must know that they are in “business for themselves” and perform accordingly. Successful servers recognize, intuitively, guests looking for guidance, and can sell a lot more than standard fare and make them feel appreciated and satisfied.

Experienced, caring, successful professional servers know that guests represent a captive audience. Unlike in a regular retail store, people enter a restaurant with the full intention to eat, drink, and to be served. Guests are hungry and thirsty, and generally willing to upgrade their order, if expertly and discreetly guided. Perceptive servers use this to their advantage, and successfully “accessorize” orders, much like professional sales people do in all retail businesses.

Selling food and beverages requires knowledge, discretion, sincerity and tact. Experienced servers practice proven selling techniques like suggesting and describing beverages and/or foods they recommend, all the time using “mouth watering” words.

Even in the best-managed restaurants mistakes happen, and when they do, it is up to the server to take corrective action immediately. Savvy restaurant managers now empower servers to do whatever it takes to correct mistakes.

The unalterable principle of the restaurant business is that every day must be treated as if the operation is being started a new.

In any service industry, but especially in the hospitality industry, attention to detail is of greatest importance, to guarantee success.

Successful restaurateurs manage according to sound, proven business principles, and treat all of their employees as important team members, and their guests as precious assets.