While keeping customers happy is a perpetual challenge in the restaurant industry, some operators have learned that success may come from making a few guests unhappy.
Operators who pride themselves on hospitality advise establishing clear rules on guest behavior and empowering staff to enforce them. Such rules often are posted in writing near the front entrance or other visible spots.
“The way I like to handle things is to communicate clearly why we will ask them to change whatever behavior it is,” says Andrew Mangan of Denver’s eight-unit Bonanno Concepts and general manager of Green Russell, a sophisticated, cocktail bar with a small-plates menu. “Maybe they’ve had a couple of drinks and get belligerent, but you still have to be nice and polite to them.”
Mangan explained that the 80-seat Green Russell is one of the few cocktail bars that takes reservations for both bar seats and cocktail tables, and doesn’t serve anyone who isn’t seated. “We want it be a nice place to have a drink and conversation with friends,” he says.
“Not everyone sees the value in ordering a $12 hand-crafted cocktail, but we have a clientele that appreciates it. There are about 80 bars within a mile-radius of us that have no rules and pack people in. Our atmosphere is more mellow,” Mangan notes.
His biggest problem is people who don’t know the policy and show up without reservations, expecting to be served. He recently turned away a group of 10 when six late-arriving friends, who wanted to join a seated party of four, created a scene because they were put on a wait list.
“They were causing a major disturbance; it escalated pretty quickly,” Mangan says. So, he gave the seated party their check and asked all 10 of them to leave, which they did. “Even though I made 10 people unhappy, everyone around them had a better experience,” he concludes.
Another difficult situation is dealing with children who are being disrespectful or disruptive. Industry veteran and respected chef Bradley Ogden, who heads 16-unit Lark Creek Restaurant Group in northern California and Las Vegas, says that he deals with disruptive young children by coming to their tables. “Once a chef in a chef’s coat comes to the table and starts talking to them on their level, they quiet instantly,” he says.
With parents’ permission, Ogden has taken children into the kitchen to distract them and teach them what goes into preparing their food. “You can take them to the ice cream station, and that really quiets them down,” he quips.
Adults can be just as inconsiderate and distracting, particularly with cell phones. At Ina’s, a popular breakfast-and-lunch restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop, hands-on owner Ina Pinkney has had a policy since 1991 of allowing cell phone conversations only in the front lobby. She began the policy before there were many cell towers, when callers had to talk loudly to be heard.
With a humorous tone, she posts the policy in the entrance, at the host station, and on the menu, which states, “Please refrain from using your cell phone in the dining areas because it interferes with brewing the coffee.”
Texting and e-mailing, even on laptops, is allowed, as long as no sound is involved. “Now I get people who understand that it’s invasive and intrusive on their own lives,” Pinkney says. “I have a customer who stayed away for years after I told him he couldn’t use his cell phone. Now he comes in and polices the policy.”
Training front-of-the-house staff on how to handle guests is a big part of the program at The Bartolotta Restaurants in Milwaukee, a 16-unit company with concepts ranging from home-style Italian to upscale seafood. Liza Leu, corporate trainer, walks servers and other staffers through various scenarios to prepare them for real situations.
One common occurrence is explaining to guests with reservations that their tables aren’t quite ready and they’ll have to wait a bit. “The hosts are trained not to hide behind the host stand, to acknowledge the guest right away, and to apologize for the wait,” Leu says, adding that they want servers to go out of their way to be gracious.
One example of going the extra mile to please a disappointed guest paid off in great word-of-mouth advertising. Leu explains: A party of guests enjoyed a meal at one Bartolotta restaurant before attending a play, but didn’t have time for the dessert they wanted. They planned to have the dessert at a different Bartolotta restaurant after the show, but when they arrived, the dessert list was not the same as at the first restaurant.
“We called the manager of the first restaurant, who delivered the dessert, and the guests were wowed,” Leu says, noting that providing outstanding hospitality is one of the most important components of their business.