Michael Mignogna used to feel nervous before his shifts at Eatery Restaurant in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.
His problem was that several months into his job as a server, he still didn’t really know what was in the restaurant’s dishes.
He decided to try and learn by reading the menu but couldn’t retain the information. Mignogna’s next step was writing the menu descriptions down, which helped somewhat—until last spring when he was caught creatively making up the ingredients of a dish to explain to customers.
Mignogna’s boss gave him an ultimatum: Learn the menu or leave.
It didn’t take long for the server to start taking photos of the dishes to match with his descriptions. “I didn’t take the pictures until I started panicking,” he says.
“Being able to look at the dish while reading about it helps so much with regards to ‘locking in’ the ingredients. When recalling the ingredients in a dish it's helpful to be able to picture it in your mind.”
Before he knew it, he had uploaded everything online and had a database of Eatery’s entire menu.
It hasn’t taken long for Mignogna to partner with a web designer and for his idea to develop into a full-blown website, RestaurantReason.com, and a tool for other restaurants to use. And what could be better—a training system for servers developed by a server.
The site offers Mignogna’s original idea: menus with each dish fully—but simply—described and photographed. The descriptions list the Level One ingredients, which he describes as “the items you can see when you look at the plate,” and Level Two ingredients, which is everything else.
Learning in this way makes sense, Mignogna says.
“Level One and Level Two are powerful learning tools because they provide the platform for a more ordered learning process. It's counterproductive to try and learn all the components of the sage butter sauce before you commit to memory the fact that it's the sauce on your restaurant's ravioli dish.
“Learning the ingredients to every dish and every sauce is a huge task, but a requirement that more and more restaurants are demanding of their staff. Level One and Level Two help to greatly reduce and even eliminate the chance that the person learning feels completely overwhelmed.”
The site offers more than just menu descriptions though. It is a social networking site specifically for restaurants.
For example, if a manager has to get a notice out to his employees, all he has to do is post it to his restaurant's news feed and his entire staff gets an email notification. The staff can then interact with each other by commenting on that notice.
Almost everyone is familiar with social networking, Mignogna adds, so learning and training can happen immediately.
Each restaurant can use its own profile for everything it needs. Training materials can all be online so employees can access them from their computer. Other items can include rules and regulations; schedules; job openings; incentive programs; reminders about meetings and so on.
And Restaurant Reason itself provides information—it recently posted information on the revised New York labor laws, for example, and it links to other industry sites providing valuable information.
Soon to be added will be a complete food glossary—called The Walk In—so servers can look up an item for a very simple explanation—just as much as a server needs to know, Mignogna explains. These are often deliberately light-hearted because it helps with retention, he adds.
To-date, three restaurants have signed up with Restaurant Reason, but Mignogna expects to continue expanding within New York City and then across the country. He hopes to have at least 50 restaurants signed up by the end of the year. He’s already received an inquiry from an interested restaurateur in Argentina, he says.
The cost to sign up with Restaurant Reason is a $1,000 to $1,500 setup fee–which includes a photographer coming to a restaurant to photograph every dish. But through July 31, the company is offering to set restaurants up on the site with no fee (although with no fee the restaurants have to take their own photos) when they sign up for two years. Once a restaurant is set up, the monthly fees are $50.
Restaurants can recuperate these costs quickly depending on their size, Mignogna says. An average size restaurant with 15 to 20 servers could recoup the money in six months, from savings on all the training manuals it would have printed out in that time, he explains.
There’s also the potential to improve sales by using Mignogna’s menu training techniques. According to the National Restaurant Association “employees who are informed about menu items will be able to give more knowledgeable answers to customers‘ questions and thus, boost sales.”
“But there’s more value than saving money,” Mignogna points out. “You have servers who really know your product and when they are more knowledgeable about the food they sell more of it. If they sell $2 to $3 more per person who comes in, that really adds up. But it’s also a more efficient way for servers to learn.”
By Amanda Baltazar