Critically Acclaimed Industry Veteran on His Unique Service Philosophy

Being born into the restaurant industry, service has always been second nature to me. From the time I was a little boy, I was always exposed to restaurant life – my father has owned the oldest steakhouse in Nicaragua since before I was born. Though I never worked in the family restaurant as a child, I would attend management meetings with my father and then learn how to cook from my mother, exposing me to both sides of restaurant life. My knowledge of the industry grew when I started my career in college, which in turn allowed me to work at other top restaurants later in life. The most important thing I’ve learned from working in this industry for such a long time is the art of pleasing customers. Service is about hospitality, and hospitality is about making sure customers are happy. I always approach them with the mentality of “Mi casa es su casa,” which has enabled me to thrive in this industry for more than two decades.

I’ve worked in various positions in the restaurant business – from busser, waiter, captain, manager, maître d’, to eventually becoming an owner – at top NYC locations, including Cocco Pazzo and Patria, which were both rated three stars for service and food by the NY Times. This has allowed me to understand how each facet of service should be handled, allowing for an enjoyable overall dining experience. I like to think of it as the four points of service.

From the first moment a customer walks through the door, timing must be perfect. How long did it take to approach customers when they walked in? How long did they have to wait before they were seated? Did we bring their menus on time? Their drinks? Their food? Timing is everything and if done right, it can harmonize the entire dining experience.

Now, timing would be nothing if the servers don’t have knowledge of what they’re serving. Customers are always asking questions regarding the menu or the drinks so it is important to know how to answer them. What’s in the food? Where is it from? What kind of drinks do we have at the bar? I’m especially sure to give all my servers 100% knowledge of our wine list – the date, where it’s from, what it tastes like – so that they can accurately describe it to customers. The right combination of Pinot Noir and salmon creates the perfect balance in a meal. Knowledge is power and in this case, customers will readily accept your answers – so long as you have answers to give them.

Obviously, in order to be successful in the service industry, you need to have the ability to read customers effectively. What kind of a person are you serving? Would they prefer a guided tour through their menu or would they rather be left to peruse it on their own? Are they the type to want to chat with the waiter? Approaching customers with an open mind and a positive attitude is important because when we feel good, it translates over, making the customers feel good as well. Customers will be glad that you were so in tune with their needs.

The last point of service brings it all together. I always tell my service staff to follow this principle: “Be nice and they will come.” One can always take control of a table with kindness. Little phrases like “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” and “certainly” should be used habitually because they really show the customer that you are courteous and have their best interests at heart. Never reject a customer’s wishes; they want things for a reason so always try your best to accommodate them and provide options. By reinforcing the positives with a “the service is great, isn’t it?” you really allow the customers to see how hard the staff is working to provide them with the best experience possible. I love it when customers return to my restaurant and ask for specific waiters because this means their past meals were pleasant. My goal is to always make customers return.

Here’s a bonus tip: appearances are key to making any restaurant look polished and organized. Not only should the tables be perfectly cleaned and set, but waiters also need to be coordinated, polished shoes and all. When customers walk into an organized atmosphere, they know they are going to be taken care of.

Service starts from the moment a customer calls to make a reservation and continues all the way until they step out the door. A lot of people think it’s obvious but the truth is that no one really gets involved with the little things. They don’t realize that things like holding a door open for someone, being polite and helpful, and showing kindness towards people are what turns mediocre service into something extraordinary. When you combine it all together, it really impacts the way customers view their overall dining experience and amplifies the possibility of their return. And if you throw in a smile, customers will be sure to remember that you were the one that made their meal so enjoyable.

Ariel Lacayo

Ariel Lacayo has worked in the restaurant business for more than two decades, honing his expertise in the service industry at award winning restaurants Cocco Pazzo and Patria. Aside from his day job at NYC's Babalu Restaurant, he has branched out into the restaurant consultancy business, sharing his knowledge of service and food to all.

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