“It feels unnatural now to provide hospitality where three years ago, it was natural for a lot of people,” Lyons says.
Full service became a space where employees were asked not to approach tables, touch credit cards, drinks, menus, and so on. But customers have begun to push back, especially given inflation and how they’re deciding to spend their money. “That level of hospitality is just not where it used to be,” Lyons says. “The conversations that we’re having with [employees] is to think about times where they’ve experienced exceptional hospitality as an end user; to get them in that mindset of how that made them feel.”
“And it’s not about hey, let’s teach somebody to be more hospitable,” Lyons adds. “It’s about getting them in the mindset of how does that make you feel? Don’t you want your guest to feel that way?”
One of his talking lines: “Hospitality is a feeling. Service is an action.”
Smokey Bones CEO James O’Reilly says his brand hires for attitude and trains to playbook. The chain brings ops leaders together once a month to look at performance from “the various dimensions of the guest experience.” Those best practices work up and down the C-suite, he says.
QR codes and contactless realities
During the pandemic, True Food Kitchen implemented a contactless model like so many in the industry. Guests could tap a QR code to order and pay. Christine Ferris, the 40-plus unit chain’s director of marketing, says it’s been a constant reevaluation since to understand where hospitality fits in. Essentially, what occasion is True Food Kitchen optimizing for?
For a quick lunch, for example, the QR code model works. “But at the same time, True Food was built on hospitality,” she says. The concept was based on science and the anti-inflammatory food pyramid, the brainchild of its founder, Dr. Andrew Weil. In turn, it’s not always an easy message to get across in the palm of customer’s hand.
What True Food discovered of late, Ferris says, is people have returned to in-store dining wanting servers to brief them on what makes the menu special. It surfaces a common question of late: Do some COVID pivots need an expiration date?
Liz Moskow, food futurist and principal at Bread & Circus, says QR codes are “convenient,” but whether that’s the aim or not is something every brand needs to ask itself. “What I feel you miss as a consumer is they don’t get the breadth of the menu,” she says. “Especially when you’re looking at it on the phone. You’re seeing one list. Either entrees or apps, and you’re not seeing that cohesive experience of how your drink maybe coordinates with an appetizer.”
Moskow says the issue of hospitality in a no-touch dynamic, and how NextGen brands can get past it, is a challenge with a lot of levels to it. There are servers now who are Gen Z or “young millennials” and simply not big on human interaction. “They’re more engaging with their phone at their dinner table at night than they are with their family members,” she says.
“I think there’s an opportunity to teach our teams how to engage and observe with empathy,” Moskow notes. “And understand what the customer is there for.”
If you’re a brand that caters to somebody who might want to use a QR code, for instance, or at least during the daypart where it fits, there’s opportunity to keep it going. But the approach can evolve. Moskow suggests making sure there’s an employee paying close attention who can help customers through the process. “A server who is observing rather than looking at a kiosk or a handheld POS system might see that that guests is getting frustrated and bring him a paper menu,” Moskow explains. She calls this, “stealth hospitality.”
“You don’t even know that they’re listening to you,” Moskow says. “They’re providing you with what you need because of something you said. They didn’t have to call out for it.”
This approach provides a clear separator from the automation-heavy fixes seen in quick service. “Teach your employees how to become a caretaker and give people what they need in that moment,” Moskow says. “As opposed to how do you get them to upsell a beverage or wine.”