The Foreign Exchange

Grant Monahan

Nakul Mahendro, co-owner of Badmaash, the Los Angeles Indian gastropub, says good service transcends taking orders and bringing food to the table; it’s important his staff have a 360-degree understanding of Indian culture.

“We’re often asked, ‘What is the proper way to eat this?’ or, ‘Do I use my knife and fork?’ by those who aren’t familiar with Indian culture,” he says. “Guests are excited to learn and do things the authentic way,” and his employees are expertly trained to help.

A knowledgeable staff in an ethnic restaurant works two ways: It allows non-ethnic guests to have an authentic experience, and it helps front-of-the-hosue staff better serve natives and culturally aware diners. While employees at ethnic restaurants are trained to do more than carry trays and take orders—they often must learn new words, pronunciations, and traditions, for example—the payoff for owners is undeniable.

Mahendro recalls an Indian couple who recently visited the restaurant. The lady wore bright red bangles and had henna on her hands and forearms, so employees knew immediately the diners were newlyweds.

“Our service staff is trained to look out for these little cultural clues,” he says. “On first approach, the server congratulated them with two glasses of Prosecco—needless to say, they were very pleasantly surprised to be greeted in that way, and have since come back many times, often bringing new guests.”

Similarly, the Hummus Kitchen in Manhattan offers an authentic taste of Israel. The establishment has not only spread Israeli culture to its customers, but even more so to its employees, helping them pick up Hebrew phrases and greetings, and educating Jewish values with a full glatt kosher menu (which means the meat is processed according to a stricter standard of kashrut, or Jewish religious laws).

“If we do not teach our staff about our culture, they will not be able to spread that knowledge to our customers,” says co-owner Maor Vaanunu. Employees have two training sessions, including one dedicated to the menu.

Vaanunu says it’s important employees know how to pronounce dishes. “We pronounce the word hummus more like who-moos, different from the way many Americans say it,” he says.

“There are also other small phrases that we teach our employees, in order for them to understand and assist our Israeli customers who know very little English,” Vaanunu says. Mint, for example, is frequently used in Israeli drinks. Many times, the Hummus Kitchen’s Hebrew-speaking customers will say “nana te,” and employees know they want mint tea.

Kipos in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has extensive Greek training for its employees, which helps it stand out in the college town. “A lot of the knowledge is around the vocabulary, the words, and of course, the wine,” says Angela Kennedy, general manager of the year-old restaurant. She adds that with the extensive training, “We’re not replicating the Greek community; we’re representing it.”

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