Last time I posted about a deeper ‘food-related issue’ – about whether it’s okay to ban children from certain places or not – I really didn’t know where I stood.
Not so in this case.
When it comes to service in restaurants, I 100% know what I think. It’s vital. Not only vital, it’s actually not that bloody difficult to achieve so why do some restaurants think it’s okay not to bother? And no, I’m not writing this straight off the back of a bad experience. In fact, I’ve deliberately waited more than a week since the experience that sparked this little kernel of a blog post in my brain to make sure that I cooled down.
And that, ladies and gents, is why I know that my mind is made up on this issue. Good service is something every restaurant should aspire to. In fact, not aspire to. Just do.
By good, I don’t mean the fine dining intricacies of putting your napkin on your lap for you, sweeping your crumbs away, filling your wine glass at every opportunity, and all that jazz. I’m talking about basic courtesy. I’m talking about greeting customers with a smile, speaking to them politely, and making them feel like you maybe, just maybe, want them in your establishment. I’m talking about the simple tenets of politeness that we’re all taught at school and that most people who have ever worked in the service industry knows is a must.
I’ve seen countless examples of bad service in my time. And yeah, I know there are always exceptions and you shouldn’t tar a whole industry with their brush. I’m not doing that here. I just think it’s unbelievable and unacceptable that there are still some restaurants around who think it’s okay to have crap service.
I mentioned the bad experience. Let me paint the picture for you. It’s Bank Holiday weekend. It’s Sunday. Every man and his dog has decided to go out for a meal. Consequently, we phone up a local restaurant we’ve been to several times before to book a table for that evening.
This is where the issue starts. The person who takes the call is abrupt, rude, and puts the phone down before my husband can even say what the name is. Not sure what booking system functions without names next to times and number of people, but hey, what do I know? I’m just a customer.
When we arrive at said restaurant we wait patiently at the front by the door, hoping that one of the two members of staff who are less than a foot from us will acknowledge us. No such luck. One minute ticks by. Then two. The nearest is so close he can feel my breath on his neck (in a very non-romantic way) yet staunchly refuses to turn from his calculator-tapping and speak to us. Instead, his colleague eventually loses their battle of wills, giving in and mumbling that someone will be with us ‘in a minute’.
They aren’t. Instead, several more minutes pass as we stand awkwardly hoping to be acknowledged or attended to. No such luck. More time passes as the two members of staff bustle back and forth across us until we give up, deciding enough is enough. We leave feeling exactly how restaurant customers shouldn’t feel – rejected, unwanted, and still hungry.
Two streets down, we pop into a well-known chain. Not what we had planned, but worth a go. It’s rammed, obviously, because it’s still Bank Holiday Sunday. As soon as we make it through the door, the waitress dashing past pauses to smile and say, ‘Good evening, if you’d just bear with me one second I’ll be right back’. She means it. She’s back a few minutes later, she’s already sorted a table out, and she’s got the menus in her hand.
Yes. Was that so difficult?
That member of staff was, in fact, sticking to some of the suggestions given by Fred Sirieix, general manager at Galvin at Windows, in a recent piece on service in Observer Food Monthly.
According to him, it’s all about how you treat the customers.
“You must see, smile and say hello to people before they can do it to you”.
For Sirieix, there should be ‘five smiles’ from his staff en route from reception to the table, or at least three for smaller restaurants. Quite right. After all, good service is based on basic manners and what did all our mums teach us? Smile, be friendly, treat other people how we’d want to be treated. Not rocket science, hey.
Back to the restaurant. As Mr M and I sit down, the same friendly waitress apologetically tells us it’s really busy so there might be a brief wait. That’s fine. We go on to have a very enjoyable meal. Yes, not the meal we’d planned, not even the kind of food I had my heart set on eating. But the evening is made better by the fact it’s a pleasant environment where we feel like we’re actually welcome.
You see, I get that places are busy. I get that sometimes you have to wait. What I don’t get is being treated like I have offended the very people who I’ve showed up and am willingly ready to hand my money to. I’m not asking for servants to wait on me hand and foot, but what I do want at the very least is a bit of common courtesy – the same I extend to them.
I’ve said it loads of times before in this blog. I think service is essential to a decent restaurant experience. Yes, obviously the food is why you’re there, but what’s great food when you feel like you’re trespassing somewhere you’re not wanted? How can you enjoy flavours and tastes and textures when you’re busy feeling angry or annoyed at being treated like crap?
I’m not alone. Service is a big deal. To customers, to critics, and so to restaurateurs (well, most of them). Michel Roux Jr thought it was so important he built a whole TV series around it. He wrote this about service, and he’s a pro, so I clearly can’t be too off the mark.
“Any great restaurant is about more than the food – it has to have great front-of-house too. In my experience, a customer is more forgiving towards mediocre food than they are to slack service.
“In my opinion, it shouldn’t matter whether a customer is paying five pounds or five hundred – good service should be everywhere. The customer’s expectations remain the same and they should never be disappointed.”
That takes us back to the popular, fairly affordable chain. Yeah, it’s not a fine dining restaurant, it’s not all crisp tablecloths and fine china, and it may not be award-winning food, but they’ve got one of the key things right – making you feel like they might actually want you there.
Like Nigel Slater recently said in Observer Food Monthly, it shouldn’t be underestimated how much of an impact service, and the people serving you, can have on your meal.
“There is little I enjoy more than walking into a restaurant for a meal. Opening the door, being given a welcoming smile, taken to my table and handed a menu, not to mention having a drink put in front of me, always feels like an enormous treat.
“That I feel that way is without question down to those who work front of house. The teams who make our evening just as special as those working at the stove.”
He’s right. These people waiting tables can make – and break – your dining experience. Good service can be the icing on the cake of your fabulous evening, or it can be the person that knocks that beautiful cake off the side, turning it from a glorious memory into a vague recollection of something that could have been beautiful but ended up being just a bit of a mess.
And it’s not just about customers. Look at it in pure business terms. Happy customers come back. They tell their friends how good the whole experience was and they come too. Unhappy customers – ones who have been made to feel unwelcome – remember that rejection. They don’t want to inflict that kind of feeling on their friends by sending them somewhere that will treat them badly, and they certainly don’t want to go through a repeat performance themselves.
That’s why it’s so important. Dining out is a social experience, and that experience extends far beyond the company you’re sharing it with. It’s that interaction – with the person you’ve chosen to eat with, with your fellow diners in the same place and, indeed, with those serving you – that can emphasise the food and elevate the whole experience from a ‘nice bit of scran’ to a ‘fabulous evening’ or conversely overshadow it and render the food entirely unmemorable when compared to a terrible personal experience.
As I said earlier, I’m no expert. I’m just a customer. Someone who thinks eating out is about the whole experience, not just the food.
But Fred Sirieix IS an expert. He’s spent years perfecting the art of good service and companies outside the restaurant world now also seek his advice on how to provide good customer service. In short, he knows what he’s talking about. Obviously, he thinks getting service right is paramount. Not only that, it has a direct effect on your dining experience:
“If you get all that right, the food tastes better.”
With that in mind, given the service we received during our brief attempt at dining at that unnamed local restaurant, I’m glad we didn’t stay for the food. Because if good service makes your food taste better, bad service can sure leave a bitter taste in your mouth.