In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they contemplate the state of front-of-the-house service at U.S. restaurants, which some critics say is often subpar.
Dining room service falls short of kitchen excellence
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, offers her view on dining room service levels at restaurants in the United States.
Do you think restaurant service levels will ever catch up with kitchen excellence, Bret? I’ve been concerned for a very long time that the good work being done by chefs and menu R&D professionals, especially at the chain level, is too often subverted by the dining room staff.
I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way, of course; research regularly shows that bad service is the biggest turnoff to diners. Other things being equal, they’re willing to forgive the occasional kitchen gaffe — but treat them badly once, and you’ve pretty much lost their business forever.
It’s not that the industry is unaware of the issue. After all, good culinary schools offer front-of-house training, even though it is only an adjunct to their primary mission. And a number of chains have been trying to reset their service systems by employing tactics like team service and tip sharing, though the jury is still out on whether these experiments will help or hinder service levels. I’ve always suspected that the whole tip thing is the crux of the issue — earning a really low hourly rate on the hope that diners will come across with tips generous enough to make a living wage is sort of like monetary Russian roulette, from my perspective.
The conventional restaurant wisdom has it that Americans just don’t have a service ethic and points to European service pros, who make their life’s work waiting tables in boîtes from Paris to Prague. I’m not so sure that the latter is invariably true, but there’s no arguing that we’ve failed to establish the attractiveness of restaurant service as a viable career path here.
The real sea change in the American dining scene over the past 25 years has been the recognition of the role, importance and influence of the chef. Chefs have become media celebrities, and there’s pride in working in the kitchen. Do you see a way to create that same kind of celebrity and pride in the dining room? Do you think that I’m just overreacting to the whole thing?
Bret Thorn's response
Tips can motivate good front-of-house service
The following is NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn's response to Nancy Kruse's opinion  on front-of-the-house service at American restaurants.
Nancy, it’s true that the conventional wisdom is that Americans don’t have a service ethic, and maybe we don’t, but we sure have a moneymaking ethic, and perhaps that’s the key to improving service at restaurants in this country.
I agree with you that there’s something strange about the fact that customers, not restaurateurs, are expected to pay servers, but when I waited tables in college I liked it that way. Money was my motivation, and I knew what I needed to do to get it: whatever my guests wanted.
It was a great lesson in psychology because it’s not always obvious what guests want. Should I be charming or standoffish? Should I curate their meal or stay out of their way while they read the menu? I was working at an Azar’s Big Boy in the 1980s, so there wasn’t a whole lot of curating to be done, but some people needed to be assured that the Country Fried Steak was a good choice, or to be steered away from ordering the Oriental Chicken at 10 p.m., because it was going to be kind of dry.
I learned that, as a general rule, men who were likely about to get lucky with their dates were good tippers. So were drunks. So was anyone who joked with me my about my tip, maybe to reassure me that they were just kidding. I also learned that anyone ordering the hot fudge ice cream cake was going to tip well and that if you treat teenagers like grownups they acted like grownups and, most importantly, tipped adequately.
Some of my regular customers were terrible tippers, and obviously I knew it — if I knew anything about my customers it was how well they tipped. One day I tried to give my bad tippers bad service, but it just threw off my rhythm; I learned that I worked best if I tried to provide everyone with everything they needed as efficiently as possible.
I also realized that on some level, because of where my money was coming from — tips, a word I have now used, in some form, eight times in this short column — my job was to advocate for the customer rather than for the restaurant. That might be off-putting to restaurant owners, but the Azar’s Big Boy management actually enabled me to do that. “Treat our customers like they’re in your home,” our regional manager told me on my first day of training. And if anyone made so much as a peep of dissatisfaction about something they ordered we were to take it off the check.
I’m not sure that the service situation in the United States is really that awful, however. It’s true that one instance of bad service can permanently sour a customer on a restaurant, but maybe that’s because those situations don’t happen that often. Or maybe my perspective is skewed because I live in New York, where competition is fierce and service is quite often excellent.
Although I live in the same city as Danny Meyer, I’m going to throw an idea out there that goes against his philosophy of developing a service ethic. Maybe the way to achieve better service isn’t to try to make servers proud of their job, but to instill in them the lesson I learned at Big Boy: If you provide good service, you’ll make more money.