Hospitality is one of the most powerful sales drivers and customer retention tools in a restaurant’s toolkit, and a courteous, knowledgeable staff can create a lifetime customer out of a first-time visitor or ensure a return trip even when a meal doesn’t go smoothly.
That’s the core philosophy at New York’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which runs the fine-dining Maialino, Eleven Madison Park and Gramercy Tavern, as well as the more casual Blue Smoke and the Shake Shack chain. Founder Danny Meyer has frequently cited the importance of hospitality and service in business. He has written a book on the subject, “Setting the Table,” and in 2010 he launched Hospitality Quotient, a continuing education program for businesspeople from all industries.
Meyer’s philosophy is evident throughout all levels of the company, according to Richard Coraine, managing partner at Union Square Hospitality Group.
“Our business model is hospitality,” Coraine said. “Hospitality is, by its nature, being on somebody’s side, and if you’re really on someone’s side, you’re doing everything you can to make it easy for them to enjoy your product.”
Here Coraine offers the Dos and Don’ts for exemplary service:
• Don’t let servers forget what they’re really selling. A well-educated server can suggest drink pairings and subtle upsells, but the staff is selling more than just your food, Coraine said. They’re selling the brand.
Familiarity with the menu is a basic necessity for servers, but they also need to be comfortable with a restaurant’s service style, priorities and business philosophy to avoid harming a brand’s reputation with customers, he said.
“We consider menu knowledge a subset of hospitality. … So if someone were to ask a simple menu question, and the server doesn’t have the basic answer to something like that, we wouldn’t consider that being on their side.”
• Do hire naturally inquisitive people who enjoy learning. Populating your staff with people who have high expectations and an inclination for information is an essential part of hospitality, according to Coraine.
“We work really hard at hiring people who are predisposed to be hungry for knowledge and curious about things. So it’s not something where we have to demand that people [learn]; they want to learn,” he said.
• Don’t make learning a burden. Give your staff members all the tools they need to be excellent hosts, and try to present the material in a stimulating way.
“People almost always respond to what their boss feels is important. So if the leader has a lot of enthusiasm and passion about teaching … people respond pretty quickly,” Coraine noted. “People don’t respond to demands; they respond to opportunities.”
• Do teach your staff the art of reading a table. Coraine said one of the primary skills of a great service person is knowing how to read a table. Some diners want an exceptional amount of knowledge about the product, some want minimal information, and some just want to order and move on.
“The job of the server is to read what the customer’s needs are, and then provide
hospitality accordingly,” he said.
• Don’t gloss over mistakes. Be empathetic to issues customers are having, and have an honest conversation about the mistake. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, I’ll buy you a glass of champagne,’ or ‘I’ll buy you a dessert, and that’s my gift to you for messing up.’ I need to have a dialogue with you about what the real situation is, and how you would like to feel when we correct it,” Coraine said.