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Ti Martin: Isn’t it time for the Hospitality Revolution?

Commander’s Palace co-owner challenges restaurants to step up

In 1983 our family put on the American Cuisine Symposium. Back then, there was no farm-to-table movement. No push to cook with fresh regional products.

At that symposium my mother, Ella Brennan, our family and Paul Prudhomme (then chef of our family’s restaurant, Commander’s Palace) joined friends like Larry Forgione and Jonathan Waxman to agitate for a push into fresh regional cooking.

The 200 conference attendees — including some of the top restaurateurs and media of their time, like Florence Fabricant and Ruth Reichl — went back across the country espousing this “new” forward thinking idea: Cook the food of your region and use fresh quality products from nearby. It was radical thinking for 1983, when frozen and canned goods were the norm.

A true food revolution has happened since that time. Now we can’t remember what it was like before farmers' markets were ubiquitous and restaurants named their farmers on the menu.

Last September, 35 years later, we held The American Cuisine and Hospitality Symposium to celebrate Commander’s Palace's 125th anniversary and New Orleans' 300th.

A new gauntlet was thrown down: We think it is high time for the Hospitality Revolution.

What is the state of hospitality in America? We think it’s awful. It’s a dying art form. Diminished hospitality is part of the overall hardening of our society, and we object to it. Restaurants are one of the last civilized things left, and we could lead the way back.

My definition of hospitality: Everything that any person, business, or organization does to affect how our guests, clients, customers or users feel. Everything. We are all in the hospitality business.

The businesses, people and organizations that figure this out sooner, succeed faster and reach higher goals over time. Yet most of the world acts like this is a foreign concept, a mysterious novel idea.

I’ve thought a lot about why hospitality is so bad — especially when we all love being on the receiving end of genuine hospitality.

One reason is that, on some level, a lot of people feel it is demeaning to serve others. At Commander’s Palace we flip that thinking. We have a saying: "It’s an honor to serve. Tonight, I serve you, tomorrow night you serve me."

It is honorable and joyous work for us to endeavor for you to float into our restaurant in a hospitality bubble that we try not to pop. Striving for an absence of negatives through a fanatical commitment to the consistent execution of the fundamentals, we pamper you.

No waiter or maître d has yet become a household name like Emeril or Wolfgang. But remember, 35 years ago we didn’t know who the chefs were either.

So, isn’t it time for the Hospitality Revolution?

There are murmurs of change. There are people and organizations that stick their head up above the crowd. There's Will Guidara pushing hospitality so far, he created a conference called The Welcome Conference to scream it from the rooftops. There's Danny Meyer, who lives for hospitality and has been talking it all for so long he must be wondering when everyone is going to catch on. And there's Ashley Christensen who only lets her team use the word guest, never customer.

But these beacons are too few.

How do we make people feel that wonderful feeling you feel when we in this industry do what we do very very well — that occasion when it all clicks? 

At Commander’s Palace, we call it Fanatical Hospitality:

• The food is soulful and exciting.
• The warmth of the service team envelops you.
• Your chair is pulled, the team steps out of your way as you walk through the dining room.
• The reservationist is an actual human — Jimmy Boudreaux or Marie Devereaux make you feel like the king of the palace and that your request is the most important thing that happened to us all day

My brother, Alex Brennan-Martin, calls it restaurant magic.

The stories of how we affect people’s lives never end, and we never tire of hearing them. They are our fuel.

You have them, too. So what if we all shared the ways we create our hospitality cultures?

People ask me all the time how we get our people to care so much to be so nice. I jokingly tell them we hire nice people then we feed ’em well. It’s true we can’t teach nice or that sincere desire to please. But we can tell you about our intense pre-meal meeting that too many restaurants skip or do in a half-hearted way. We can share our WOW sheet. We can explain how the team knows the guests before they walk in.

I believe hospitality is the new frontier. Let’s go find, emulate, and elevate our hospitality heroes. Because when we get it all right and we go beyond, we change the world just a little bit.

So, what if we led a hospitality revolution that permeated our culture like food has in the last 35 years? Not so farfetched is it?

Together we have a voice. Let’s use it and let’s go mentor and motivate and ring bells and whistles about hospitality. Let’s go change our industry — and maybe even our country — like they did 35 years ago. And let’s hurry, I think the country needs us.

Ti Adelaide Brennan is co-proprietor of Commander’s Palace and SouBou in New Orleans, and Brennan’s of Houston. She is also the co-author of four books, the most recent of which is Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace, published in 2016. The above column comes from the American Cuisine and Hospitality Symposium.

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