The downfall of service

Over the past year, I have taken different groups of students to various restaurants around the city of Chicago. My goal is to visit places where we experience quality food and my students see how outstanding service can add a whole other level to the dining experience. In general, we have had good experiences… until recently, that is. These latest experiences, from bad to terrible, have left me asking the question “Has guest service in the restaurant business gone away?”

About six weeks ago, I planned to take my class to a small restaurant in town that specializes in small plates. It has a casual atmosphere and casual service. While the service at the restaurant is generally adequate, the service I received from the GM on the phone prior to our visit can be summed up in one word: pathetic.

The first thing to know about this particular establishment is that they do not accept reservations; the hostess who answered the phone made this abundantly clear. Second, while I do admit to calling last minute (about 2 hours before we were to arrive), I could not believe what happened next. The GM got on the phone and told me that they could not “accommodate any reservations!” I responded that I was not making a reservation but giving them a courtesy “heads-up” that I was bringing a small group (12 people) of culinary students in that evening. After 15 years in the restaurant business, I have always found it a help to know when a group that size is coming to dine with you. Next he said that it was “not cool to do this to them…you will take up half of my dining room!” Knowing the restaurant seats 80, I told him that I was not planning to bring 40 people, just 12. The conversation ended with the GM telling me that we could come but we had “better be there before 6 pm” and that “we may not be able to take care of you!”

The next experience that makes me wonder what has happened to guest service was just last night. I took my students to a relatively new, upscale wine bar that focuses on good value wine ($40 – $80) that can be paired with their above average selection of cheese and cured meats. I had been to this place many times myself, and while the service hasn’t been spectacular, it was congenial and helpful. The service last night was, well, non-existent. The owner was taking care of our group so one would think that service would be perfect. He approached the table, gave a short spiel, brought us two already opened bottles, set them on the table, and never came back.

We were supposed to have cheese and meat plates. There was supposed to be conversation about the wine. We received absolutely nothing… I really do mean nothing. It was the least amount of contact I have ever experienced between customer and server.

While these two experiences are extreme, I do find that most restaurants have forgotten that guest service is as important, if not more important, than the food one serves. It is astounding that we, as industry professionals, will stand by watching guests leave our establishments less than 100% satisfied.

Ending on a negative note here would not be right. There are establishments in Chicago, as well as all cities across the country, that still feel that guest service is as important to a restaurant’s success as is its food. One such restaurant, and here I will name names, is Boka. On the night the GM essentially told me that he did not want my business, Ian, the GM of Boka, was more than happy to help me and my class find an outstanding experience.

I called Boka after my conversation with the aforementioned GM of the small plate restaurant. I told the hostess who answered the phone our situation and she placed Ian on the phone with me at once. After explaining our group size and that we would like to dine within the next 30 to 40 minutes, Ian told me that they would be more than happy to accommodate us. This happened to be on a Monday night when they had only two servers on, yet they opened a new section just to seat us. The service was seamless from the phone call until the end of our meal.

At the end of our meal, I told Ian about my phone conversation with the other restaurant and thanked him for being so accommodating. His response? “It was nothing at all. This is what we are here for.” If only we would all remember that small but powerful sentiment.


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