Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse says restaurant service standards have fallen due to a focus on food.
Call it the law of unintended consequences, Bret, but it appears that there’s a real downside to the culinary revolution that’s swept menus over the past decade or so. The good news is that operations in the back of the house have improved dramatically across the board, but the bad news is that service levels in the front of the house have failed to keep pace.
The gap between the two appears to be widening, especially on the chain side of the business, where innovations and improvements in the kitchen are all too easily subverted by subpar servers in the dining room. Back in the old days, before consumers became foodies and chefs became stars, food and service in the mass market may have been equally uninspired and institutional, but it seems to me that the relentless focus on food quality has ultimately served to highlight service shortcomings.
This conundrum has been top of mind since I read an article in the Wall Street Journal a few months back about how more culinary school grads are gravitating toward waiting tables as their entry into the restaurant business. They can earn upwards of $80,000 a year working in upscale restaurants, while their counterparts and former classmates working as line cooks are lucky to make half that sum, despite laboring longer hours in tough commercial kitchens.
Schools like the Culinary Institute of America have been busily adding service training courses to accommodate the growing number of interested students. The article reported that 20 percent of CIA graduates now take a front-of-house position versus only 5 percent in years past, a surprising and substantial jump that speaks to a welcome shift in attitude.
This new breed of waitstaff sees themselves as true professionals, an advance underscored by the creation of the NYC Dining Room Collaborative, a networking group based in New York City that aims to elevate the craft of service, an initiative to reinforce basic elements of hospitality that’s long overdue. It’s telling that its founding members represent white-tablecloth stalwarts like Per Se and Le Bernardin, restaurants at the apex of fine dining. It’s equally telling, if not unexpected, that there are no chain organizations on the roster — not even higher end operations.
Creativity on the culinary side continues to cook along, as evidenced, Bret, by your Menu Tracker feature, in which you regularly chronicle all the cool new dishes coming out of the kitchen. The quantity and quality of these items is dazzling. But where’s the flow of nifty news about the dining room? Chains regularly announce menu updates, overhauls and repositionings aimed at keeping their concepts competitive, but rarely if ever talk about service updates, overhauls and repositionings to support these efforts. Though lip service is paid to the subject, very few chains that I’m aware of have actually made a corporate commitment to service excellence. Chick-fil-A is the only one that readily comes to mind.
Perhaps indifferent or inconsistent service is the inevitable result of a staff that relies on the minimum wage and the vagaries of tipping. If that’s the case, what will it take to raise the level of professionalism in chain dining rooms? And do you think we will ever reach the point where servers have the same sex appeal as chefs?
Surprised by high quality of service
The following is NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s response to Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s take on the state of service at restaurants.
Nancy, I’m actually surprised at the high quality of service I often get at restaurants. It’s true that I live in New York City, which has an unusually deep bench of seasoned front-of-the-house professionals. But I’m also often delighted by the warm greetings and competent service I get at restaurants when I travel. I’m reminded of the astute server at Euclid Hall in Denver who recommended a food-and-beer pairing to me after noticing that I liked trying different kind of beers.
Chain restaurants, with their standardization and training regimens, often have courteous and efficient service, too. Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema even made that observation last year in a story on what indies can learn from chains, noting how a friendly greeting, a free taste of wine and warm bread started his visit to Olive Garden on the right track.
Still, there is a general consensus among industry watchers and critics that food in the United States is improving while service is not. And in Zagat’s 2014 America’s Top Restaurant guide, the average food score at those restaurants is about 2 points higher than the average service score.
The stagnation of service quality confuses me because the way service compensation is structured seems to fit into the American psyche. That structure — that servers get most of their income from voluntary tips — has come under criticism recently, but when I waited tables, I loved it. As a general rule, if you provide good service, your customers will give you money for it. That’s an easy lesson to learn.
But it’s not such an easy thing to carry out. Just like cooking in a professional kitchen is grueling work, hard on the feet and back, so is waiting tables. And unlike professional cooking, which these days has social cachet and can be done with a gruff demeanor and the vocabulary of a sailor in a brothel — unless you’re in an open kitchen — waiting tables requires composure and grace in the face of increasingly demanding clientele. Servers have to navigate their own mood swings — and those of their customers. That requires a simultaneous personal engagement and detachment that is difficult to master. You have to be attentive to your customers’ dining and emotional needs, but you can’t take any hostility on their part personally.
Can servers have the same sex appeal as chefs? Sure. Remember, before chefs became celebrities it was front-of-the-house staff — owners, maître d’s, captains — who were the stars of the show at restaurants. We still have a bit of that in New York, where restaurateurs such as Drew Nieporent and Danny Meyer enjoy a degree of fame.
I recently brought up the service conundrum with Meyer, whose restaurants, including Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, are known for their excellent service.
Meyer said he didn’t expect to see formal education in service any time soon for the simple reason that you can make good money waiting tables without the time and expense of going to school for it. That means training is the responsibility of the owners, he said, and if you don’t like the service at a restaurant, you have the owner to blame.
The good news, he said, is that he has hired many servers who started their jobs for the money and ended up falling in love with hospitality.
That brings me back to the sex appeal question. We actually have a new set of sexy servers in the form of bartenders. That’s what the 1988 Tom Cruise film “Cocktail” was all about, and it’s even truer today, as mixology has come to be regarded as an art form, just as cooking has. On a more visceral level, sex appeal is a big part of what sells at Hooters and a crop of newer “breastaurants” such as Twin Peaks and Tilted Kilt that compete with it.
But to build on Meyers’ point, servers who fall in love with hospitality tend to be charming, confident people who make their customers feel comfortable. They have plenty of opportunity to romance and delight, and maybe operators need to convey that message to get the service they want and that their customers deserve.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.