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?