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 nancykruse@aol.com.

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary