Restaurants have long been held to the standards of their food. And naturally so because people do go to restaurants to eat.
When writing about restaurants, stories also always seem to be skewed towards what goes on the plate or the genius who spent time tinkering in the kitchen. But more and more restaurants these days are going beyond what’s on the plate. A greater deal of attention is now also being paid towards an aspect of dining that, at least until recently, seemed only secondary to the menu—the guest experience.
The mark of an excellent restaurant, according to experience management consultant Isabel Lozano, lies not in following dining and hospitality standards to the letter. For her, that only constitutes great service. Excellence, she says, is in the uniqueness of the experience the guests take away.
To create a unique guest experience, the training and preparation that goes into the establishment of the restaurant also needs to be unique. Lozano, the mind behind The Experience Collective (now called Decorum by MIL), is a staunch believer. With a growing roster of clients, including Kyo-to, The Wholesome Table, Belle & Dragon, and Antonio’s, Lozano tailors the training she gives for each establishment according to its specific needs as well as the staff she’s working with.
“A lot of what I do is really based on what I’m feeling, what I’m getting off [the staff],” Isabel Lozano says. “I don’t have any cookie cutter book or manual like other trainers. I do many things on the spot because every person is different.”
“A lot of what I do is really based on what I’m feeling, what I’m getting off [the staff],” she says. “I don’t have any cookie cutter book or manual like other trainers. I do many things on the spot because every person is different.”
This skill of adapting to the people and the environment is also what she tries to impart to the staff she trains. “There’s a benefit to being sensitive to the needs of people,” Lozano says. “And that goes as well to the guests.”
Understanding and adapting to the guest’s dining experience is also a skill held in high regard at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse by Wolfgang Zwiener. Travis Halverson, Wolfgang’s general manager, shares that aside from an extensive product knowledge, the ability to anticipate their guests’ needs is also an important aspect of their service. “Whether it’s in New York, Los Angeles, [or Manila], because [Wolfgang’s] is a New York steakhouse, we have to give that feel as much as possible,” he says.
On the move
Having practiced dance herself, Lozano includes the art in her staff training exercises. “I know what it does for me. I know how it affects me, and so I want them to feel the same way,” she says. The dances she teaches vary depending on the type of restaurant she works with. For fine dining restaurants, such as with Antonio’s, for example, she uses classical dances to instill poise and grace in the staff.
“A lot of them don’t understand why I make them do [these dances],” Lozano admits. “I make them do it for a long time. [But eventually], when they start carrying things, [you’ll see] the grace is there.”
As the dining space gets chaotic, it’s also important for Lozano that the staff she trains learns how to navigate the floor. The intricacies of footwork help in this aspect. Knowing when and where to step aside, when to stop and let the other pass through—these seemingly simple and small actions, Lozano believes, also make a difference in the guest’s dining experience.
On the fly
Lecture-type training doesn’t quite cut it for these restaurants. To truly grasp how to interact with guests, both Lozano and Halverson believe in learning from experience. As such, simulation and role play are important. “Everyone’s going to have a different way of handling a situation, but the important part is you get to observe other people in that situation,” Halverson says of the practice. “[Each one would] have their own piece to take away from [the experience] and we can discuss it. Learning in a group atmosphere is another key to really have everything sink in [as well].”
In a way, Halverson says, the practice is a lot like acting in theater. But not the dramatic kind—restaurant service would be more like improv theater. That’s why Wolfgang’s sought the help of Gabe Mercado and his group Silly People Improv Theater, more famously known as SPIT.
Knowing when and where to step aside, when to stop and let the other pass through—these seemingly simple and small actions also make a difference in the guest’s dining experience.
“In terms of why—[improv] is a comedy, not a restaurant— improv is all about thinking on the fly. Having a statement and then acting on it,” Halverson says. “So as a server, if you’re interacting with the guest, you’re on a stage, you’re [having] a performance. Anything can happen in the restaurant. You have to be ready for it, so that improv training or mindset really helps you.”
In the same way that theater requires quick and apt reactions to fellow actors, restaurant service also demands a unique response from server to guest. “We don’t want to see robotic servers,” Halverson explains. “We don’t want to see [them just] going through the motions. For each experience, there should be, for the guest, a different takeaway every time.”
Observing, understanding, and taking into consideration the occasion the guest is celebrating at the restaurant—may it be a birthday or a business meeting—and tailoring the guest’s experience accordingly all use the skills gleaned from improv theater.
A worthwhile investment
There’s still a long way to go before the local restaurant scene can fully claim the title of offering the best hospitality. Until restaurants decide to invest in their people as they do in aesthetics and taste, excellent service may remain a lofty goal. It’s a shift that should start from the top, Lozano says.
“People can yell at the servers and all of that, but if you think about it, it’s not their fault they’re not being trained,” she says. “Maybe they’re being neglected or they’re not being paid well. [But if owners can change their mindset,] and they can support and care more about their staff, [the guests are going to be happy].
“If the staff’s not happy, believe me, the guests are not going to be happy. It’s not rocket science,” Lozano says. True enough; food, ambiance, and design may get people into your restaurant, but ultimately, it’s the service that will make people stay—and come back.
Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 15 No. 2