They don’t think I’m a bitch in New York City.
My propensity for speaking directly and not wasting time with meaningless pleasantries about the weather doesn’t count against me there at all. It’s appreciated. New Yorkers, in my experience, tend to be efficient in their approach to most things. I love it there. It’s my spiritual home. There is a sense that no one has time to waste.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the service in New York restaurants. It is, in a word, professional. And while we have food in Northern California that rivals New York in terms of quality, the service in California restaurants is often less than stellar.
I don’t know if it’s the California easygoing ethic or if it is because wait staff here are usually really something else: writers, actors, musicians, college students. I get that. I waited tables. It’s hard physical labor. The hours are rough. It’s tough to imagine doing it as a career if you have easier choices.
It seems that there are some basics that should be taught servers and hosts. Obvious things (that are often overlooked) such as: don’t let patrons stand aimlessly inside the door wondering what to do. Greet them immediately, even if it’s to tell them you’ll be with them in a minute. Don’t let a party sit at a a table without food or drink for more than a couple of minutes (bring water immediately, take drink orders immediately). Keep surfaces clean and dry. Don’t remove plates without asking if patrons are done (and wait until the entire table is done). Be sure what gets brought to the table is what was ordered. Basically, treat them as if they are in your house visiting. See that they have what they need.
Beyond the basics, there is another element of great service: building rapport with the customer. There are many places that we love to frequent, not because the food is outstanding, but because the servers have built great rapport with us. They get tipped well and our return business. (“we” is me and the boyfriend, who we’ll call Frosty Man from now on because he likes to think ice water courses through his veins. In reality, he’s a very warm guy who is likely to hug you at some point in the evening if you’ve struck up a conversation with us. But I digress…)
Building rapport is an art in and of itself. It requires reading your customers, understanding their sense of humor (if they have one) and making them feel like they are special. If you remember the type of tequila I like in my margaritas, you’ve made me feel special. If you let your personality show in a genuine way and we connect on some level, that’s building rapport.
But here’s where restaurants (particularly the more “corporate” ones) get this wrong. I can not state this emphatically enough: RAPPORT CANNOT BE BUILT ON BULLSHIT.
Which brings me to Roy’s. Roy’s is a chain that does “Hawaiian Fusion.” I don’t usually eat at chains or at places that call their food “fusion.” But Roy’s knows what it’s doing, it sent me a gift card for $25.00. I’d eaten there a few years ago and had what I remembered as a decent (if not outstanding) meal. So we decided to give it a try. Because of the 25 bucks. Here’s how it went:
Hostess: Would you like a table?
Us: We’ll sit at the bar.
Go to bar. Watch server’s behind for several minutes because she is on a ladder, back to the bar, cleaning bottles.
Us to hostess: We’ll take a table. The name is Leigh.
Dude#1: Leigh party of two? Right this way. (leads us to table)
Dude#2: (Brings a bowl of edamame) Hi, Leigh party of two, what kind of water would you like?
US: The kind that is a couple of margaritas (we’d been there 10 minutes without getting to order a drink)
Waitress: Hi, Leigh party of two, I’m so and so and he (pointing to Dude #3) is so and so. (She went on but I was busy wondering why she was calling us that and introducing us to people)
Dude #4: Brings food to table and says, here you go, Leigh party of two.
Waitress (interrupting us): If you want to order dessert (we both shake our heads, but alas, she stays right on script), and you want one of our signature dishes, they can take twenty or thirty minutes to make so you should order now…we re-iterate that we do not want dessert.
Dude #5: tries to take our appetizer plate away with appetizers still on it…I am merely grateful that he did not call us “Leigh party of two”
Food is not good. Cooked carelessly and the fish isn’t fresh.
Dude #3 (interrupting us): Is everything ok here? (no sign of our waitress)
Dude #3: Brings us the check and says he hopes we’ve enjoyed ourselves.
“Leigh party of two” came away feeling a distinct lack of rapport with any of our servers. This is in spite of (because of?) what is clearly a fairly extensive training program for Roy’s servers. Turning your servers into false intimacy pedaling automatons does not make a pleasant experience for human diners.
In New York the servers take pride in doing their job well. Corporate restaurants should tear up their server’s scripts and, instead, encourage their personal growth, development and initiative. Then sit back and trust them to build rapport with the customer on their own terms.
We couldn’t wait to get back to Oakland and the real folk we like to patronize.