Achieve fine-dining service standards at the level of casual dining by understanding your customers and exceeding their expectations.
By Pauli Antoine
I am often asked whether the level of service should change depending on the type of restaurant, like fine service for fine dining and casual service for casual restaurants. The answer is a firm but qualified “no.” The style can change depending on the establishment’s theme, but the level of service must remain refined and should exceed expectations by anticipating keenly what a customer needs and wants. Haute cuisine (literally “high cooking” in French) is a cookery style that originated in Napoleonic France, a refinement of traditional techniques and a radical reorganization of the way kitchens were run. So, why not practice haute etiquette to revolutionize the service industry?
The Golden Rule: Treat people the way you want to be treated
The Golden Rule is a good rule-of-thumb but works only when you want to treat others the same way you want to be treated. Surely every diner wants to be seated at the best table. So if you are committed to creating an exceptional experience, then each customer’s wants, needs, and desires have to be acknowledged, celebrated, and acted upon. This now brings us to the next rule.
The Platinum Rule: Treat customers the way they would like to be treated
If the Golden Rule is about what you want, the Platinum Rule is about what your customers want. Although itsounds like common sense, it’s not as common as most would think. There must be a deliberate effort to understand your customers. Anticipation is a crucial concept in delivering excellent dining service. It is important to read customers individually and the table as a whole—way ahead of time. Until the late 1980’s, diners were greeted by a professional of the highest order—the maitre d’. He ruled the dining room of every fine-dining restaurant. Customers followed him wherever he worked. The loyalty was to the maitre d’ and not the restaurant. Over dinner at the fine dining landmark, Prince Albert Rotisserie in InterContinental Manila, I watched a couple locked in each other’s arms walk in. The maitre d’ instinctively offered a table in a quiet corner. Next to arrive was a group of serious-looking men in business attire. The server took their orders quickly, cued by the maitre d’ to render efficient, unobtrusive service without ignoring the table. No fuss, no frills. What happens if a party of eight arrives to celebrate and have cocktails? They should be seated near the bar where patrons probably won’t mind the extra chatter and beverages can be served more efficiently.
Over the years, the position of maitre d’ has been eliminated for reasons that revolve around cutting costs with restaurants, citing a more “casual dining” appeal as an excuse. The dining scene now presents someone with very little understanding of customer service, holding on to the reins of greeting diners and shaping first impressions.
There are still some restaurants in town that take the job of first impressions seriously. They know the value of maintaining a seasoned host, not just to put a personal and professional glow to the initial interaction, but to gauge the temperament of the customer, seat them accordingly, and pass on relevant information to the staff.
Even though dining is becoming more casual and less formal, the maitre d’ is one formality that is due for a comeback—and this time, with a more definitive purpose.
The Titanium Rule: Treat others in a way that they did not even know was possible
Don’t just meet your customer’s expectations, exceed them. I’ll explain this rule by giving you the inspiration behind it. On one of my favorite trips with my family, I indulged in the revelry of sand, sun, and surf at Royal Bali. The server who presented me with a Lime-Twist Daiquiri stood beside me staring at the sparkling sun. He then made a swift, fluid motion and angled the pristine, white canopy just before the sun hit my eyes, then excused himself with a bow and a warm smile.
These feats of exceeding expectations need not be superfluous but rather spontaneous with a keen sense of feeling and understanding the customer. It is the sixth sense of customer service and the mark of haute etiquette. Whether casual or formal, the mark to achieve should be nothing less than excellence in haute etiquette by keeping the Titanium Rule in mind. If gold costs $24 a gram, titanium costs only $5 a gram. But once excellently crafted into fine jewelry, titanium commands a handsome price for its beauty and quality workmanship.
The 10 Elements of Haute Etiquette
1 Confident Image. When you look good, you feel good. When you feel good, you perform better. Appearance is part of the product that you and the restaurant will be judged by.
2 Fresh as Lime. This sends a strong message to guests. It makes them comfortable and confident that they are in a healthy, professional, and caring establishment.
3 Timely and Appropriate Greeting. It is everyone’s responsibility to
greet guests. But do not use the loud, chorus-style of welcoming guests. Never throw a greeting across the room. When the host is away from the door, greet new guests with a pleasant expression. Let them know that someone will be right with them. “Good evening. Our host, Nadine will be with you in a short while.”
4 Proper Introductions at the Table. Introductions should be done within two minutes and should be polite, refined, energetic, calm, and professional.
5 Product Knowledge and Salesmanship. Servers must know and understand everything that the establishment offers. Product awareness increases confidence. When guests have confidence in you, they will more likely listen to your recommendations and their level of satisfaction increases.
6 Efficient Service. Establish a standard waiting time for courses:
• 3 minutes for beverages
• 10 minutes for appetizers
• 20 minutes for entrées
• 5 minutes for after dinner-drinks and desserts
7 Diners’ Happiness. Check back within three minutes of serving. Be polite, positive, and specific. It is not necessary to ask every one. Be alert for non-verbal cues that all is not well. If there is a problem, take care of it. Alert a manager.
Every guest must leave extremely happy. Okay is not what we’re striving for. It should be nothing less than excellent!
8 Table Service Etiquette. To increase guest comfort, do a smooth transition from one course to the next. Maintain tables in a fluid fashion by observing proper timing and etiquette:
• Set the bread basket or food nearest the diner.
• Before delivering a course, check for silverware resets. Pull and replace. Never make a guest reuse a dirty utensil.
• Remove dirty plates before delivering the next course to avoid table gridlock.
• Never approach a table without something the guests need and never leave without something they don’t.
• When the check is presented, the table should already be bussed down to coffee cups, water glasses, and dessert plates.
• Cap ashtrays and keep them clean. Two butts max!
9 Mindful Floor Presence. Be available. The difference between good and excellent service is the ability to anticipate, rather than react to a need. Notice not what they need, but what they are about to need.
10 A Reason to Return Means Going Above and Beyond. Look out for the little things that you can do. Be thoughtful and creative in executing that extraordinary gesture that will make you and your restaurant stand out like a titanium masterpiece of haute etiquette.
This article was published in the March 2011 issue of F&B World Magazine, Front of House.
Styling and Visual Poise Direction by Pauli Antoine. Photos by Christian Regis/Shot on location at Italianni’s Greenbelt 3, Makati City and RED, Makati Shangri-La Manila.