While in Chicago last weekend at the National Restaurant Association show, I quickly remembered why that city is one of my favorites: it is a service-minded town.
Granted, taxi drivers are not talkative like Chicago cabbies used to be, and I miss that. But at every other point of service contact made in my brief 24-hour stay, I was made to feel genuinely welcome.
I’ve said for years Chicago’s restaurants are every bit as good as New York’s when it comes to food. But when it comes to service, New York still hasn’t caught up, though it’s come a long way since I first started going there about a quarter century ago.
Even then, it may never embrace the warmth, charm and friendliness of Chicagoans.
Louisville’s restaurants are in a similar situation: They’ve made incredible strides to distinguish themselves on the culinary side of the business — their food is what’s put them in the national spotlight — but in many cases, service is lagging.
If you follow local restaurant blogs and forums, you’ll find I’m not the only one who thinks this is a problem.
There are several restaurants in the city where service is exceptional, as good as anywhere in the country. At these places, the manner in which guests are greeted, treated and led through their dining experience demonstrates real concern and a team focus by an entire staff.
Yet there too many places here where service is an afterthought, where training is minimal and personnel are often impersonal at best.
Think about it: How many times are you asked, “Do you like that restaurant?” and you have to answer, “Food’s great, but service sucks.”
That happens far too often for me.
A lot of blame for bad service is placed on younger generations’ bad manners and social detachment — which is the age-old complaint of every preceding generation … because it’s a fair one.
With each successive generation, manners have declined. My generation still holds doors open for women, but we don’t pull out their chairs like my dad’s did.
Mine was a “yes, ma’am, yes, sir” generation, but not so for my son’s generation. (He does say that to all my peers, but not as often to us … go figger!)
Ours is an increasingly casual society, but regardless of your age, manners are essential for table servers who aim to treat guests from the position of … wait for it … a servant.
Yes, that’s what the job requires: someone be a servant meeting the needs of guests.
A person charged with waiting on a guest to make a decision about his food and drink.
That kind of genuine humility is rare these days. (I also must confess, it wasn’t exactly easy for me in my day waiting tables either. It takes practice.)
Some restaurateurs I talk to express incredible frustration over finding the right people to serve. They say people lack a servant’s heart to care for people or a worker’s mettle to tolerate the labor.
Others say it’s not necessarily a matter of finding the right people, instead it is a matter of creating the right culture in the restaurant. When they treat their staff kindly and train them continuously, good service follows, they insist.
Yet somehow restaurateurs seem to be finding enough good cooks to do the job, people fit for the mechanical cut-cook-plate cycle of the kitchen.
Why is that?
Does it reflect better talent coming out of culinary schools or a glut of cooks with aspirations of becoming a star chef? Or is it just an abundance of people who like the camaraderie of that corps?
Could the good server shortage reflect the ever-expanding supply of restaurants exceeding the available resources to staff them? Is there such a thing as a finite amount of such personnel?
I don’t know for sure, but I doubt it. What’s apparent is the back of the house is working better than the front of the house in many Louisville restaurants because the food is much better than the service in most places.
It wasn’t always like that, even in the best restaurants.
I still maintain that Casa Grisanti’s service was far better than its food, and its food was none too shabby. Its service, however, was spectacular, remarkable.
Great service doesn’t require the formality of tuxedo-wearing waiter at Vincenzo’s, nor can it be equated to the often robotic chain format of greeting guests a certain way, taking their orders a certain way, and checking back on guests in a certain way.
Mostly what I expect is personality: someone who can engage me, look me in the eye, smile and be sincere about the task of ensuring I enjoy my meal.
I also expect this:
• Menu knowledge: If you come to my table and you don’t know that menu backward and forward, you are either lazy or poorly trained. Servers are salespersons who should know exactly what they have to sell — all of it.
• Same for bar selections: You don’t have to have drunk everything behind the bar and know every nuance of every bourbon, but I expect a server to know what my options are when I ask questions.
• It takes just five minutes to memorize that day’s specials, yet so few servers do it. Reading one’s notes off the back of the check book is a dead giveaway of an amateur at work. Most of the time they look like a gradeschooler struggling to get through a book report in front of the class. Professionals have the specials memorized and can answer questions.
• Approaching a table with food in hand but without knowing who gets what is grossly unprofessional. You took the order, you should know who gets what. Don’t make the guests do your job. Good training makes this easy to know, even when one has a table of 20.
Louisville has a fantastic opportunity to continue raising its restaurant community’s national profile–if service improves to the level of the food.
To achieve that, restaurateurs must devote the energy required to make that happen.
Until it does, Louisville will always be viewed as a second-tier restaurant market, albeit one with great chow.