Monday, October 7, 2013

Hostess with the mostest? Hardly.

Most restaurants hire someone to stand at a podium just inside the main entrance. This person is almost always a female hostess, not a male host. She is usually very young - between 16 and early 20s - and almost without exception, she's at least pretty, if not stunning. Her duties are to greet and seat diners as they arrive and sometimes answer the phone.

This, in and of itself, isn't a bad plan on the surface. The devil is in the details.

A lot, if not most, hostesses don't understand their job. The hostess is the first impression guests get in person at a restaurant. When a guest walks in, as a friend of mine put it, they want to feel like you've been waiting all day just for them to arrive and are so glad to see you. They want an experience. The hostess should set the stage for this experience and make guests feel welcome and valued.

Instead, many hostesses see themselves as Gatekeepers of the Holy Elusive Table. I can't tell you how many times I've approached the podium and been greeted with an icy, fake-smile stare (or outright surly glare) and a curt, "Reservation?" If the answer is no, we have no reservation, we're lowly walk-ins, then one of two things happen:

1. She dutifully scans her All Powerful List and gives us a time estimate: "It'll be about 35 minutes. Inside, outside or first available?"
2. She resigns herself to the menial chore of walking us to an available table, albeit an inferior choice, almost always far from a window and close to something offensive, such as a restroom or a party of 11 with a jumble of high chairs, booster seats and renegade Cheerios.

Even if we do have a reservation, many times, we've been told, "Sorry, I don't see that reservation." What's going through our minds at word of this mishap? Shock that we are not on the list. Fear we will not get a table and our night will be ruined. Indignation that something went awry to cause this dreaded dining nightmare. And then we insist that they re-check, find a manager, scoot two tables up somewhere, anywhere - just do anything to make sure we get in that night!

Once or twice, admittedly, I've made the reservation for the wrong date. But 99 percent of the time, it's the restaurant's fault. Half the time, the person who took the reservation on the phone misspelled the name, and the other half of the time, the hostess simply didn't listen closely as we spelled our name letter-by-letter and looked under the letter C instead of K. Sometimes, the hostess was looking right at our name on the screen, but simply couldn't read well enough to acknowledge it.

As this semi-literate ballet plays out, we get angry and frustrated, and we're mentally ticking points off of our much-anticipated dining experience. We always start with a 10, the top score, and it declines throughout the night as servers fail to fill water glasses, or ring food but no flatware, or bring food but no flatware, or we see a hair in the soup, and so on. If you're a restaurant owner, do you really want your guests to be at about a 5 before even reaching their seats?

Oh, and about those seats - I once had a hostess who ran so fast through the dining room that we literally lost sight of her and had to retrace our steps back to the podium and wait for her to return.

A lot of owners now are smiling and smugly saying to themselves, "Ah, but that's not MY hostess. She's friendly and nice and helpful." This could be true. Many hostesses have a 1,000-watt smile, and they pull your chair out for you and delicately hand you your napkin before issuing a heartfelt, "Enjoy your meal!"

Even those hostesses, however, are often not trained to handle basic questions. As long as they stick to their script, they're on their game. But let's say a diner calls or walks in and asks, "Can your chef prepare vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free meals?" Or, "What's your corkage fee?" Often, a hostess gets flustered and either cops an attitude or makes something up because she doesn't want to admit she doesn't know the answer.

On many occasions, I've called a restaurant and asked which corner they're on (northeast or northwest? southeast or southwest?) so I know which way I'll have to turn, and the hostess doesn't know her directions. I get this a lot: "It's on the left side." (Silent scream.)

Instead of adding value to your business, improving the dining experience and making guests feel special, the hostess is often a liability.

Have you had Hostess from Hell experiences? Please share them. Do you know a Hostess with the Mostest? Give her kudos here. Besides having better training programs for hostesses, what should restaurants do to improve hostess-guest interactions?

Restaurant owners: Food is only part of the reason people eat out. They go for a dining experience.

Monday, August 20, 2012

I'm not really a waitress

 "I'm not really a waitress" is a color of nail polish by O.P.I., and it's also a telling commentary on how many people view service industry workers.
 You wouldn't hear someone saying, "I'm not really a nurse," "I'm not really a police officer" or "I'm not really a stockbroker" and then explaining how they're "really" an aspiring actress, author or celebrity chef.
 It's sad and silly for anyone to look down upon other people because of what they do for a living, but it seems it's in our DNA -- and by "our," I mean educated urbanites. The first thing most people ask upon meeting someone is, "What do you do?" If the answer is something along the lines of barista, server or bartender, there's often an awkward pause while the questioner tries to either A) sound enthusiastic ("Oh, that's so cool!"), or B) change the subject ever so slightly ("I just love Chez Snootworthy; have you eaten there?").
 I worked in restaurants and bars throughout high school, college and graduate school, and was made to feel like a second-class citizen the entire time by customers and, occasionally, contemporaries. I'll never forget the time I was waiting tables at a popular downtown Detroit pizza place while working toward my master's degree, and one of my fellow undergraduates who had already landed a full-time job came in and sat in my section. He acted superior and condescending, and I was devastated for weeks. I should have brushed it off, but it's phenomenal what something like that does to your self-esteem.
 Flash forward to 2007. I'd recently quit my reporting job at the Arizona Republic to freelance full-time, and my husband and I were considering buying into a partnership with the owners of a local wine bar in Phoenix. I worked on site for a while to make sure it was what I really wanted. I lasted a mere few months and changed my mind. I'd forgotten how difficult it was physically and psychologically, and I soon recalled why I'd wanted a job that required a lot of sitting in chairs all day.
 During that time, a gentleman with whom I'd worked at the newspaper came in with his wife for a nightcap. He was obviously shocked to see me behind the bar. His face transformed from a happy smile of recognition to concern and worry. He asked what I was doing there. I tried to explain, "I'm not really a bartender," but I could tell he'd already made up his mind that I had sadly and pathetically been lowered, in his eyes, to working as a minion slinging drinks.
 I was outraged! Offended! Aghast! And then I remembered: This is how service professionals are treated every single day. They're there for us, smiling as they serve us lunch, pour happy hour drinks or remove dirty plates after a gluttonous dinner. What do they get in return? Crappy hours, sore feet, bad backs, an aching armload of other people's garbage and a boatload of bad attitude.
 Next time you judge people by what they do, especially when your good times depend on their labor, think twice about who deserves the label of "loser."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Good help is hard to find?

 A friend and I were discussing the sad state of service at restaurants in the Phoenix metro area.
 His contention was, it’s hard to find good help. I’ve heard this time and again from restaurant owners as well. You’ve never owned a restaurant, they say, so don’t judge us.
 But it’s my job to judge. And judge I will, and you should, too.
 Not every meal I eat out is on an expense account, and most people rarely get a freebie. So we should get frustrated and angry when we spend our own money on a dining experience and get crappy service. Yes, it’s a “dining experience.” If I want pure sustenance, I’ll order a pizza or open a can of tuna. When we eat out, we pay a premium for the holy trinity: food, ambience, service.
 Because I go out more than the average bear, I know excellent service exists. It’s not as prevalent in Phoenix as it is, say, in San Francisco, but it’s out there. As with most professions, it’s all about training and clear expectations. Most high-quality establishments test servers regularly on the menu and on protocol.
 I’m not a total hard-ass on this. I set a pretty low bar.
 I want clean menus (mmm, are these appetizers or does someone need to wipe this off?), flatware (I see the linguini special is popular tonight), glasses (nice shade of lipstick; too bad it’s not mine), dishes (this is a cool pattern, but I’d rather have the plain china), napkins (is this fabric supposed to have a yellow spot in the center?), tables (does my dinner come with a bread basket, or just the crumbs?) and chairs (nothing like having someone’s spillage stuck to your butt all night).
 I also want water glasses refilled, food delivered at the right temperature and at well-paced intervals, and dirty plates removed in a timely manner. A basic grasp of the menu and wine list is a plus. To talk to restaurant owners, you’d think training a decent server is akin to giving a degree in rocket science with a minor in bioengineering.
 Granted, there are rogue employees. Woe to the well-meaning owner who reads about misdeeds at his or her establishment on Yelp. My heart goes out to them. And it’s tough to demand excellence from college students who are in a job biding their time until they graduate with that lucrative degree in sports exercise … or journalism.
 However, it can be management’s fault for overloading sections or demanding too much – e.g., servers should not be in the kitchen making salads or plating desserts. Management can dock pay for petty reasons or demand “tip sharing” among the entire staff, which in some circles is known as “communism.”
 It is hard to find good help. It’s even harder when you set expectations low, don’t provide training, ask way too much and don’t reward people properly for a job well done.

Some Phoenix Places Where I’ve Eaten Multiple Times and Always Gotten Good Service (a random and partial list – what are yours?)

Amuse Bouche
Copper Blues
The Deli
Herb Box
La Petite France
Latitude 8 Thai Grill
Nello’s Pizza (Ahwatukee Foothills)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Life in the not-so-fast lane

 Adam and Christine Koeppel have been traveling full-time in a 36-foot RV for 12 years. The enthusiastic signature line on their emails is, “HOME IS WHERE EVER WE ARE PARKED!”
 They’ve been to every state in the contiguous 48 in their motor home and have seen most of the major sights our great country has to offer. They’re driving to Alaska next summer so they can say they’ve been to all 50 states.
 Granted, the Koeppels have an adventurous streak. They were both born in small towns in Bavaria and immigrated to the United States. Chris came with her parents in 1957, when she was in the second grade. Adam, after meeting Chris in 1970 when she was on vacation in Germany, came over to join (and marry) her. He was 29 and didn’t know a word of English, but took night classes once he arrived.
 After raising four sons in the Chicago area, they sold their home and hit the road in 1999. I married their eldest son, Eric, in 2000 and figured they’d grow weary of the vagabond life after a few years. I assumed they’d settle down near one of their sets of grandchildren. I was so wrong.
 The Koeppels have a seemingly insatiable curiosity about life and the people who inhabit it. They define “gusto.” They thrive on learning about the customs and traditions of the many corners of our diverse nation. They find something fascinating and beautiful about everyplace they’ve been. Their minds are open to just about everything, but the one thing they can’t understand is why anyone would want to stay put in one city forever.
 Moreover, Adam and Chris are intensely sociable people who have made friends in pretty much every town where their wheels have stopped for even a few days. They meet up with other peripatetic friends throughout the year at RV rallies.
 “When we started traveling we never imagined we'd meet so many people that we'd be keeping in touch with,” Chris wrote to me. And she’s a pro, embracing email, Facebook and online photo sharing sites in order to stay connected. If there’s a technology that will help them maintain the mobile lifestyle, she will master it.
 It struck me the other day how the Koeppels are so different from many retirees I’ve met. A lot of them here in Arizona are “snowbirds” who leave the frozen tundra of their hometowns in Minnesota or Iowa or wherever to hole up in a sunny climate during the winter. Oh, they stay what they consider active: They busy themselves with shuffleboard tournaments, sewing clubs, square dances and, of course, golf. Lots of golf. They ramble incessantly about what they used to do and who they used to be. It’s all about the past.
 Not the Koeppels. It seems to me two people could not be more alive or more vibrant. They look to the future. They can’t wait to go back to states where they missed something the first time around. They eagerly, excitedly plan their next trip. Though they’ve seen and done a lot more than most, they’re not condescending know-it-alls, like lot of older people I’ve met. They’re smart enough to know we’re all students, no matter how long we’ve lived. And lucky for them, they have a school bus that knows no districts or boundaries.
 When I asked what they’d learned so far in their travels, Chris’s thoughtful response ended with these wise words, too perfect for me to paraphrase:
 “We have learned to take life at a slower pace & enjoy it to the fullest, appreciate what you have & know who you are.... See the beauty around you; it is everywhere. We have learned to take things one day at a time & enjoy life to its fullest.  See & do what you want when you want. You never know when you won't be able to anymore.  We have had friends say they would like to go here & there do this or that; we just say then go do it – what’s stopping you? If you're able to go or do that now, then do so; enjoy it.  We don't go to bed being angry. We get up & try to feel good about the day, enjoy life & make the best of each day while you can.”

Monday, November 7, 2011

Speaking of loving my work...

 LinkedIn recently posted a survey asking what is the biggest employee incentive. The tally after 20 votes was: Money, 35 percent; time off, 30 percent; travel to cool places on the company’s dime, 20 percent; other, 15 percent.
 I don’t know what the final verdict will be, but I’m not surprised to see time off score so highly so far. As much as I love my job, that was one of my main reasons for going freelance. It reminded me of a funny incident when I was employed.
 When I worked at the East Valley Tribune, one of the ways the company sought to reduce expenses – in addition to cutting our pay outright – was to offer voluntary furloughs. I raised my hand fast and high, hoping I could squeeze in a week off to spend time with my parents. They lived in Michigan, and we didn’t see each other often after I moved to Arizona.
 My editor approved, and my parents planned the trip and bought plane tickets. But after all that, the “big boss” said no way. There was no particular reason for his decision that I know of. The corporate honchos had mandated this, and he was countering their directive. I could have taken it up the chain of command and caused a ruckus, but instead, my benevolent editor – bless her heart – told me to work ahead, file lots of stories, and put in occasional appearances at the office, and she would tell the boss I was out on assignment if he asked.
 I got to spend quality time with my parents, and would see them just a handful of times after that. Dad passed away in 2007; mom followed him in 2009.
 Now, I’m generally honest to a fault, but I’m glad we lied. I’m forever grateful to my editor for pulling a fast one. I truly enjoyed my job at the Tribune, but I’m adamant that companies need to give people more time off to spend with their loved ones or for things they love doing, besides work.

What I do is who I am

 I was out with friends the other night, and one of us said she dislikes it when she meets someone and one of the first things he asks is, “What do you do?”
 “My job doesn’t define who I am,” she said, adding that she’d rather talk about what she likes to do and is passionate about.
 We all nodded in agreement, but I wondered if any of the others thought what I was thinking: I sympathized, but in fact, my job does define who I am.
 I’m a writer.
 I’ve been writing since I was a young girl. My two sisters had moved out of the house by the time I was a third grader, so I had a mostly solo upbringing. I sat in my room and wrote stories, poems, songs and puzzles. In fifth grade, having memorized by now all of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales from an old book that had been my mom’s as a child, I began writing spoofs of the stories. I even adapted one into a play that was performed in front of the entire school and hundreds of parents.
 In my corner of the world, though, everyone knew you couldn’t make a living as a writer. My parents urged me to pursue a practical career. I briefly considered being a pharmacist, until I failed chemistry. One day, a high school friend mentioned he wanted to be a journalist. Light bulb! I could write AND get paid for it!
 Somewhat coincidentally, as I recall, two other creative friends and I decided to start an “underground newspaper” called The Scum in high school to rant about the general unfairness of high school life and being penned in by an authoritarian bureaucracy. (High school was not the pinnacle of my existence, as it was for some.) My friends Mike and Jason and I collaborated on articles. Sometimes I’d slip in a record or concert review. It was smart, sassy and rebellious.
 Mike had a primitive PC, so he’d type it up, add some clip art and illustrations that he and Jason created, and print it out. My dad made 300 copies on the Xerox machine at work, and I’d staple them together and pass them out in the halls at school.
 Soon, we were blindsided by the interest from professional media. Journalists from nearly every newspaper and TV station for miles asked to interview us. Most of them got facts wrong; one reporter from one of the big-city Detroit papers who should have known better admitted he had a strong bias against me going into the interview because of how I dressed. He added that he was surprised how smart and well-spoken I was. I was aghast, and decided I would go into journalism and not be “that guy.” I had found my calling.
 I started writing for our small community paper, covering events happening at my high school. I was earning bylines, back when that meant something, at age 16. By age 18, I was working – 20 hours a week during the school year, 40 hours a week in the summer – at a legal newspaper, mostly re-writing press releases and typing up lists of court cases files that week, but occasionally interviewing a judge or covering small stories pertinent to the legal community. In college, I interned at Detroit Monthly magazine and was managing editor of the student newspaper for a few semesters. I was going places.
 My bubble burst when Gannett bought the Detroit News just before I graduated and decided to break the union. A long strike ensued, and numerous veteran journalists were out of work. I could have crossed picket lines, like some of my contemporaries, and gotten a job right out of school at a big-city daily paper. I did not. Instead, I tried to compete for jobs at community weeklies against award-winning writers with 20, 30 years of experience. Ask me how that worked out.
 Fast forward to today. Now I have 20 years of experience in the writing and editing industry, but jobs are even more rare. I hunt, peck and beg for piecemeal freelance work. Some places still pay a reasonable amount, but the market is tightening and fees are plummeting. One web site recently offered me four cents a word and insisted it was the “going rate.”
 If that’s the case, all of my expertise and hard work is worthless in today’s marketplace. The Internet is a beautiful thing in many ways, but in others, it’s cheapened my craft considerably. Plagiarism is widespread. Language errors are the norm, not the exception. Opinions are passed off as fact. Facts are irrelevant in the face of sensationalism.
 Few things infuriate me more when I hear people say, “I don’t read the paper anymore. I get all my news online.” As if an Almighty Powerful Computer Program spontaneously generates news stories for everyone’s consumption. When I point out that actual reporters must actually report those stories that magically appear on the screen, the person gets a confused look and has to think hard before understanding how it works. Many times, I don’t think it ever sinks in.
 Even business web sites are riddled with poor writing obviously done by the owner’s fifth grader, or maybe a monkey with a keyboard, or perhaps that Almighty Powerful Computer Program that spontaneously generates words. Few care about quality writing, and even fewer care to pay for it. “Professional writer” has become an oxymoron.
 So what of those of us who have staked not only our careers, but our entire lives on the business of writing? Some have told me, “Write a book.” Oh yes, as if I can just plunk out a masterpiece and become rich and famous. I know many writers who have entire series of books on the shelves and still work day jobs or pump out constant freelance stories. Book publishers are no more generous than any other kind these days.
 I’m a writer; it’s what I do and who I am. I’ll continue to write for my own pleasure, just as I did when I was in elementary school and no one had assigned it and no one was paying me. If you ask me what I do, I’ll proudly continue to say, “I’m a writer.”
 Just don’t ask me to write for you for four cents a word. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Do they know you're coming?

When people I meet find out I write restaurant reviews, the one question I get more often than any other is, "Do they know you're coming?"

It shocks me every time. Before I was a critic, I assumed all reviews -- of restaurants, hotel rooms, vacuum cleaners, whatever -- were anonymous, unbiased accounts of the writer's experience. When I was an editorial intern at Detroit Monthly Magazine (now defunct), the restaurant critic -- who worked full-time at one of the local newspapers in town as well -- went so far as to write under a pseudonym.

Now, of course, I realize that "critics" are often paid for their "opinions," and more so these days with the rise of new technologies. People are building entire businesses around writing glowing reviews online for other companies, as well as posting positive blurbs on Twitter and Facebook.

But I assumed that the general public was savvy enough to discern, for the most part, when a publication or web site ran nothing but paid advertorials and when it was a respected, major-market newspaper or magazine that adhered to a set of ethical codes. Not so. Sadly, the lines have become blurred to the point that people assume that I call up a restaurant in advance, tell them who I am and when I'm coming in, and the restaurant gives me a free meal, which I then critique.

That's not to say I go to great lengths to mask my identity. Yes, I try to keep my picture out of the press and off the web as much as possible, and I make reservations under fake names. I do meet with chefs and attend events on occasion, but Phoenix is not that savvy of a market that all of the servers and managers know what all of the critics in town look like and anticipate their arrival. (... Or do they? If you work in a restaurant, please let me know if I'm woefully naive.)

They certainly don't know when I'm coming in, though. Shoot, sometimes I don't even know when I'm going to visit a restaurant until the last minute. And I can't imagine why anyone would value my opinion if it was underwritten by the very places I'm supposedly reviewing.