Dine: Fancy or family, good service is key

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Mike Harrington, one of the sisters who helps run the family-owned Tessaro’s in Bloomfield, called me a while ago to ask if I had advice for how to train servers. Even though her family has been running a successful restaurant for decades, Ms. Harrington said she still wants to tighten up service.

I considered suggesting Danny Meyer’s “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in the Business,” a 2007 book that weaves memoir and restaurant philosophy with how to build a loyal staff and clientele.

Then I reconsidered. Although it’s a great industry book, Mr. Meyer’s restaurants survive in a huge, cutthroat market and pull staff from a deep applicant pool.

Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene is just coming back, as are young people who may work in the industry. And Tessaro’s has little trouble culling customer loyalty.

So I took a different tack and asked others in the business.

Two restaurateurs suggested Ms. Harrington should travel and take cues from dining spots in other cities. Fine advice, but I was looking for something more practical.

Then I called John Wabeck, general manager of Spoon in East Liberty and sommelier for S+P Restaurant Group. How do you improve service whether it’s a family restaurant or fine dining?

I wrote about him several times a decade ago when we were both living in Washington, D.C., and I covered the restaurant scene there.

When he decided to switch to become a sommelier I watched his transformation from a gruff executive chef into a warmer, hospitable manager.

“It took a while, and it isn’t easy,” he said.

Now that he’s been in Pittsburgh for just over a year, I can see how his values translate into very good service at Spoon.

“There are three things you have to keep in mind, no matter the restaurant,” he said. “Remember you’re on stage. Remember to be nice. And remember to be genuine.”

He cited a recent article in The Denver Post by Bobby Stuckey, the James Beard award-winning chef-owner of the 10-year old Frasca. Mr. Stuckey emphasizes the importance of making a guest feel at home whether it’s the first time or the 100th time.

In “Fine Dining’s Trade Secret? Hospitality,” Mr. Stuckey observed the importance of helping servers develop empathy for diners to read a table throughout a meal, to pay attention to a table’s dynamics and to develop a sensitivity to customers’ needs.

This resonates with me as I’m frustrated with the current trend of servers following a script no more elaborate than, “Have you dined with us before?”

The other day I went to a restaurant I quite like, only to have the server explain the condiments on the table before I had looked at the menu. It’s not a faux pas, but it’s awkward and tone-deaf.

I also appreciate it when servers take charge of their role, as opposed to offering mealy service or avoiding responsibility when something goes wrong.

Good service means that management doesn’t disrespect staff by throwing them under the bus by venting to diners, which is wildly unprofessional. This happens quite often, which leads me to the conclusion that a restaurant doesn’t have a system that works for training staff, nor does it have the pre-shift conversations that inspire servers to do good work.

Mr. Stuckey emphasizes the importance of being egalitarian or “composed each time a guest enters the restaurant.”

Regularly I see staff greeting one group of customers warmly and blowing off another. This goes back to Mr. Wabeck’s point that servers are on stage; such snubs make customers less likely to return.

I also see servers that loosen up and get sloppy when they’re comfortable with a table. It’s possible for servers to focus on details and still be personable.

Last, know the drinks and the dishes. Know how to pronounce them. Know where ingredients come from. Know how they’re prepared. Seems obvious, but it’s rare.

“These suggestions aren’t about crossing X’s and T’s," said Mr. Wabeck at the end of our conversation. “It shows that you are passionate about your work.”


Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.

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