When a cook for Chef Allen's sampled a competitor's fare, he was dismayed to find elegant food being served on cold plates. It ruined the meal, he reported at a staff meeting. "He thought more about warming up plates after that," says Allen Susser, owner of the $3-million restaurant in North Miami Beach, Fla.

The cook is not the only employee with a nose for customer-service details, thanks to a program Susser started three years ago. He calls it "Chow Now," but what it boils down to is sensitivity training. Susser wanted his servers and cooks to experience fine dining firsthand. Great, said the staff, but it's not in our pocketbooks.

So Susser began giving them $50 each to dine at any restaurant with cuisine similar to that of Chef Allen's. Employees return with short written and oral reports on what they learned. Nearly all 30 staffers have participated -- at a rate of two or three a month.

"They like to laugh at the little mistakes and believe they wouldn't make them," says Susser. Must be working -- Chef Allen's consistently receives rave reviews for food and service, and employee turnover is low.

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