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, the cook 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 his boss started a few years ago. Susser's program, called Chow Now, boils down to sensitivity training.

The owner wanted his servers and cooks to experience fine dining firsthand. Great idea, said the staff, but it's not in our budget. So Susser began giving selected employees $50 each to dine at any restaurant with cuisine similar to that of Chef Allen's. Employees return with brief written and oral reports on what they learned.

Nearly all 30 staffers have participated, at a rate of two or three feedback sessions a month. Susser's return is palatable: Chef Allen's consistently receives rave reviews for food and service, and employee turnover is low.

Published on: Jan 1, 1998