Being a successful chef and restaurateur isn't only about the food. It's as much about making guests--customers--feel comfortable, recognized, delighted on their special night out.
In his book, The Heart of Hospitality, customer service consultant, expert, and speaker Micah Solomon had a unique opportunity to interview the greatest restaurateurs and hoteliers of our time to find out how they pull this off--and what lessons they have to share that all of us, whatever our line of business, can learn from.
1. Danny Meyer: Acknowledge and appreciate your customers
Danny Meyer, legendary New York restaurateur and master of hospitality worldwide, credits his commitment to hospitality--to putting the customer in the center--for his longevity, which include epically successful New York restaurants Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, along with fast-burger chain, Shake Shack.
Great customer service, great hospitality depends on two key elements, says Meyer: acknowledgment and recognition. Make sure that the guest knows that you see them, and that you appreciate them, and, for that matter, that you're on their side during the time that they're with you.
According to Meyer, "Hospitality will not succeed unless the person on the receiving end knows all the way to the bottom of their kishkes [Yiddish for "guts"] that we're on their side. The definition of hospitality for me is the degree to which [the guest] feels that we are on their side, we have their back, we are their agent."
Meyer goes on to contrast this with the emotional disconnection customers often experience in the world of service: "Of course, [as consumers] we all have experiences that are the opposite of that, whether it's getting a cup of coffee or shopping at a department store: The service, technically speaking, is quite good; the provider does all the things they're supposed to do--yet it doesn't feel great. Or when I'm on an airplane, I arrive alive and on time. I get the drink I asked for. But the problem is that I don't get anything more. Not one person looks me in the eye while they're wheeling the cart down the aisle; nobody smiles or makes me feel that I'm anything more than somebody occupying a seat."
2. Tom Colicchio: The answer is going to be yes, so why make a customer fight to get there?
Legendary restaurateur and Top Chef Judge Tom Colicchio says, "The dark side of being chef-centric is when it hardens into an attitude of 'We don't change anything; you can take it or leave it.' Maybe that can work for a few chefs and a few restaurants for a short time, but ultimately it's not the way to build a business. Instead, you need to have a staff and workplace where 'no' isn't in the vocabulary, where every encounter starts with the idea of 'We're going to say yes, and we're going to make it happen' as opposed to 'I have to check with the kitchen.'"
"The better approach is to make sure that everyone in the kitchen and everyone on the waitstaff understands that everything can be adapted. So because the ultimate answer is going to be yes, it's best to go ahead and say that "yes" immediately and then work with the kitchen to make it happen. You definitely don't want to have those scenes where the waiter gets to the kitchen, and the chef down there is having a bad night and tells the waiter: 'Get out of here. Leave me alone.' When that happens, I like to tell the chef, 'Okay, you go in the dining room now, and you tell the customer no.'"
"Also, once your staff understands that, no matter what, the answer is going to be yes, they can start looking at all the creative ways that you can get to that "yes." When a customer says, 'I don't really want the broccoli raab that comes in this dish, can you substitute the peas?' it might mean that they want to try the peas, not that they have anything against broccoli raab. It's a very easy thing to say, 'If you'd like to try the peas as well, we could do that,' and bring them a side of peas, rather than modifying the kitchen's original intention."
3. Eric Ripert: The essence of hospitality is differentiation
Eric Ripert, the legendary celebrity chef who presides over Le Bernardin, the New York Times's longest-running four star restaurant (the highest designation in the Times's system) tells me that true hospitality has to be differentiated hospitality. At Le Bernardin, "It's our responsibility to understand the need of the guest, to deliver an experience that's individually crafted for each individual in the dining room."
This means that Le Bernardin doesn't necessarily fawn all over what other businesses might consider to be their "VIP" customers; the Le Bernardin approach to service is more subtle than that. "Le Bernardin is thought of as a destination, a place people come to have an out of the ordinary experience, but that's too much of a generalization. We have regulars, people who come two, three times a week," from their nearby offices or because they come to the neighborhood to conduct business. It would be jarring to these regulars if Le Bernardin made a production out of their every visit, so the restaurant makes a point of treating them in a manner that's more as if they were members of a local club, whose repeated presence at the restaurant, while still appreciated, is an expected occurrence.
Still, "The majority of our customers are the ones who come to have a celebration or an experience." But even within this experience seeking clientele," there are key distinctions to be made. "There are couples who come in for an experience, but who are so in love that they end up not seeing anything but each other. They don't want to be interrupted more than necessary, and they certainly don't want to come into the kitchen and take pictures." What they want, instead, "is a space for themselves, a bubble. Though they appreciate what we do in the restaurant, it's all about being together, the two of them."
If the restaurant gets all this right, concludes Ripert, "If we make them happy in the particular way they were looking to be made happy, they'll remember Le Bernadin and want to come back at their next opportunity. But to pull this off, we almost have to read the minds of the guest, to make sure we don't mistakenly end up providing the wrong kind of experience for them."
4. Patrick O'Connell: It all comes down to focus
Patrick O'Connell's legendary restaurant, The Inn at Little Washington, is a double Five Star (per Forbes), double Five Diamond (per AAA) restaurant and inn in the rural county of Rappahannock, home to only 7,000 full-time human residents as well as a significant number of sheep, cattle, and, for some obscure reason, ostriches. Yet food- and experience-obsessed guests have made this beautiful and inconvenient spot a pilgrimage site. Guests have included kings, queens, and presidents, as well as true gourmets without rank or status who have saved their money for months, years, or a decade to be able to experience the food and hospitality of the inn for a night.
O'Connell revealed to Micah Solomon the one facet of the operation that has to shine beyond all others: focus--a complete focus on the guest, one person at a time.
Says O'Connell, "The heart of hospitality, for me, is the ability to focus completely and totally on one person, even if only for a matter of seconds, yet long enough that you've got a clear connection, a channel between the two of you. It's the ability to focus so intently on a guest that the rest of the world ceases to exist. It might sound, as I tell you this, that this type of focus takes a lot of time, but it doesn't; it just requires your full and complete attention at a given moment. You have to develop the discipline of momentarily blotting out the rest of the world. Believe me: your guest will know immediately when you've succeeded."