Dear Food Fanatic: Customer Care, Server Solutions

Get answers to your restaurant questions

Q: Not a day goes by when we aren’t hit up for a donation. We want to help the community with gift certificates but don’t want to go broke being good Samaritans.

A: Don’t think of yourself as an open spigot. Set up some criteria. Decide which kinds of organizations you want to support and stick to them. Consider the demographic of an organization and its size, reach and influence on the community. Yes, it’s a tax-deductible donation, but think of it in terms of restaurant marketing, too. When you donate a gift certificate, you’re getting publicity. 

Q: Our restaurant was the hottest spot on the block until some copycat concept moved in next door. How do we keep these guys from moving in on our turf?

A: Nothing makes a chef see red like feeling ripped off. Keep calm, and more importantly, strategize. Stay true to yourself, your concept and what you do best. Go on a recon mission to check out what your competitor is offering and see if you can do it better or differently. Make sure your service is top notch and build loyalty by engaging customers. Above all, don’t talk smack about the other guy—being the bigger person usually pays off.

Q: It seems like kids fresh out of culinary school don’t have the same work ethnic we did when we were coming up in this business. What can I do shy of making them clean the grease trap?

A: That’s pretty serious considering a grease trap smells like a decomposing body. Kids today need to feel like they’re part of the process—you have to get them more involved in day-to-day operations. Seek their help when creating a dish or ask what they’d do with leftover chicken. Give them a challenge or a  project to spark their interest. Just telling them to put their heads down and work hard doesn’t work anymore. 

Q: I’m having a hard time finding good servers—those who actually care. Is there a secret to finding them?

A: Servers need to be reminded—like we all do—that we are in the business of serving people. One server solution is to be up front during the interview process: Ask why they want to be waiters. Ditch the people looking to just earn money and keep the ones who say they like making people happy. Look for waiters with interests or hobbies connected to caring for others—volunteering at a shelter or visiting the elderly. Sounds hokey, but the theory holds water.

Q: My first reaction to customers whining about service is to dismiss them as nut jobs, but I know that would be self-defeating. How do I respond?

A: I’ll give you a high-five for recognizing there’s a problem. Now, on to customer service techniques. Start by exceeding customer expectations and making sure your servers enforce this. Most customers will understand when you’re in the weeds—just let them know. If a wait goes beyond a reasonable time, bring out a comp item or, better yet, distribute cards for comp apps or desserts to bring customers back. When a guest doesn’t like a dish, don’t argue—just fix it. And be vigilant in the dining room, keeping eyes peeled for empty water glasses, plates that need to be cleared or fidgety customers. Thanks to social media and the new transparency, there’s no more hiding when it comes to customer retention.



Email us your challenges, comments and suggestions. Follow Chef John Byrne, our Minneapolis, Minnesota-based US Foods Food Fanatic, for all things culinary and foodservice related.