On the heels of a prestigious James Beard Outstanding Chef nomination, David Kinch delivered a stunning blow on Instagram: He rejected it. The chef/owner of Manresa didn’t think his three-star Michelin restaurant in Los Gatos, California, deserved the accolade.
“We have been pretending that we could...maintain a level of service, equality, and innovation, while welcoming our guests every day knowing that in our hearts that it could never be sustainable,” he wrote earlier this year.
Kinch knew that the pandemic had essentially robbed restaurants of providing a “human touch,” from the welcoming handshake and friendly small talk to embracing loyal regulars. Even the most basic gesture of warmth and friendliness – a smile – is gone, covered by masks.
Off-premise dining and limited indoor or outdoor seating can keep sales afloat, but pragmatic temperature checks and safety protocols can be a service buzzkill. How can restaurants establish a rapport with diners, provide quality service and build customer loyalty as in the past, when the present is so dramatically different?
EARN AND BUILD TRUST
Co-owners Curtis Duffy and Michael Muser decided to open Ever, their modern take on fine dining, in Chicago even when the odds seemed to be stacked against them.
“There are very real reasons brought up by COVID that make achieving standards very difficult,” Muser says. “But we’re not in the excuse business, so we fight on.”
“A LOT OF OUR CLIENTS ARE SAYING, ‘I HAVEN’T BEEN OUT TO DINNER SINCE THIS STARTED. I’M HERE BECAUSE I TRUSTED YOU’D DO THIS RIGHT.’ THAT IS A SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY THAT EVERYONE IN THIS INDUSTRY SHOULD BE FEELING.”— Michael Muser, Ever, Chicago
That meant providing safety, meeting the highest standards for a quality experience and establishing trust: the tenets of excellent service, which in essence remain true, but just amped up. Muser spent extra time walking the room to determine the best placement for captains to effectively communicate, and allow for distance without being too loud or disruptive. Low-key ambient techno rhythmic music was swapped out for Miles Davis because it “felt like the room needed a sense of love and normalcy.”
“A lot of our clients are saying, ‘I haven’t been out to dinner since this started. I’m here because I trusted you’d do this right.’ That is a sense of responsibility that everyone in this industry should be feeling. Not only are (guests) hungry and it is our job to feed them, but to really earn their trust in the safety department,” he says.
Clear communication is essential, Muser says. Guests are greeted genially with a temperature check, offered black masks from trays and told to wear one at all times except when they are eating or drinking. Keep it simple, direct and professional and everyone is willing to comply, he says.
“When we communicate very clearly what we’re going to do that night to the guest, they very much appreciate what they’re being told. They are trusting us with their safety in addition to their birthday, anniversary or proposal.”
PAY EVEN CLOSER ATTENTION TO DINERS
Regulars have always been the mainstay to survival, which is why co-owner Cara Patricia of DECANTsf, a wine bar and bottle shop in San Francisco, decided to get crafty with personalized attention to her clientele.
Tailored newsletters and engaging with customers on Instagram have provided important customer intel, Patricia says. “We keep track of what everyone is buying, so if we come across something, we’ll look at their purchase history and say, ‘You know who would like this? This person.’ We buy with customers in mind, so we can offer products directly to them,” she says.
Relying on their POS system for details to build better relationships with guests, she and her partner Simi Grewal hand-delivered orders and sent personal text messages to determine the best time frames for arrival. Promotion codes helped drive sales. Customers who had previously purchased specialty allocated wine were sent first grabs on a secret pre-sale, selling out before the product arrived. Working with their distributors and importers, they created a social justice three-pack wine for $55 to donate 100% of the profits to causes like Black Lives Matter and fighting the California wildfires, strengthening their reputation as a small business with values that locals could feel good about supporting. This led to repeat sales and referrals for corporate gifts.
“We want to make things really easy for people. People have emailed us and said, ‘Thank you, I’ve been waiting for this. Thank you for thinking of me,’” she says. “People are getting really inundated with newsletters and it can be very sales-y, so we like to break through with a more personalized approach, based on what people might be interested in.”
SPOT THE SMALL STUFF
At Ledger in Salem, Massachusetts, wine director Scott Lafleur says that intuition, rapid cleanup, stocking extra supplies and greater attention to details make all the difference in the customer experience.
“Guests are always watching,” he says. “Once you see something unsavory or not to code in a normal situation, you’re going to apply that to what you look for moving forward. The goal is to have the guest not see one thing.”
Social distancing measures can impact service, such as added time and distance of running food and wine between the kitchen and table – which can double and triple time when the wrong bottle or dish is served. Be sure to compensate for mishaps, Lafleur says.
While it was once considered good service to ensure glasses are always filled, a self-service carafe of water, decanted wine or an ice bucket for a bottle might be more useful for peace of mind and safety, limiting contact for the guest and the server. “It’s about being thoughtful,” he says. “It’s good to be aware of glove maintenance, cleanliness, and showing people that you’re doing that. We change gloves as we wipe things down.”
The restaurant keeps extra masks on hand, which is not their goal, but it helps guests who might eyeroll or forget them. In turn, that extra effort often strengthens the sense of customer service and loyalty, which guests show in positive feedback.
“People look at that as our care, and will take that opportunity to show us that, too, and ask how it’s been for us,” he says. “We have support and understanding handed back, which is beautiful and appreciated.”
THE ART OF THE FOLLOW-UP
“ IT’S ABOUT BEING THOUGHTFUL. IT’S GOOD TO BE AWARE OF GLOVE MAINTENANCE, CLEANLINESS, AND SHOWING PEOPLE THAT YOU’RE DOING THAT.”—Scott Lafleur, wine director, Ledger, Massachusetts
When the pandemic shut down the 1,200-capacity Big Grove Brewery in Iowa City, Iowa, partner Doug Goettsch pivoted from a self-service model to full-service.
The change provided an opportunity to make improvements and set a fresh start with guests. Along with bumping sanitation and eco-friendly standards that created a safer, more efficient operation, Goettsch increased takeout orders by swapping out the POS system and installing new phone lines. One dedicated employee handles pick-up with direct car service, following up with a phone call within 15 to 20 minutes to check in with the customer.
“We use positive energy and maintain our staff morale, which goes over to the guest,” he says. “We encourage that a little warmth goes a long way with people. When they’re safe, everyone comes back. We just try to set the tone for our community.”
UPFRONT AND PERSONAL
Timed reservations, nonrefundable deposits and no-tolerance policies on wearing masks fly in the face of customer service. But diners know that it’s no longer business as usual.
Restaurateurs recommend enacting new policies sooner than later, so guests can become accustomed to them. Most importantly, however, is clearly communicating rules upfront, whether on the website, on all communications or upon arrival. For example, requiring a deposit on a reservation, which is applied to the check, can be in the form of a gift card to be used at another time if the reservation is missed. No-mask, no-service models may alienate one customer, but they gain trust and loyalty with others.
Kindness goes a long way at The Parish in Tucson, Arizona, says manager Travis Peters. “During a busy service, we let (diners) know that we are asking everyone to limit their dining experience to 90 minutes because we are currently only seating at 50% capacity. If a table seems to be all done but ‘camping out,’ we might gently remind them (so) that they allow us to clean and sanitize for the next group.
“We’re not stringent; we don’t want to rub them the wrong way. We’ve had no negative recourse,” he says.