When we hear about good hospitality, it is always leashed to great service and how important it is, but where do customers fit into this? How much responsibility for a guest’s experience should the guest carry? Appropriate behaviour in a restaurant is not taught at school, yet there is a strong link between good customers and good customer service, and the interplay is a fascinating ground.
Some seem to think they’ll get better service through arrogance, but I would suggest the absolute opposite is the case. If a guest enters a venue projecting an aura of disdain, of expected subservience, they are likely to receive nothing more than they asked for at best.
Think about it. Are staff, who should know the menu better than anyone, more likely or less to go above and beyond for someone they don’t like? Would they be more or less likely to offer alternatives to a condescending guest who might be making a mistake in their order (for example, shiraz might not work so well with the scallop sashimi), or respond with a nod and an “as you wish”?
Treating a fellow human being with respect seems to be the bare minimum, and it’s a great source of fascination to me about the human psyche that somehow this basic idea slips out the gaps between mouthfuls of air for some when they enter a restaurant or bar.
Servers should know which dishes work and which might be a work in progress that didn’t quite hit the spot. The late and legendary writer Anthony Bourdain, when talking about how things really work in a restaurant, penned in his book Kitchen Confidential: “Look at your waiter's face. He knows. It's another reason to be polite to your waiter: he could save your life with a raised eyebrow or a sigh.”
Wise words. But good behaviour isn’t just about self-interest, in being guided away from items on a menu that might not really be the best option available.
It directly reflects on the guest as well.
I’m sure you’ve heard a version of the ‘waiter rule,’ the general idea that you can gauge a person’s character by how they treat the server. Another legend, boxer, poet, the all-round awesome Muhammed Ali, when he wasn’t floating and stinging like bees and butterflies, is said to have said “I don't trust anyone who's nice to me but rude to the waiter, because they would treat me the same way if I were in that position.” The Greatest.
Unsurprisingly, he got it.
In fact, some consider the ‘waiter rule’ such a good test of entitlement and social maturity that restaurants are their preferred location for job interviews. What better place to see how a prospective employee will play with others? From ordering etiquette, to ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous,’ to reading the vibe in the room, to dealing with a problem should one arise. Restaurants provide ample opportunities to observe all manner of interactions.
From my side of the bar, good service to good people is a walk in a park on even well curated ground with quality company. If a guest enters and acknowledges my existence, has an understanding of what we are offering, then some of the key ingredients for a great meal are already in place. With the right mindset, the best wine and food match is so much easier to find.
One of the goals is to gauge what level of friendliness should be employed, over the meal or subsequent visits, until guests are relaxed, friendly, open, and practically members of the extended hospitality family.
Coffee in Tokyo
Coffee in Tokyo can be very hit or very miss. Sometimes the service is amazing, but the quality is on the wrong side of ghastly. Others, the complete opposite true, where disinterested staff sporting shocking attitudes are more than capable in sabotaging what multi-thousand dollar machines and carefully roasted hi-quality beans could otherwise have achieved.
It pains me to say this, but caffeine misses vastly outweigh hits. Recently, ten or so minutes after ordering in an otherwise empty venue I was presented with a stale espresso shot I’d noticed on a tray while entering. Unfortunately, I was not fooled, and requested a redo. With twenty years of experience making coffee I consider myself qualified to recognise bean grinders not grinding beans, of espresso machines not machine expressing, by sound (or lack of) alone.
Baristas don’t like remaking drinks simply because they got cold waiting to get to a table. Fair enough, too. If you’ve ever heard a person behind the machine repeatedly bellow “coffee’s up” with increasing frustration, that is because they cool quickly. Espresso shots in particular. When you’re only talking of thirty or so millilitres in a small cup, heat loss is rapid.
But frustration aside, a person who respects their customers would never actually present a cold coffee because a waiter dropped the ball. They would never serve an espresso that was made before a customer had even endangered a menu with a curious glance… They would make it again.
Respect needs to go both ways.
Sadly, when challenged, the server in this case tried to maintain the subterfuge, claiming my cold coffee had only “just been extracted.” But lo’, a replacement was made, with standard accompanying sounds, and it was totally different. Hot as a point of difference, delicious as another, a resplendent crown of crema, bitterness in balance with expectation….
Mistakes are fine. Inevitable, in fact. But deceit is unnecessary and trust is hard to win back. Bluffing knowledge is unwise at the best of times. You never know who you are talking to.
Respect needs to go both ways.
I wasn’t unkind about it, and I don’t think I had a right to be. Poor service isn’t a license on behalf of the guest to respond in kind. It is a license to choose whether to patronise a venue or not, and in this case I’m unlikely to ever go back. Especially now that a place has opened up within metres of that one, and it ticks all boxes: friendly service and quality product made with care.
Know your bartender
I have a friend whose favourite drink is a martini. Martini drinkers tend to be very particular, and despite an ingredient list of two, martinis are a surprisingly difficult cocktail to find made well. My friend is also a cocktail bartender and a sommelier. He knows what he wants, but he also knows the stresses caused by arrogant customers and the legion of holes in hospitality training programmes.
He doesn’t want to be ‘that guy’.
But he does want a martini. So he came up with a way to navigate the process without hurting any feelings. Like I said, martinis are deceptively difficult to create well. A bartender with experience will know this, and there are questions that should be automatic responses to a request for one.
‘Gin or vodka? ‘Garnish?’ ‘Style?’ These responses, or variations of, assure a guest the server actually knows what they are doing.
Here’s an insider tip: vermouth stored on a shelf, and should that shelf not be in a fridge, is likely vermouth you do not want in your mouth.
Should my friend not get what he’s hoping for, he pretends to change his mind and instead orders a bottled-beer. Staff remain happy, are not embarrassed or resentful, and my friend is happy. Or at least as happy as a martini-drinker can be with a bottled beer.
The customer’s duty
Knowing what you want helps you to be a good customer, and being aware of the limitations of the server is critical, but a huge part of the fun is learning, and when you find a server who ‘gets’ it, just running with their recommendations is my strong recommendation.
Speaking for myself, it honestly doesn’t matter if I even like what they come up with. The chance to play, to go off-script, might inspire them to challenge themselves to become better at their roles, and I have given myself the chance to discover something new. Besides, maybe there’s something in the cacophonic discordance of flavour and taste that triggers something, that makes me think “hmmm… add a little (insert ingredient here) and we might have something truly revolutionary!”
It’s important to note these suggestions might be horrific to my personal taste (and quite often are), but hospitality is not all about me and my taste, is it? My job is to understand other people as best I can, to help facilitate their experience using all of mine. If I can learn what you like, then maybe I can introduce you to something new, whether I like it or not.
Remember, what you like, you like, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Personal preference is paramount.
In this case the server was clearly nervous when he brought White Snake Take Seven, a cardamom infused shōchū, to the table, but I’m so glad he did. I wouldn’t have even noticed it on the menu if left to my own devices, and would have in turn missed out on discovering a phenomenal new product. Absolute fire. An amazing match with tomato juice, of all things. Exceptional with the food. An explosion of flavours. A long finish that would shame most wines.
Toyonaga Distillery of Kumamoto Prefecture took seven attempts to nail the recipe (and nail it they sure did), with the breakthrough only coming after the visit of a white serpent.
Hence the name. Not a reference to hair metal music.
I only know this because of being told by the server. A server who gets it.
Trust your server. (Sometimes.)