Experts talk the ins and outs of good service
Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat of May 27, 2014:
Craig LaBan: My name is Craig, I'm a Libra, I believe in local eating, and I'm going to be your host today. Can I get you still, sparkling or . . . er . . . (cough, cough) regular tap water to start? You're going to want to be well hydrated for today's special conversation on service. While you're waiting, I'll introduce you to three guests who are some of Philly's best when it comes to service. Jeff Benjamin, cofounder of the Vetri restaurant juggernaut, which has been a James Beard finalist multiple times for the best service in America. Aimee Olexy, the owner of the Talula's restaurant family, has been a front-house genius since the days of Django, when she helped launch the BYOB revolution. Ben Fileccia, a veteran of the Vetri group (Osteria, Amis), as well as the Rose Tattoo, is now Mr. Service (director of operations) for Kevin Sbraga's signature restaurant, Sbraga, and the Fat Ham.
Reader: Are reminder calls a necessary evil due to a few bad apples? It's great being able to make a reservation through OpenTable, but then you almost always have to confirm your reservation over the phone. Why not send reminder e-mails through OpenTable?
Jeff Benjamin: You are correct that this is a result of continued no-shows over time. It has become an industry standard, and of course we struggle with being too intrusive but need to ensure that the seat will be filled.
Aimee Olexy: I've found that the verbal interaction is more compelling and we have less no-shows and cancellations. Many of my guests are also less computer smart . . . Old World, if you will...
Ben Fileccia: I have found that when you speak with a guest you form a bond with them and they are less likely to no-show on you. I try to send e-mail reminders as well. I wish we could just text everyone. It would make life easier.
C.L.: I have a lot of pet peeves about bad service. In fact, I experienced just this short list at restaurants in the past week or so: long menu spiels, usually larded with wild exaggerations (and inevitble inaccuracies); unrequested personal recommendations; servers who clean plates while some diners are still eating; servers who jam their order pads and checks deep into their back waistbands; servers who clean the table next to me with spritzes of powerful orange-scented Fantastik; servers who say: "Youz guyz still workin' on that?"; servers who drop off the check and say: "You need change?" Which one do you hate most? And do you think, overall, the level of service has improved over the past 10 years?
Jeff Benjamin: As a patron, my biggest pet peeve is the partially cleared table. It tends to rush the remaining diners and kind of feels like half a job has been done. Close second is the cleaning with Fantastik! Nothing like the smell of cleaning fluids to enhance my experience.
Ben Fileccia: I'm not a fan of asking for change. I always instruct the server to just say "I will be right back" with that regardless of the payment method. I think the level of service has improved because expectations have risen.
Aimee Olexy: I have noticed improvement, and all the openings are good for making us be more diligent and creative in efforts to retain service staff. There is a specific nuance about clearing finished plates, though a good server should be able to see in your question. I actually disagree if the guest gives you a cue to clear.
Reader: Do you read customer reviews on sites like Yelp and do they help you identify service issues? Do you ever reach out to the reviewers to learn more about their experience?
Ben Fileccia: I look at Yelp and Open Table reviews for trends. Do I see multiple complaints about the same things? If so, I will address it.