Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Timid Server

I don't like to be interrupted while I'm enjoying good conversation at the table with friends. Some servers are too obtrusive--always inquiring to make sure everything is okay, that the food tastes right, that you don't need a refill or dessert or coffee. Not so the case with lunch on Saturday.

I had the great fortune of having a girl day on Saturday. Chad cut me loose that morning to get a massage with a gift certificate I'd been sitting on a while, so I took advantage of the time. Afterward, I met two of my college roommates at the Puffy Muffin for lunch. Although there were a handful of men there, it's a very girly place. There was even a man in a pink sweatshirt. Go figure.

Our server looked a little unsure when approaching our table. We were catching up with each other and talking 90 to nothing. He hated to interrupt. But we were hungry (and thirsty.) He timidly approached, got our drink order, and disappeared into the kitchen. After a few minutes, he returned with our drinks and stepped back, waiting for us to tell him we were ready to order. He should have just asked. We were ready and had to tell him not to back away so that he could get our order in.

I tend to be a creature of habit. The last several times I've eaten at the Puffy Muffin, I've ordered the Tea Room Sampler--a scoop of chicken salad, tuna salad, and pimiento cheese--but I request that all three be chicken salad. (So sue me! They have REALLY good chicken salad.) Lindsey ordered the Tea Room Sampler, too, but without the special modification, and Tiffany ordered a chicken salad sandwich. Not a difficult order, right?

The Puffy Muffin is usually full on Saturdays. Tables flip (guest leave, bussers clean them, and new guests are seated) quickly. Many of the tables around us had new guests who were already getting their food, but we had been sitting there for quite a while just waiting. Our server had been refilling our drinks, but not giving us a chance to ask where our food was. The timid guy came out of the kitchen finally at one point and noticed that we still didn't have food. He zipped back into the kitchen and re-emerged with our plates. No apology for the delay.

We inhaled our food and continued to catch up. Our drinks continued to be refilled covertly, but our server never cleared plates or picked up on cues that we were done and were ready for our checks. We finally had to flag him down and ask for checks and boxes. At this point, a server should have already asked if we wanted dessert (the upsell, if you will).

When I was a server at the Cooker (Ah, the Cooker. I miss you so!) we had standards of service. A table was to be greeted within 30 seconds of being seated, drinks brought within 2 minutes, order taken when drinks delivered, food brought within time indicated by item's cook time, check on the guests 2 minutes (or 2 bites) after food is delivered to the table, and (in most cases) a check delivered at that time in case the guests are in a rush.

Not all restaurants have the same time standards and these standards can be different at lunch and dinner. But in my opinion, all restaurants should have these standards. The server must be keenly aware of the timeline for each of his or her guests so they have something to expect and those expectations are met.

As for timidity, I appreciate that our server wasn't disruptive, but he needed to find the balance in order for us to have a seamless dining experience. All in all, we had a good meal and enjoyed the precious time with good friends.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Living in Nashville has many benefits. It's a big city with a small-town feel. There are many different suburbs within Nashville that function as independent towns. Each suburb has its own personality and entertainment climate. One major bonus to living near the Brentwood area is the growth rate. When a healthy city grows, there's a strong draw for new restaurants.

This past weekend in Brentwood, a great little hamburger joint called Five Guys opened for business. I've been pretty eager to try it out. The shopping complex where it opened has recently been renovating and adding all sorts of new stores and restaurants. They all benefit from one another.

Our family decided to try out Five Guys after church on Sunday because we'd heard such wobderful things about it. Great choice! There are definitely more than five guys running an operation like this. The restaurant is designed so that you can see the food cooking and watch the prep. (Side note: that makes me feel really safe to be able to see that the cooks are taking care of my food since they know I'm watching.)

The lovely gentleman, Randy, who took our order was sure to explain how many fries we didn't need. Get the smallest order you can. It goes a long way and they're quite generous with those portions. Randy was kind and polite and quick!

Even though Five Guys could be considered a fast food establishment, they obviously don't take any shortcuts on the service. So go check it out. And I'll warn you--a regular burger is actually a double patty burger. Of course, that didn't stop me from eating the whole thing! They're generous with the toppings and have a wide range of drink choices, too. Be sure not to fill up on peanuts before your meal is ready. They're in open boxes all over the restaurant. I'm still not sure if you're supposed to throw your shells on the floor a la Logan's. Time will tell.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Meet me at the Loveless

Chad's best friend Za and his wife Krishon came to Tennessee to visit from California. We were hoping to get them around sooner, but they had plenty of family that trump us. We got to catch them on their last day in town. Krishon was desperate for Sonic. The poor dear doesn't have one close enough to her in Cali, so it's a must-eat when she's in Nashville.

Chad and Za ran out to pick up food to bring back to us at the house. While most of the order was correct, there were a few things wrong. When you dine in at a restaurant, you have the luxury of asking your waiter for condiments and paper products or to correct an order, but at a drive-thru (or drive-in, in this case), you could be miles down the road before realizing that the order was wrong or that you were missing items. That was our case. Krison's mozzarella sticks weren't accompanied by their usual marinara sauce, but an extra corn dog was thrown in. Tolerable, but not ideal.

Their big treat before hopping on a plane back to LAX was a trip to the famous Loveless Cafe. Krishon was star struck because the one and only Carol Fay Ellison (The Biscuit Lady) showed us to our table. I could eat biscuits there all day long. The server brought a plate full of them with three flavors of Loveless preserves. We also got some sorghum molasses.

You can never go wrong with breakfast at the Loveless, but I always lean toward a vegetable plate. (The hash brown casserole was the best I've ever tasted there.) We were warmly greeted and well accommodated at the Loveless. Drinks were always kept full, but our server was unobtrusive.

Probably the best service of the day, though, was in the Hams and Jams Market. Dolores, the precious woman behind the counter was so gracious and helpful. She was also incredibly kind to my children. She executed a perfect balance between letting us shop in peace but also suggesting items we might be interested in. The upsell is tricky and needs just the right touch. Be sure you check it out online.

Before leaving for the airport, I overheard Krishon on the phone with her mom. She was hitting all the highlights of her trip. While she seemed pretty excited to have met Carol Fay, she was even more complimentary of an experience earlier in the week. She said, "Mom, it's called Shoney's. It was this awesome southern soul food buffet and it was wonderful." If she was most pleased with Shoney's, we're going to have to do a better job of showing them the best dining establishments on their next visit in!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Camping out

Thursday night, I met some girlfriends at Chili's in Cool Springs (#381, if you're keeping track.) There was a wait when we arrived, so I dropped them off at the door and searched for a parking space. They put in our name and got a pager. I ended up crossing over the 4-lane mall road and parked in the galleria parking lot. While I'm glad they have that option, I have a tiny fear of crossing the street. I digress.

Our wait seemed brief since we were catching up and showing of pictures of our children. The restaurant was definitely full, but there were two-top tables scattered across the restaurant that were empty the entire time we were at the restaurant. The hostess paged us and showed us to our table and we were promptly greeted by our server, Blake, and his tagalong, Peyton. Peyton was obviously training by following Blake throughout his section to learn his service style.

My friends, knowing I make mental notes about service throughout a meal, made sure to make changes and special modifications when ordering. I love it. Blake didn't balk. He handled every special request with grace and accuracy.

Servers who have trainees following them have a huge responsibility. Their mannerisms are being closely monitored and can have a real impact on the new server's confidence and ability to handle obstacles. I feel very strongly about a trainee sticking right beside his or her trainer. It's pretty important for a trainee not to miss anything. If the trainer is "in the weeds"--behind, rushing around, overwhelmed--the trainee needs to see how the trainer handles that. Too many times, trainers send their trainees to do little tasks for them (such as refill drinks, deliver a check, clear dishes from the table) while they do something else. This does nobody any good. They may get everything done, but the trainee doesn't learn how to handle the work load. When they're put on the floor on their own, they get overwhelmed because there isn't a helper to do the odds and ends that they did for their trainer.

This happened a couple of times tonight. Peyton refilled our drinks while Blake put in orders or printed checks. She also delivered the checks while Blake took care of other things. Don't get me wrong. We got great service. Peyton was sweet (a little too sweet sometimes) and the pair fulfilled all our kooky requests.

Although the restaurant was packed when we arrived at 7, it quickly emptied out while we had dinner. When we finished eating, we continued to sit around and chat. The restaurant wasn't scheduled to close until at least 10 p.m., so we tried not to feel guilty. During busy hours, servers like to "turn tables"--get guests out the door quickly so the table can be cleaned and new guests can be seated and spend money. But when the restaurant is emptying out, diners tend to feel guilty for staying around (camping out) when it seems as though the server has been cut from the floor and allowed to begin closing sidework before cashing out for the evening.

I propose that there be an implemented system in all restaurants for one to take over another server's table so he or she can close out and go home, yet the guests can still be taken care of. If you have worked in a restaurant that has such a system, let me know.

I certainly hope we didn't hold up Blake and Peyton at Chili's. We were not made to feel in the way and we appreciated being able to enjoy guilt-free time with friends.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Receipt and Review

This morning, I took the kids to the pediatrician's office for flu shots. We didn't really talk about it much beforehand so as not to freak them out. Avery went first. She cried before anything happened because the nurse told me to hold her wrists. Honestly, I think that's the only reason she cried. I wish I'd just let her sit there and take it. She's not the type to thrash about and be difficult. She might have squeaked a little. Stuart didn't make a sound. Of course, it probably doesn't hurt to be poked in the fat. That's all he is right now, bless his heart.

Since they did so well, I took them to the Cool Springs Galleria food court for lunch. At first, Avery asked for McDonald's, but when she saw Chick-fil-A, she changed her mind. Poor Mickey D's doesn't have a prayer when situated next to the home of the Original Chicken Sandwich. (For the record, I'd have been fine eating at McDonald's. I'm happy as long as I have some sweet tea. Of course, Chick-fil-A has great fresh-brewed tea, too.) I think it's fantastic that a Happy Meal toy doesn't wield power over my almost-3-year-old. I appreciate that Chick-fil-A provides educational books or games as kids meal bonuses.

I tend to hang onto receipts from even drive-thru experiences. (I clean out the door pocket of my car every Tuesday, for some reason.) I don't keep receipts long, but I like to keep a brief record of where my money is going since I put everything--I mean everything--on my credit card and pay it off every month.

The new benefit of keeping my receipts is that I can tell you, the reader, what exact location of a particular restaurant I visited (Chick-fil-A #00431) and, in most cases, the name of the person who served me (Billye).

I've been to this particular Chick-fil-A before many times. It's probably my favorite place to eat in the Galleria food court and it is convenient for feeding children. Its proximity to one of the main entrances at the mall tends to cause a bit of a traffic problem, especially during busier lunch hours and on Saturdays, but most passers by don't seem to mind. The operator of this location, Jeanne Hammontree, wasn't working when I was there today, but when she is there, she's a great example of smiling service and a great model for her employees.

Part of the Chick-fil-A Corporate Purpose is to "have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A." That's a pretty tall order, but they execute it very well almost every time. Whomever is responsible for hiring and training team members is well-equipped and thorough. You'll be hard-pressed to find a Chick-fil-A crew member who is not well-spoken, appropriately dressed and systematic--even the teenage employees.

So kudos to Chick-fil-A #00431 for a good dining experience. My only request was that I get a little more of a smile from Billye next time.

I'd love to hear about your Chick-fil-A experiences. Have you been to this particular location? How was the service?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Inaugural Post

So this is it. I've been talking about it for too long, and now I'm biting the bullet and starting the blog. This blog will be dedicated to my restaurant reviews. When I was in college, I waited tables to pay the bills. I loved waiting tables. I loved serving people. I loved teaching others to serve better. I know what great restaurant service is and I definitely know what it isn't.

On this blog, I'll be reviewing all types of restaurants. I have two small children, so I tend to frequent fast food establishments. They'll be no exception. All restaurants can benefit from constructive criticism. That's why they hire secret shoppers to give them feedback on everything from outdoor landscaping to food presentation to how the bathroom smells. (You think I'm kidding.)

Throughout the years, I've seen a not-so-gradual chasm grow between average restaurants and top-notch restaurants. The great ones are memorable, but even one bad experience can be detrimental. It's about time someone stepped in to caution restaurants about the threat of poor service on profitability and even viability.

From this point on, I'll be making a point to tell you about every dining out experience I have. I use the term "dining out" pretty loosely. In many cases, I may be sharing thoughts on simple interaction with the crew at the drive-thru window. I'm hoping that this experiment ultimately results in an overhaul of how all restaurants consider their service.

Ideally, this will benefit us all. We'll get great service whenever and wherever we eat and won't feel the least bit resentful for the monetary figure in the tip line.

I welcome your recommendations for places I should try. If you know of an amazing restaurant with impeccable service that deserves some attention, let me know. If you know of a dive with awesome food but that has an incompetent wait staff, I'd like to check it out. Or if you know of a hot spot that can't quite get any of it together, bring it on! I'll be giving my feedback, so I'd appreciate yours.

Finally, none of these reviews are going to do any of us any good unless the restaurants read them and put my suggestions into practice, so I'd appreciate if you'd bookmark this blog and share it with others.