This is an excerpt from Chicago restaurant industry veteran Ken McGarrie’s new book, The Surprise Restaurant Manager, which aims to help solve a common, but rarely addressed problem in the industry. All too often hospitality professionals are thrown into management positions with little to no training, the expectation from ownership being that their past experiences would prepare them for this new role. Many times, promotion to management is treated simply as the “next step” when a staff member is working their way “up the ladder,” but working in a restaurant and managing a restaurant are two different things. .) Now available for presale on Amazon.com, McGarrie’s book provides the tools needed to master the unexpected challenges that managers face every day.
Every night you ask the guests at each table, “How is everything?” Their answers are always positive. Surprise! Your online review scores begin to plummet, and your return rate is dwindling. What should you do?
Quality table touching is difficult. It is the equivalent of hosting a party where you don’t know anyone and are asked to make small talk with every person there. When managers tell me how much they love talking to guests, I know it’s an exaggeration. Very few naturally excel at it. You are required to find graceful ways to insert yourself, mindful not to interrupt existing conversations, and not overstay your welcome. Unfortunately, if you do not make an attempt to connect with every guest, you will miss the opportunity to improve experiences as well as lose out on feedback about menu and service necessary to improve your venue.
Most restaurants require a 100-percent table touch. Although the exact opportunity might vary, the best time is between the delivery of the main course and the subsequent clearing of the table. You are attempting to gather information from your guests, some of whom don’t want you to interrupt. Because of this awkward balance, many managers deliver what I call the “lazy touch.”
The ‘Lazy Touch’ Approach
The lazy touch is when a manager walks from one table to another, barely slowing down, not really making eye contact, and asking the exact same question, “How’s everything?” Certainly, you have experienced this treatment hundreds of times when you have gone out to eat. Some low-energy manager shuffles their way methodically to every group, blurting out that same two-word question. The response is usually fake nods and half-smiles from guests with mouths full of food.
This lazy touch manager is not asking because they crave information; they are doing so because their job mandates table touching. That way, when asked by their boss, they can say, “Yep, I talked to everyone.” This apathetic activity yields no better result than had they simply poked the table with their finger. In my experience, most restaurant managers unfortunately embrace the lazy touch over the more difficult quality approach.
The Quality Approach
The following are ways to promote genuine guest communication and elicit maximum feedback:
Ask directed questions: Instead of addressing the group with broad inquiries, pinpoint specific items and ask individually. Pay attention to their menu choice. Consider the difference between “How are you liking everything?” versus “May I ask your feedback on our truffle gnocchi?” Focus on those dishes that are either new to the menu or that you have struggled to perfect, stating, “We are working on a new recipe for this item and would love your thoughts.”
Don’t start off by apologizing: You have just interrupted their experience, so you are naturally tempted to state, “Sorry for my interruption.” Fight that urge. Starting a conversation with an apology immediately makes your presence feel like an imposition. Apologies are meant for something you regret. You should not feel bad about inquiring about their visit. You are asking genuine questions to improve your business. If you do find yourself feeling apologetic, replace “Sorry for my interruption” with “I wanted to quickly thank you all for being here tonight.” After they acknowledge your genuine outreach, you can lead into “May I ask for your feedback on our…” and proceed from there in a conversational manner.
Replace “the” with “our:” Although subtle, there is a difference between “May I ask your thoughts about the shrimp tacos” verses “May I ask your thoughts about our shrimp tacos.” The first one sounds like you are initiating a conversation about a disconnected third party, as if the two of you were going to weigh in on your opinions together. Using “our” assigns ownership. You are asking about a specific dish because it is yours and thus are invested in genuine feedback.
Avoid inquiries with one-word answers: Asking “How do you like our salmon?” allows the guest the opportunity to provide a short, uninformative response: “It’s good” or “I like it.” Instead, you should always pose your questions so they cannot be easily dismissed. Using statements such as “I would appreciate your feedback on…” or “May I ask your opinion of…” will usually provide more comprehensive replies. Getting such details is an essential tactic to locate people more or less likely to provide negative comments.