‘We Have Met the Enemy … And He Is Us’

“There’s no such thing as a bad boy.” If you love old movies, you’ll recognize that quote from Boy’s Town, the 1938 classic about Father Flanagan’s work with underprivileged boys. Well, if Father Flanagan worked in the hospitality industry today, he might be saying, “there’s no such thing as a bad server” (or bartender or busser, etc.).

I agree with that statement, which raises the question:  if there’s no such thing as a bad server, why is restaurant service so terrible? The answer: we are our own worst enemies. Every service failure we see today is absolutely preventable. The problem isn’t servers so much as managers and owners.

This year, I’ve spent more than 100 nights in 18 different cities. I eat in dozens of restaurants across the country every month. And yes, service is the worst it’s ever been. The issues are universal. Let’s touch on a few—and then how to fix them.

S-L-O-W Greetings

Pre-COVID, the industry standard was that a server should greet a table within the first minute of the guest’s arrival. Over the past year, I’ve found that it takes an average of four minutes to be greeted—which to your guests feels like 20. And believe me that’s what they’ll say in their Yelp review! It’s time to revive the industry standard.

Cellphone Obsession

While I’m waiting, waiting, waiting at a host stand or table for someone to acknowledge me, what do I see? Nearly always, servers are staring down at their cellphones, obviously deep in a text conversation. Keep in mind: it is during this waiting period that most guests make the decision to never return to a given restaurant.  

Spontaneous Smoking Breaks

In the old days (pre-2019), it was common to require that staff request a smoke break from management. Typically, managers would only grant this request once the server was done with all of their tables. 

Today, servers blatantly leave the floor anytime they choose, whether they have tables to tend to or not. The guest pays the price of not having service. The owner pays the price of losing an all-important return guest. The cherry on top: a terrible social media review.

Ignoring the Floor

What’s even worse than the cell phone snub is when the staff is socializing together, backs to the guests. I recently experienced this in a celebrity-chef restaurant where the entire staff was consumed by a basketball game on TV.

For an endless 15 minutes, no servers, runners, bussers, or managers appeared on the floor. No food came out of the kitchen; no one checked on the tables. Now, I will never return to this restaurant that I used to thoroughly enjoy with my family and friends.

Our Own Worst Enemy

If there’s no such thing as a bad server, then we, the owners and managers are the issue. I blame us for lowering our standards. I believe that, because it’s been so hard to find employees, we’re reluctant to enforce any rules. Worse, many restaurants have stopped conducting training.

We’ve forgotten that it’s better to do without a terrible employee than let a terrible employee treat our guests horribly.

Now, it’s time to take back our operations, focus on training, and please our guests, turning them back into all-important regulars. 

Let’s Take Back Our Power!

I fell in love with this industry when I was 17 and I’ve been in it ever since. I love hospitality, service and exceeding a guest’s expectations. So, it pains me that some of my recommendations are technology driven.

Remember, if you believe that a server is” bad,” take responsibility and ask yourself: “have I done everything possible to make them the best they can be?” In addition, start working these strategies:

  • Reintroduce real shift meetings and regular training sessions immediately. There’s nothing that gives a server more confidence than knowing what to do in each situation and having current information. During those monthly training sessions, make it clear that you expect your staff to implement what they learned that very night.
  • To keep your best staff, considering consider using a 10-minute motivational survey to find out what drives them and where they need support. I do this, and it allows me to spend more of my time with those employees who have the most potential.
  • Respect the staff, and they’ll respect you. For example, respect their time by providing next week’s schedule by the prior Wednesday. 
  • Remove cell phones from the equation. Ask staff to leave their phones in the car and check their messages during break. If they’re worried about their kids being able to reach them, tell them their kids can call the restaurant. If it’s an emergency, you’ll get them on the phone. Otherwise, you’ll give them a message.
  • Implement technology that improves the guest experience. For example, I was recently at a Korean restaurant that left a buzzer on the table. As soon as you hit the button, a server appeared. According to the owner, he now provides much better service—with far less staff. Another idea: give guests the option of paying their check by cell phone, so they don’t need to wait for their server.  

Guests were patient with us right after COVID, as we all adjusted, but those good ole days are over. Instead of whining about our staff, let’s up our game by developing responsible, well-trained servers who love what they do—and are excited to do it every day.