Learn the Rules… and Then Break Them When Necessary

by Carrie (Adams) Connors

When I was 18 I worked in a national Italian Restaurant Chain. I had a really picky manager who required us to know our menu inside and out – all the ingredients, how food was prepared, and what types of beverages went best with the meals. My first two weeks was an immersion in the restaurant operations, the way food is prepared, WHY it is prepared the way it is, and the expectations of us as servers. Our drink glasses were small forcing us to stay very tuned into our tables for when they needed refills and also kept us efficient – my manager hated wasted food and drinks.

My manager also heavily enforced the timing standards of the restaurant: beverage deliveries (3 – 4 minutes), table greetings (30 seconds), Order delivery (12 – 19 minutes), etc. I still remember these times because they were not just a recommendation, they were a requirement and our manager would regularly secret shop our tables so that we kept up.  Not only does quick times mean satisfied customers, but it also allows for quicker turns on the tables. More tables = more tip money. Everybody wins.

One very busy Friday evening, an order came up for a two top of mine that just didn’t quite look right. It probably tasted fine, and there probably wasn’t anything wrong it, but I approached my manager who was hustling around the restaurant tentatively because I was about to ask to break some cardinal rules if I asked our cook to remake the meal.

He said simply, “How would you want to be treated on a night out? It isn’t just doing it correctly, it is doing it right.”

I broke all the rules. Food was thrown out for BOTH meals so that the other meal didn’t sit and get soggy during the wait, I asked the cook to remake the meal (add extra wait time and expense), and I had to sheepishly notify the table of the predicament and offer them a complimentary beverage for the trouble (additional expense). To my surprise, they were thrilled I was so thoughtful about their meal. They only went out to eat once a month and it was really something that they looked forward to together. Not only was my tip high, but they came back more frequently to our restaurant because of how we valued their time and money.

What is the lesson?

Your customers aren’t going to come in contact with your leadership team or CEO, they are going to come in contact with your front line employees first. That experience can either make or break a customer’s perspective of the brand. Invest in that first experience by investing in the front lines. 

Train, train, and train some more

While I spent much of that job learning about the restaurant, it prepared me to serve with confidence and with perspective. The only way front line employees can sell is if they understand the business. Not just the “what’s” but the “why’s” as well. Why do we do what we do, why does that matter? With ample training you create engagement and confidence in your front line staff.

Teach staff the rules and enforce them 

We were obligated to know and understand everything about the bar and menu. We were expected to understand and respect the timing of service and ensure that we were staying in line with those expectations. It created a consistent and pleasant experience for the customers and it created good habits in us, the wait staff.

Teach staff when to break the rules

Knowing the rules is just as important as knowing when to break them. When I knew something wasn’t right about the meal, I made some decisions to ensure the dining experience was one that they deserved. Yes, it added some food cost, some additional wait time, and that impacted several of our rules, but the bigger picture made my approach the obvious priority.

Empower staff to be human

When in a service oriented sale, it doesn’t have to be all about checking boxes. While I was obliged to offer appetizers and alcoholic beverages in my opening pitch to my guests, I never made it boring. Our manager taught us to listen, ask questions and make recommendations not just sales. We were connecting with our guests and seen as the experts, it made our experience more personal and more enjoyable. When customers feel like they are in a conversation and not a sales pitch, they are far more willing to buy.

Create a culture where learning is FUN

Sure, we were learning all the time at the restaurant, but we were also having a good time! Our manager would have us weigh in on new menu items, sample beverages, and have games and role playing to practice techniques. We weren’t sitting in a classroom reading from a book, we were learning how to be the best versions of ourselves to bring the best experience to our customers.

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