Sunday, July 31, 2011

customer profile: the power couple

This duo can appear in nearly any age group, but usually falls in the 30-55 range - and they are a dream come true for any server.

They are always impeccably dressed, he often wears a suit that is tailored perfectly (or a shirt that you and I could never pull off) while she floats gracefully in impossibly high heels.  There is an air around them of absolute confidence, but you'll notice a distinct lack of pretension.

They are out to dine, not cram a meal in prior to the theatre, they have all the time in the world and intend to enjoy the chef's culinary talents in full.  These two don't need any suggestions yet they graciously accept direction from their server.  They know more about the wine list than most of the staff and are often generous enough to leave the last half-glass of whatever outrageously expensive wine they decide on - for the service staff to taste.

Conversation at the table is intelligent and inviting, you can't help but wish you were dining with the duo, instead of serving the table.  The end of the meal finds the server almost embarrassed by the size of the tip (if the couple received great service of course).

Here in Stratford we wave goodbye and hope to see them again next season... Or look to our own Des & Bryna for a great example of this customer genre.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

everybody wave to the Sysco truck...

We are incredibly blessed here in Perth County, surrounded by a sumptuous bounty of farmland, protein, produce, cheeses - a 'veritable pantheon' of local producers offering superior products to the array of Stratford restaurants.  Yet, I find myself, weekly (if not more often) watching the Sysco truck parade brazenly around the city delivering its wares to sub-par kitchens and restaurants of every ilk.

For those of you who are not familiar with what I am talking about, Sysco is a massive over-produced food company that will provide you with less-than-quality ingredients at 'bargain basement' prices.

Note: Flannagan's is a similar company, much like shopping at Target instead of Walmart.  But Sysco claims the 'Walmart of food products' place in my heart.

Now, some restaurants use Sysco products for things like: canned goods, bar stock (cherries, straws, mini-swords, etc.) and that's okay, even necessary.  Not every joint on the block can afford the caraffa olives from Pazzo bakery.  But other restaurants are using these foreign products to make up the bulk of their menus, from the very expensive lamb at the Church Restaurant to the eggs on your breakfast plate at Features, some restaurants think it is okay to offer cheaper, low quality products at prices that would be understandable for a hand raised local product.

To extend the olive branch: I'm not suggesting that every restaurant can nor should source everything locally - I understand it gets expensive, I want to eat things like lobster and oysters as much as the next guy, and some restaurant price-points don't allow for every product they serve to be of superior quality.  Let's be honest, we all eat hotdogs right?

Basically I'm just suggesting that the next time you're out dining in a fine establishment (or what you consider to be one) ask your server a few questions.  Where do they get their beef?  Is the fish sustainable?  Are they using local produce?

We the consumers should encourage our dining venues to use products with integrity wherever possible.  Then maybe we can wave good-bye to the Sysco truck altogether!


I feel some of the wording in this post came across harsher than intended.  When I write, it is with a certain inflection in my head, often meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

I understand that there are lots of reasons to use large suppliers and have worked for establishments that do so conscientiously - and I applaud them for this.

I have also worked for establishments that don't have to use large suppliers (they have the liberty of a higher price-point/smaller space)  Some of these establishments still use Sysco products but charge prices that reflect a high quality local/specialized product.

It's great to see the comments below because it means that this post has people thinking - and responding intelligently - which is kind of what this blog is meant to do.

Thanks again for reading!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

the woes of 2011 in Stratford...

It's dead in town...I find myself pondering the necessity of a job outside the service business.  What has happened to our fair city this year?

Everyone held out through May and June "It's always slower than you remember" we said to one another.  But something is different about this season.  Aren't we supposed to be re-bounded from the recession?  Yes, our dollar may be a little too strong for the average American tourist, but they'll still come right?  The line-up of shows is perhaps geared too heavily toward 'theatre buffs' and not enough to the general populace, but that shouldn't matter!  Even our best selling, most raved about show, Jesus Christ Superstar, is selling out - though that just means it's impossible to get tickets.

Stratford cannot live on one show alone!

There really isn't much to be done about it, but it has made the entire business of restaurant-ing a little extra tough this time around - this creates a situation where everyone's stresses start affecting each other.

Owners are stretched thin, working longer hours than they'd like to save labour costs and still coming up shorter than they can afford;  Managers are feeling the pressure from bosses breathing down their necks forcing them to tighten their labour and cut more servers more often; Servers are significantly down in income over-all, schedules are a nightmare - constant cuts and on-call shifts that often turn out to be duds even when you get to work them!  Servers then in turn put pressure on bosses, everyone wants better shifts, morale is way down and the service suffers, ultimately hurting the bottom line.

I think this season has upped the ante - and our restaurants are not delivering (a topic for another post).  This will be a tough year for some of the best restaurants in town but it will certainly separate the 'wheat from the chaff' where the weaker venues are concerned.

If anyone has any insight I would appreciate the input!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

whatever happened to uniforms anyway?

A number of years ago, it's hard to say exactly when, maybe 5 - let's be honest, it's more like 10 years ago - restaurants decided that the whole white shirt, tie, black pants, white bistro apron thing was over.  The entire industry recoiled from those 'stuffy' tie wearing waiters of yesteryear and embrace a new exciting 'all black' vibe that they felt was more chic, cool and relaxed.  White button ups gave way to black button ups, even allowing some female staff to wear a 3/4 sleeve - how daring!

It worked, people felt they were dining in trendier places when they saw servers in stealthy black.  Ninja waiters everywhere!  Service staff themselves liked the new rules, less bleaching of dirty cuffs (black hides so many imperfections), less embarrassing red wine stains that are impossible to disguise.

Fast forward: here we are, it's 2011 and nearly every restaurant in Stratford is populated by black clad wait staff, but like the goth memories of your high-school years, they're faded.

Crisp black dress pants have given way to ever shorter skirts, skinny jeans, and yoga pants!  Shirts range from black, to grey and every faded shade in between.  White tank-tops and technicolour bras peek out from under black t-shirts and open back tank-tops giving young service staff that 'well-put-together' look (please, generously slather sarcasm on that last statement).  Shirts are buttoned lower (on both men and women) exposing cleavage and chest hair (though thankfully not in that order).

I for one would like to see some professionalism from the service staff in this supposed 'culinary destination'.  Tuck in a little.  Hem your pants maybe?  Use Woolite Zero if you have to, keep those blacks looking as sharp as the day you bought them!

Basically, try to avoid going to work looking like it's laundry day and you didn't have anything else to wear!  I for one would like to be taken seriously in this business, it's hard to command any kind of respect when you look like you don't even own an iron, let alone know how to use one.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

a refreshing pint of...

Shock Top Belgian Wit

A new beer has graced the taps of our fair city. It's called Shock Top and it is a great summer beverage, the perfect compliment to everything from deep-fry to citrus dressed salads (try Molly's Lemon Pepper Chicken Salad for a light and satisfying combination) or any BBQ'd treat.

Available at the Pour House and Molly Blooms, this wheat beer is done in the belgian style brewed with coriander and citrus (the latter packing a refreshing punch!).

Try it with a slice of orange or lemon, in place of your Rickard's or Keith's white and you'll be impressed by this American microbrew.  You'll find it a bit cloudy but don't be alarmed, it's unfiltered and meant to be so.


Friday, July 8, 2011

all together now...

Some comments on the previous post have once again inspired me to respond.  First, if I may direct you to my first post regarding large groups.  I think it will give you a little insight into where I am coming from.

This may be a bit of a rant/ramble due to the fact that this is a multifaceted issue with many different points of view and necessary things to be mentioned.

First, large groups (parties of 10 or more) are simply more difficult to execute in independent restaurants than the same number of people seated at smaller tables.  It may seem easier to do everything all at once but that is not the case - a large party basically grinds the kitchen to a halt while that table is being plated (meaning the rest of the tables in the restaurant suffer).  

Try it for yourself at home: first, plate two different dinners for yourself and a friend, repeat 5 times over every few minutes.  Then plate 10 dinners at the same time, 3 salmon, 2 pasta, 1 steak medium, 1 steak rare and 3 chicken fingers w/ fries.  Did you find that you ran out of room?  Was it hard to keep everything hot while you waited for the fries to finish?  Can you feel the eyes boring into the back of your neck as the server impatiently waits while the rare steak turns to medium-well on the plate? Did you have time to start anything else while plating the 10 dishes?

If you successfully executed both types of service, I applaud you!  Perhaps you should take up cooking professionally!

The flow of a restaurant is designed to handle smaller tables (up to 6 or 8 max) effectively.  Larger chain restaurants can execute things faster because their size matches that of your group.  10 cooks can more effectively cook for large groups than say 4 chefs/apprentices.  With 10 staff, you can divide your kitchen to focus some on the party and others on regular service, with 4 this is an impossibility.

Now regarding service;  I have both served and dined with large groups and I have to say that over 50% of the time it is the fault of the group, not the server, that the service seems lacking.  It is much harder to get the attention of 10 people at the same time.  You may feel you're being neglected when really your server was at the table a few moments ago trying to politely get your attention but you were engaged in conversation and now that you realize you need something and your server has gone to get drinks for your friends you feel your server is 'too slow' or 'not attentive' etc.

And to answer a question from my reader, the justification for the auto-grat is based on the fact that, like it or not, restaurant service is a tipping environment (if things change, I'll let you know) and too often large groups don't tip.  This results in servers having to pay out of pocket to serve a large group (see my post on tip-outs) which results in unhappy staff, which results in the refusal to serve large parties, or to tip out on them, which causes problems for the restaurant, hence an auto-grat!

As for what is wrong with separate cheques, well (again my post on separate cheques) it basically boils down to timeline.  I know that isn't what you wanted to hear but it's true!  And unfortunately as technology advances, it doesn't get faster it gets slower!

It used to go something like this:

swipe card, enter amount, press enter, print, tear, present to guest

Now it goes something like this:

enter server number, enter amount, insert chip card, verify acceptance, pass terminal to guest, guest muddles through asking the server questions (which button now? how do I go back? I've put in the wrong pin, I don't remember my pin), pass terminal to server, connect to wireless, process, print, tear, present to guest

You can see how it is somewhat more lengthy now than before!  The other problem with separate cheques for large groups is something you may remember from childhood - a game called musical chairs. We your service staff don't know you, we are not familiar with your faces so we number you by seat, if you move from that seat you no longer have an identity which means it's hard for us to [a.] serve you the right plate of food and [b.] charge you appropriately for what you've had.

Any other issues with separate cheques are mostly related to un-trained/disorganized service staff, but I have literally witnessed emotional breakdowns happen from servers trying to separate a cheque for a seat switching large groups.  The poor girl couldn't work the rest of her shift - and imagine someone else trying to separate the bills!  Not to mention if you don't work in a restaurant that has a POS system, every cheque has to be written and calculated by hand.

Whew, that was a lot to take in all at once!  As always, thank you all so much for reading and remember, intimate table or giant group at the end of the day I love to serve you and hope we can accommodate your needs, whatever they may be!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


First, allow me to define the term: Autograt (automatic gratuity): an involuntary service charge that is added to your bill at the discretion of therestaurant.  Often applied to large groups (or in some cases parties of 6 or more?!?)

I personally have mixed feelings regarding this concept.  As a server who has been badly burned by guests in large groups who think either [a.] they can get away without tipping and no one else will notice because everyone else is tipping OR [b.] their friends are taking care of the tip!  I appreciate the option to add a service charge to large parties so that I don't end up paying to serve the table.

But, on the other hand, when dining out myself I feel that I am a fair tipper.  Though I don't always over-tip just because I'm in the business, when I receive great service I tip accordingly.  The same goes for when I get poor service!

Though I'm sure every server in the world thinks they are perfect, but sometimes large groups get poor service.  In the event of this possibility I think it is unfair to tack on a 15% (or more) gratuity to a bill.  However, there are some customer types that are a higher risk than others and therefore I'm not opposed to autograt-ing a party of, say, 10 or more? (especially if they require separate cheques!)

Having a policy regarding auto gratuities means that you feel your staff are entitled to the tip.  I wholeheartedly believe that tips are earned not  deserved (though I too feel indignant when shorted).

As a floor manager in a restaurant you should evaluate each service individually, know the strengths and weaknesses of your servers and autograt appropriately - or not at all in some cases.

All things considered, I've gained more than lost by letting my guests decide for themselves what kind of tip they feel is appropriate.  It's kind of like gambling, except you're betting on yourself and if that's not a good bet, perhaps you should re-evaluate your own service abilities!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

dining etiquette + children part 3: throwing spaghetti

Parents, I challenge you to clean up after your children while in a restaurant!  I know it is nice to be able to walk away from a floor littered with crayons and pieces of paper, bits of food and spilled pop, but the server should not have to be responsible for such a mess.

You certainly wouldn't let 'little Johnny' throw his spaghetti at home, or would you?  The atrocious mess that is commonly left behind after a table with children leaves is unacceptable.  I've actually had children throw food/crayons at me and the parents just laugh!

Thank you but I am not a janitor, nor a babysitter (I was once, but not anymore) and I don't want to have to crawl under your table after you leave to scrape crushed crackers out of the carpet.

I have served a few families that are tidy and pleasant, the children have great manners and are cleaned up after when they make a mess, but unfortunately there are a great many rotten apples spoiling the pot.  So please, to those who don't usually clean up after your children - not only are you being uncouth but you are setting an example for your children that will be perpetuated with their children!

At least leave a big tip so the time we take to clean up the mess isn't totally wasted...