Focus on front of house should be first on your checklist

As a travel junkie, I’m often travelling to many corners of the world. I’ve recently returned from back-to-back visits to Austria, Dubai and Istanbul, and I was reminded of a thought that often strikes me: how important it is for restaurants to invest in not only the chefs who are preparing the food but their whole staff complement. However truly remarkable the food your highly qualified and experienced chef sends out of the kitchen, the patron’s experience – and memories – is going to be coloured by the service that they receive from the front-of-house team.

The welcome is everything

The maître d’hôtel, for example, is not just there to allocate tables and hand out menus – although that is certainly a relevant part of their role. This is the first person to meet patrons, and they should do so with a smile, a friendly greeting, direct eye contact, and should show a genuine interest in the patron’s preferences. Their role is also to manage the waiting staff and to ensure that this team is doing its job courteously, efficiently, and to order – but never asking if this is the case when the patron is busy chewing.

I believe that very few restaurants in South Africa train their waiting staff properly – something that is as critical to the success of a menu as fine ingredients and skilful preparation.

Probably the most important elements are uniform dress, attention to personal hygiene, friendly manners, and efficiency. These can be taught to any willing learner – and I believe that this type of skills-sharing empowers South Africans who would otherwise not have access to skilled employment the chance to grow their potential and their income.

Waiting staff should be able to discuss the merits of each dish, introduce any specials in an enticing way, and discuss any alterations to dishes that may suit a client to accommodate dietary or allergy requirements. They should be able to explain the origins of ingredients, and offer sound advice on wine or other beverage pairings with each dish.

This means that they need to be empowered before they even engage with patrons, with chefs making sure that their waiting staff understand the nuances of each dish, and possible substitutions for problematic ingredients.

Well-informed waiters are likely to ‘sell’ more dishes to a table, leading to greater turnover (which makes a happy restaurateur) and larger tips (which makes happy waiting staff).

When it comes to the cleaning staff (the busboys and the team in the kitchen), spend time teaching these workers about the importance of their role. There are few things as horrific as being offered a ‘fresh’ glass with a lipstick mark on it, for example, and few things as irritating as the whole table sitting with used plates in front of them for ages once all have finished eating.

These workers are a vital cog in the workings of your restaurant and are no less important to its on-going success. They could also be your pool of future talent, and if you look after them properly and train them, building loyalty and respect (and offering a decent meal as part of each service), they will be as intrinsic to your success as any other member of your team.

Your front-of-house staff is as important to the success of your restaurant as your qualified chefs, if not more. Even if your food has an ‘out-of-this-world’ taste and is presented like a masterpiece that belongs in The Louvre, if your guests experience an unpleasant welcome or are treated poorly, it’s likely to leave a nasty taste in their mouths.