Wednesday, August 20, 2008

In search of service

This is a true tale of good service, bad service, and the sort of customer nightmare you’d expect from nuns running a singles bar. Just as diverse is the cast of characters: A brand-new hospitality school, a diner that was probably slinging hash when America’s top chefs’ school was the Culinary Institute of the Colonies, and a disembodied voice serving as a phone-company support specialist. But the results from column A might not match up exactly as you expected with the parties in column B.

To be sure, the phone company’s automated customer handling system still out-sucked the other service providers. But that’s where you’d stop smacking your head and uttering, “Of course.”
Here’s what happened.

Last weekend I decided to try the student-staffed cafe of a new culinary school in my area, a godsend to a region that has a significant tourism industry but sorely lacks the resources to develop it more fully. It was late on a Saturday, well past the lunch peak. But the doors were open, and there were five school representatives inside, including what seemed to be two instructors. We would be the only patrons. How much better could it get?

Much, we were soon to learn. We walked in and stood there, loudly fidgeting to signal our entrance, yet completely ignored by all parties. At first I thought they were cleaning up to close down, given how intently they focused on banging pots and containers behind the hot line. But close scrutiny indicated they were very much ready for business. If only they’d take our orders, then our money.

A few throat clearings failed to get their attention, so we cleverly resorted to the old attention-getting ploy of asking for a menu. A staffer leaned over, grabbed one from the walk-up ordering station, and held it out in our direction. “We’re out of whatever’s been crossed off.”

About 40 percent of the listing, including staples like a Caesar salad, had been crossed off.

But we looked, and waited. No one said a word to us.

Finally, we bolted, the tiny café still as quiet as a church.

Across the street was a classic diner, long on ambience and big on portions, but hardly a standout in what it offered or the caliber of the food. Yet hunger trumped any reservations, and in we went.

A waitress hauling two manhole-cover-sized plates stopped mid-dash in her trip to a table to welcome us. “Try the lobster salad, it’s really great,” she said in a stage whisper. “We make it ourselves, fresh.”

In a millisecond, she was at our table, explaining that she could now give us a proper hello and answer any questions. We asked about the specials. Instead of reeling off a canned spiel about what was on the blackboard that day, she chatted with us: “Are you in the mood for a sandwich, or more of a salad? If you like salads, try the seafood salad. It comes with potato salad and coleslaw, and its all made right here. Just be sure to leave room for pie, because we’re known for that. Our puddings are great, too. But pretty much everything here is made from scratch.”

A special order didn’t phase her in the least. And our cups and glasses never went unfilled, even though we had to share her with at least six other tables.

I was tempted to implore her, “Wait right here a minute,” and then dash across the street to bring back the culinary-school students—or, to really fix the problem, their instructors. But I was afraid they’d turn up their noses and fail to view service as something other than a degree requirement. They might miss the glaring contrast between their empty café and a diner that was packed at 2:30.

Instead, I think I’ll head back to the school’s café and ask the instructors if they or their charges would be interested in a job. Then I’ll give them the number of the phone company’s service center.

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Anonymous steakman said...

One of my mentors and a giant in the industry taught me at a very young age, " If you ever think you are better than the people you serve. Get out of the business!"

Sincerely, Steakman

August 20, 2008 at 7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It just goes to show you that great food and great service don't require a fancy setting. Only that people who see people instead of seeing them as objects do we find truly great service to our fellow man. It is refreshing to know that you made a great find - but sad that this is an indicator of why we see mediocrity coming out of our hospitality schools.

Jim D

August 20, 2008 at 7:55 AM  

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