Working the room

Kathy Kitt of Lenzerheide in Adelaide, says everyone on the floor takes responsibility for the overall service.

Kathy Kitt of Lenzerheide in Adelaide, says everyone on the floor takes responsibility for the overall service.

If you want your customers to return to your restaurant, you need to ensure that standards meet the expectations of the clientele. Miles Clarke reports.

Consistency is everything if your business is to prosper and the host on the floor should be the glue that binds and brings customers back.

It’s not rocket science, but restaurants with an average bill of  $70 to $120 per person become vulnerable when the front of house fails to ensure that standards meet the expectations of clientele.

Fee & Me, based in the 1835 Morton House in Launceston, is widely recognised as one of Tasmania’s best restaurants, having garnered many awards during its 16 years in business. Fiona Hoskin runs the kitchen while Peter Crowe is responsible for the [smooth] management of the restaurant, where the typical structure of a meal has turned on its head. Guests get to choose from a range of small dishes, not unlike a degustation menu.

“It took a bit of getting used to, but people now enjoy being able to pace their wines with the dishes,” he says.

For Crowe it is essential that good systems are in place and that the repetitive aspects of the service runs like clockwork.

“We need to pre-empt a client’s requirement before they’re even aware they need it. They may well leave unaware of the level of proactive service they’ve received, but they’ll be satisfied.

“I usually run the floor at the restaurant and we have just one sitting where we serve between 50 and 60 guests a night.
We work hard on our training and everyone’s looking to anticipate the needs of our guests,” he adds.

I did it my way

Sydney caterer, Raphael Khan, likens his floor managers to ‘choreographers’, directing a finely balanced dance. Khan’s Zest function centre in Sydney’s fashionable Point Piper has received many accolades, including ‘best caterer’ from Restaurant and Catering Australia (R&CA). He runs an average of 300 events a year, using two function rooms overlooking Sydney’s Rose Bay.

“We have highly detailed run sheets for our functions and each one is run like a special event. My floor manager has to ensure that every detail is attended to and I expect that he or she will have peripheral vision to see that everything is perfect, including the lighting, airconditioning and band.

“Timing of these events has to be spot on. A speech that runs too long can ruin a main course, so we prefer to have the speeches run after the meal so that the speaker is not interrupted by the clatter of crockery and cutlery,” explains Khan.

“It is essential that the floor manager is on the spot when an issue arises and takes corrective action so that our client’s special occasion is successful. The manager has to work in a calm, deliberate manner and show no signs of stress, even though all hell might have broken out behind the scenes,” he adds.

Khan says the demands on the floor managers are significant as the catering business is not without its dramas due to prima donnas in the kitchen, difficult customers, bands wanting to run things to suit their own agenda and the ever unforgiving presence of alcohol.

“When I used to run the floor, I was something of a martinet to ensure that everything ran according to my script rather than anyone else’s.”

In suburban Adelaide, Kathy Kitt has been the proprietor of Lenzerheide since its inception in 1989. The restaurant serves a range of European dishes and is a popular choice for special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries. There are several function rooms, with the entire venue seating up to 160 guests.

The average bill per person is around $70 and the restaurant has received a swag of awards over the years, including from Restaurant and Catering South Australia.

Kitt says everyone on the floor takes responsibility for the overall service, so if the floor manager is attending to one group of guests, any arriving guests will still be ‘met and greeted’ right away.

“It comes down to training and communication. Some of our staff have been with us for over a decade and we certainly make sure everyone of the 10 floor staff—including two supervisors, cashier and bar staff—is well up to speed. Our managers are constantly evaluating the service provided by the wait staff and if there are any problem areas, we provide the necessary additional training,” she says.

See you next time!

Mures Upper Deck on the Hobart waterfront seats 140 guests and commonly turns over 200 meals on a busy night. For director Ricky McMahon the business is built on the basis of a clear system that is drilled into the wait staff constantly. The seafood specialty restaurant is open seven nights a week.

“Our front of house manager, Leisell Nichols, does a great job in ensuring that our people know what is expected of them,” he says.

“They should always be carrying something from the table to the kitchen and heading back with something else. When it’s busy we’re unable to micro-manage the staff, so we make sure they are fully equipped to serve our guests at the level we expect of them. It’s a matter of having the system ingrained like second nature and ensuring it’s followed to the letter.”

McMahon says younger staff might stay a year or two but invariably they move on and it’s a matter of bringing newcomers
up to speed.

“We often have sisters, brothers or other family members of our staff join the team as well as university students who might be with us for a couple of years. Nichols puts up the roster every fortnight and we do expect they will arrive for their shift.”

Overlooking a glorious stretch of Pittwater at Sydney’s salubrious Palm Beach, Barrenjoey House has seating for 180 guests, offering restaurant and bar service. Dating from the 1920s, the venue welcomes many international tourists and locals alike.

For manager Helen D’Arcy, the greetings and goodbyes to guests are most important and she and her team make a strong effort to learn the names of their local clientele. She says looking guests in the eye and using their name is a good way to remember them. She also makes a note of first names, which she can refer to when bookings are made. Knowing something about the person (such as their job, where they live, their hobbies, etc) keeps the contact real and meaningful.

“It’s important to acknowledge the guests when they arrive, even if we cannot seat them immediately. If there are any birthdays or anniversaries we like to recognise this in an appropriate way. We might serve a complimentary cocktail if it’s a hens’ night or put a candle on a dessert for a birthday,” says D’Arcy.

At Barrenjoey House the host makes an effort to check with the customers that all is to their satisfaction while the main course is being served. The host also works as support to the wait staff when it is busy. She’s also careful to seat the guests in such a way that load is evenly spread between the wait staff.

D’Arcy works hard to be fully aware of the atmosphere around the dining room.

“It’s much better to rectify a situation [if a customer’s unhappy] before the customer has said anything,” she says. “One picks up the ‘vibe’ at a table and if it’s not quite right, we do our best to turn it around. Often we can, but sometimes when customers are unhappy about things unrelated to their dining experience, it is not always possible.”

In her view, the presentation and processing of the bill must be undertaken quickly, so that guests don’t leave with a negative impression.

“Once the bill has been called for, most people are ready to leave and it’s important they depart in a positive frame of mind. We always thank them for their patronage, call them by their names as they leave and make some other personal comment, so our customers know they are welcome back.”

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