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While certainly not as intricate or lengthy a process as opening a restaurant, launching a website about the restaurant business can be a daunting and all-consuming adventure. An email sent into the unknown asking for a response is like a knock on a stranger’s door pleading to come in and be served.
I sent countless emails explaining Modern Restaurant Management’s mission to become a valuable resource for the restaurant industry. To my surprise, many people did respond to those pleas and went out of their way to greet and help a stranger in need.
As I spoke with more people, it seemed there were common threads woven in many of their stories about working in the hospitality profession: tales of passion and enthusiasm, falling in love with the creative process, seeking out mentors, and building relationships with staff and customers alike.
Below is a collection of quotes from those conversations, as restaurateurs answer the question: What is hospitality?
Hospitality Defined by Eight Restaurateurs
1. Chef Eric LeVine
Chef Eric LeVine told MRM his love affair with cooking began by watching his grandmother prepare family meals. That nourishment fueled his hunger to always learn and strive.
Today, LeVine is a Chopped champion, as well as the owner of a ravioli company, two restaurants - Morris Tap & Grill and Paragon Tap & Table - and the author of two cookbooks. He says one key to his success was finding a mentor with similar drive and passion.
LeVine treats his staff as family and regularly dines with them, which he views as a great opportunity to connect with them and educate them about his brand, the industry, the culinary arts, and more.
2. Bert Thornton
Bert Thornton, the Bert behind Bert’s Chili at Waffle House, agreed that the mentor dynamic is central to achieving success in any industry, as well as learning how to be a leader who recognizes the importance of giving back.
“I know a lot of successful people and I don’t know a single one who has not had a great mentor,” the Vice Chairman Emeritus said. “With success comes great responsibility and a part of that responsibility is to provide good ‘coattails’ – the responsibility to develop the next wave of leaders. It’s not what you have that’s important, but what you leave behind."
Levine also stresses the importance of hands on interaction as a relationship building technique: he makes an effort to travel from table to table during meal service, soliciting guest feedback; hearing these immediate reviews allows him to build strong relationships with his customer base.
Thornton still works behind the counter, both because it is part of the Waffle House culture to do so and because he believes it’s “where the action is.” He said having that face-to-face communication with customers enables the team to find out what improvements are needed, if any, and acquire information not readily available when you’re sitting behind a desk all day.
Listening to employees is also a key to empowering staffand showing how their efforts are valued in the restaurant ecosystem. Making those connections with customers and communities is the foundation to creating a brand, according to Thornton, who likens a company’s brand to a cattle brand in that it’s applied, not pursued.
3. Danny Meyer
In an interview with Forbes, here's how restaurant magnate Danny Meyer defined hospitality:
“A great plate of food will never overcome poor hospitality, but amazing hospitality will always be able to overcome a mistake that a cook may have made or that a server may have made.”
When Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine speaks with restaurateurs, we always ask them about who or what has inspired their restaurant journey. Countless times, the answer involves Union Square Hospitality Group CEO Danny Meyer and his hospitality-industry must-read, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. They want to share a meal and conversation with the man whose words on “enlightened hospitality” crystalized their own views and served as a model for their own actions.
Much has changed since the book’s 2006 publication and evolving technology is having an effect on restaurant operations, and the question begs: has Danny Meyer changed the nature of hospitality itself?
4. Susie Fogelson
Susie Fogelson, the former Senior Vice President of Marketing and Brand Strategy at Food Network turned Founder and CEO of F&Co, believes restaurants with staying power understand the necessity of good food matched with enlightened service.
“Those that operate with a guests-first mindset are using things like data to personalize the dining experience to make guests feel valued,” she's said on the matter. “Whether it's a fast casual chain delivering on-demand convenience with a seamless way to order online for pick-up, or a fine dining restaurant utilizing a savvy POS system to remember a guest has an allergy, the data coupled with the soft skills of attentive service adds up to loyalty.”
Fogelson says it’s about managing expectations,“Guests want to be heard, known, and empowered, and restaurants are tasked with the challenge to anticipate their needs and deliver a wide array of great experiences.”
5. Laurie Hamm
“Hospitality has evolved to mold into today's lifestyle, whether it's convenience that's important or having free wifi,” said Laurie Hamm, proprietor of Ho-Ho-Kus Inn & Tavern in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, whose doors first opened in 1890.
“There is no niche in which to stay within, but the willingness to stay malleable is important to survive in the business of hospitality. The human touch is always welcome and needs to be in balance with the convenience of technology tools offered to us, such as take-out ordering, onsite guest-generated, automated ordering from a touch screen, tableside bill processing, online reservations, etc. We can make choices of which technology tools we decide to use without the need to use all of them.”
For Hamm, hospitality remains all about the fundamentals.
“I expect my staff to engage in conversation about the menu items with descriptions, suggestions, and good listening skills, taking any time they can to scan the room for body language (are they looking up to find someone to help them?), reaction after the first bite or two with what they selected to eat, approach the table and ask if everything is to their liking, make sure tables are marked/supplied properly with each course, provide just enough time for each course, drop checks promptly after assuring the experience was complete.”
Hamm echoes Meyer’s view that the experience of the meal is centered in how it makes that person feel.
“We want to immediately disarm our guests and allow them to leave whatever they had going on, prior to their visit with us, at the door,” she said, “appealing to their mood, culinary tastes, and reason for their visit.”
Danny Meyer looks for a high “hospitality quotient” in any restaurant staff he hires, above technical skills or experience.
6. Andrew Greene and Duncan Kwitkor
Andrew Greene and Duncan Kwitkor, co-chefs and founders of the new-to-the-scene Abstract Table in Oakland, California, believe in creating a seamless bridge between FOH and BOH.
“At Abstract Table, we have created a ‘roundtable’ environment, with less emphasis on hierarchy and total focus on respect and understanding. There is no us-versus-them mentality in our restaurant family. Technology is a double-edged sword for the hospitality industry. Social media has had an immensely positive impact on our business in regard to visibility, which is especially critical for new restaurants. On the flip side, managing social media is time-consuming. We try to engage with our customers, respond to criticism, and improve our business as a result of this interaction."
Greene and Kwitkor note the balance many restaurateurs struggle with.
"We think that hospitality can be of the highest caliber without being pretentious or elitist. As restaurateurs and chefs, it is of utmost importance to us to provide an affordable, approachable fine dining experience that diners of all walks of life can indulge in without depleting their bank accounts."
7. Waldy Malouf
Hospitality and F&B PR maven, Karen Schloss, of Diaz Schloss Communications, said she always remembers the words and actions of her major mentor Waldy Malouf, former Executive Chef at The Rainbow Room, chef/owner of Beacon and Waldy's Wood Fired Pizza + Penne, and now an educator/administrator at the CIA.
“He did this years ago at Beacon and called it Empowered Service - where all FOH staff were essentially empowered with the knowledge that they could offer pretty much anything to make an unhappy guest feel accommodated and heard - but only if, in their estimation, it was warranted,” she said. “He entrusted a slew of well-trained servers and managers to make the right move when a guest had legit issues. I've never forgotten - and that was well over 15 years ago!”
8. Joanne Chang
One story that stuck with me was that of Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery + Cafe. When she opened her bakery to share her love of baking with the world, she believed technology would get in the way of her hospitality philosophy and wanted to keep everything simple.
What she quickly realized was that her view of technology and hospitality did not align with her customers’ view. They wanted friendly service and tasty baked goods, but they also wanted the convenience of ordering ahead.
She realized that technology could make service more efficient, wait staff’s lives easier, and the guest experience more enjoyable. Needless to say, with seven locations, she was able to balance hospitality, convenience, and technology while still letting her brand and mission shine through.
What I've learned is that hospitality as I've described it has changed. Enabled by technology, younger generations want hospitality to be quick, efficient, engaging, and correct.
While I was aware of the definition of hospitality, I had never encountered what truly defined the industry. For centuries, hospitality has been valued in disparate cultures across the globe. It’s considered a treasured spiritual gift by many religions and was even a duty required of citizens in ancient Greece.
Not just opening your door to strangers, but willingly welcoming and taking care of them is something we often strive for as humans but rarely achieve. I shouldn't have been surprised by the response I received from an industry where helping strangers feel welcome is part of the everyday business.