"It's a great time to be a restaurant customer," says Larry Huber, co-owner of Clean Plate Club, which operates six restaurants (including Pete Miller's and Davis Street Fishmarket) in Chicago's suburbs. "It's no longer business as usual. We're zeroing in on customer service, and I see operators all headed in the same direction."
There's no question that restaurant spending is down. But take a look at Chicago's most popular restaurants, and you'll see good customer counts midweek and full tables on the weekend. There's money being spent out there, and the smart restaurants are figuring out how to get their share.And it's all about keeping the customer happy.
I solicited tips from several restaurateurs (operators of multiple units), mixed in a few of the most common gripes (which I receive on a daily basis), added one or two of my own pet peeves and developed 10 tips -- make that 10 Commandments -- that every restaurant should be following:
1. Assign not the job of the hostess to the unworthy. The host stand is no place for an inexperienced ditz who looks good in a tight black dress. You want someone who can greet people with a smile, someone who'll try to accommodate last-minute arrivals, someone who doesn't mind grabbing a water pitcher if that's what's needed.
2. Prepare for guests a pleasant table. Customers aren't in your restaurant to exercise their short-term memory skills. If there are more than two specials, print them out on a card -- with prices. And why would anyone hand a foursome four menus but just one specials list?
3. Honor thy regulars. It's fine to reach out for new business, but retaining your core audience -- the people who already enjoy and patronize your restaurant -- is key. Whether it's a free dessert, a wine upgrade or doubling their frequent-diner points, let them know that they're appreciated.
4. Work well the service fundamentals. A ridiculous number of the gripes I hear from customers focus on basic service points that nobody should get wrong these days. Gather your people, and have a little spring-training session. Asking before clearing a plate is as important as hitting the cutoff man. Interrupting a table conversation is as bad as missing a "bunt" sign. Refill those water glasses and coffee cups as though your job depends on it. Because it might.
5. Hearken to thy feedback. Worse than any service misstep is the sense that complaints are being ignored. If a customer has a valid complaint, own up to it, make amends and do whatever you can to turn this negative into a positive. And pay attention to other customer comments. "The best thing to happen to us is the customer comments from OpenTable.com," says Alex Dana of the Rosebud Restaurants Group. "They send them in like you wouldn't believe, and I hold my workers accountable."
6. Rethinkest thy wine list. The trick is not to drop wine prices -- though some businesses report success with half-price bottles or "20 bottles at $20" off-night promotions. If you want to goose sales, why not expand your wine list at the lower end, offering more bottles in the $35-and-under range? With by-the-glass wines, take the opposite approach: Add more premium pours, for the serious drinker who doesn't want to drop $72 for a bottle but who'll pay $18 for a glass of the same thing.
7. Retainest thou thy trained employees. Rich Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (with restaurants in Chicago, Las Vegas and Phoenix, among other locations) says, "We're doing all kinds of things not to eliminate jobs. We train people to be able to fill in at another restaurant where it's busier. By being flexible and doing that, you preserve people."
8. Expand thy horizons beyond the dining room. Noting that companies are cutting back on off-site meetings, Grant DePorter, president of Harry Caray's Restaurant Group, launched Harry's To Go, a pickup and delivery service with menus geared toward breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings. If the businesses aren't coming to you, consider going to the businesses.
9. Make flexibility thy watchword. Private-event customers are negotiating tougher than ever, seeking and getting concessions on everything from room charges to corkage fees. "Everybody's pushing the envelope," Huber says. "The restaurants holding firm typically are losing the business. We'd rather get the event with smaller margins than not get it at all."
10. Work today with an eye on tomorrow. "We know we're not going to come anywhere near having one of our best years," Melman says. "But we can build a foundation for the future with better hiring, better training, better buying. When so many things are out of your control, you have to work on things in your control."