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  • Writer's pictureDavid B Townsend

5 Star Dining in Casual Setting

The percentage of ‘fine dining’ restaurants is less than 12% of all eating establishments in America. Dominated by casual and fast food outlets the Food & Beverage segment that can afford to market to this minor market sector is slim. It requires a large demographic location, a higher than usual income level, and/or a destination that can compete with others in a similar segment of the market- i.e trendy downtown neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean the casual restaurateur can’t take a few elements from the fine dining world to incorporate into their own operation for a competitive edge in casual dining.

Fine Dining isn’t solely about expensive ingredients or quality of food preparation. It’s as much about the style of service and ambiance you create to win over and create loyal guests. It starts with the way you present your physical location from décor and lighting to the music and overall feeling of ‘a place to enjoy’. Pay attention to the finer points; from how you present staff to the public and treat a guest from the outset. Greetings at the door, attitude, dress, smells from the kitchen, cleanliness, openness and flow of the dining room as you seat a guest are all part of the picture you paint to create a feeling and overall engaging sense that brands you. It's your visual presentations and attention to details that will create the fine ambiance you desire.

If you’re branding as casual-elegance your menus are clean, crisp, with descriptions that entice and create anticipation. Your servers’ knowing the difference between a salmon steak and a fillet is without saying only the start. They are knowledgeable on the meat preparations, the makeup of sauces, and the ingredients of each and every dish in detail. They should know what the special ingredient is when the guest askes "what is that flavor I detect in the mashed potatoes?"

Servers need to have a sense of grace and be able to anticipate the guests’ needs by paying attention and listening. Grace in service means being unobtrusive when clearing plates, using basic standards of service: serving from the left, pouring wine from the right, clearing unused flatware and plates as the meal moves forward.

Here is my list of attributes any owner can impress on their Servers. It will not only place you a step above many in your marketplace but increase sales and tips for you and the staff.

~1] Appearance- Uniforms neat, hair groomed and nails clean, no excess makeup. An attractive, well-groomed server starts the meal with a rapport that can either make or break the progression of events that follow. First impressions are a powerful starting point in the guest's mind. It forms their initial opinion of your operation and generates an expectation.

~2] Aptitude- Know the menu- period. Aptitude requires you know sauces and cooking

techniques. A good server memorizes specifics of the chef’s specials and the wine which today you may be featuring as part of an incentive program. Confidence in this knowledge promotes better sales and encourages conversations about the food with the guests.

~3] Attitude- Treat the guest with dignity and respect. Suggests items based on what they are already ordering. Use up-selling to enhance the meal, and not just build a check average. Apologize as needed if a problem arises, and correct As Soon As Possible. Be nice, never arrogant. Remember the golden rule of customer service: 'the customer is always right'.

~4] Anticipation- Knowing the next two steps in the service the guests may need. A server should be thinking; 'more wine when I return, the water glasses are half full, the salad course is taking longer than normal- I don't want to 'fire' the entree just yet'. Being present with a new basket of bread before the guest even knows they need it will show them you are following the progression of the meal and help them to relax and enjoy.

~5] Grace- Possible one of the most important attributes of a great server. It about being in a graceful dance, movements rehearsed. You should be able to do the most rigorous tasks without a struggle; like bringing three full

platters to a table without a tray. Or, using a tray for table-side service if you have space. Clearing dirty dishes and unnecessary flatware with style and no mess left behind. Good service is quiet and unobtrusive.

There is an etiquette that distinguishes the fine dining experience from the casual scene. No one is out for the evening to become friends with the server. The premise of fine dining is a bit more formal by its historical nature. A guest hosting a party doesn’t want your server’s comments on their day, leaning over to whisper to one of the guests, and they don’t want them to sit down at the table to take the order.

There is a time and place for friendly conversation and I give you an example from experience with a Carmel restaurant. A local Actor & Director was a frequent guest, often conducting business over dinner. The staff and I were always unobtrusive and usually placed his group in a far corner, so as not to draw attention. One night after all but one of his guests had left he was waiting by the entry and commented on the meal. I took that as an invitation and I mentioned one of his recent films and how it left me with an impact. He was modest and appreciative. It was simple, complimentary and over quickly.

Depending on the level of service you wish to provide your guests the methods, or service standards need to be practiced and sharpen by staff so as to be consistent with every meal, every team member. Servers need a method to take the order and place the plate in front of the guest without asking which entree belongs where.

There are hundreds of sources on ‘service standards’ available in books and on the Web. It’s up to you; the restaurateur to determine the level of refinement you want to introduce into the daily food service operation. It only takes a plan of action, once you decide which attributes you want to encourage in your staff. It can make a huge difference in your overall appeal to your local market, encourage your chef to reach new heights, and make more money for you and your servers.

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