Recently, I heard a cook complaining about how today’s restaurant diners think they know as much about food as the chef. The frustrated chef blamed this on Food TV. People watch the Food Network, he said, and they think they know how everything should be cooked. So, not only do they send food back but they try to tell you how to make it. “They don’t know what they’re talking about!” he said.
The Need for Qualified Restaurant Managers
My take was a bit different. I thought that it was the whining restaurant cook that didn’t know what he was talking about. One thing that cooks who spend all their time laboring on the line may not realize is that managing a restaurant is tough!
If you place restaurant management under the umbrella of hospitality management, you will see that there is a much greater shortage of qualified managers in the hotel, restaurant, and wider hospitality industry than there are qualified cooks. The job is so tough and requires so much skill and creativity that the opportunities for advancement (and thus greater salary) may be more numerous for hotel and restaurant management majors than for culinary arts majors.
A Different Kind of Product
Listening to the fellow above complain about the customers in his restaurant, I recognized a problem in viewpoint, and perhaps an overall misconception about what “hospitality” is all about. A cook may look at the food he or she produces as a tangible and concrete product. Customers come to buy and consume that product, and the kitchen staff produces it. Plain and simple.
Let’s look at this attitude a little deeper. Imagine a skilled chef who is confronted by a customer who tells him that a certain dish did not meet their expectations. Furthermore, the customer tells him that the dish was not prepared properly at all. What might this chef say about this confrontation, when complaining about it later?
“I’ve been a chef for many years. I know how to cook my dishes! This customer watches a TV show and suddenly he’s an expert!”
To some extent, the chef is correct. More than ever before, we have access to instant information about anything you can imagine. We often think we understand things that we do not. We may even think we know cooking techniques that we do not. However, what this chef may not realize is that he misunderstands his business!
Food is Only One Part of a Successful Restaurant
Why do people come to restaurants? Do they come to eat food? Sure, but they could eat food at home. Do they, then, come for service? Yes. Do they come to have a good time? Yes. Do they come to relax and unwind? Yes. Check on all of the above.
If you think of the restaurant industry as “providing good food” then you really do not understand the industry. If you think of it as “providing correctly cooked dishes,” likewise.
Now, think of entertaining someone in your home. You want them to relax, have a good time, etc. You certainly would not treat them like a customer consuming a product. You’d treat them like a guest! And here is where the misconception happened for our frustrated chef. He was looking at the diners as “customers purchasing a product.” To be a successful restaurant manager, you must look at the people who visit your restaurant as guests whom you are there to please.
Hospitality as a product is not a tangible concrete thing. Food is part of the experience of good service. But, if a person wanted to “buy food” they could go to the grocery store. They could even buy a complete meal, already prepared at many of today’s large supermarkets. In fact, cooking for large supermarkets, such as Wegmans, is one place culinary arts graduates can find employment.
Meeting Restaurant Guest Expectations
Clearly, people come to restaurants for more than buying food. The problem is that while people have certain expectations when they come to a restaurant, they are not always clear on exactly what they expect out of the experience. In fact, their expectations may change as their visit progresses. In some ways, restaurant guests create the product themselves, by their very expectations. The hotel and lodging business is similar.
The cook may focus on the individual guest who “thinks he is a professional chef,” but what a savvy restaurant manager will focus on is the fact that each and every guest is different, and will have different expectations. No matter how good the food is, there are so many intangibles in good service that what rates as “quality” is highly subjective. This means that no matter how much you work on and improve service, the service is only ever as good as an individual guest decides. You can see how different restaurant service is as a product than, say, a manufactured product built in a factory.
Now, I am not saying that most of us cannot agree on the difference between good food and bad food. Obviously, there are certain food issues that must be solved, and can be considered universals. A restaurant specializing in steaks must be able to consistently prepare the steaks to the desired temperatures, rare, medium rare, etc. A restaurant specializing in sandwiches should not be using stale, tasteless bread.
Is the Customer Always Right?
If you have ever read articles on the internet written by bitter waitstaff or kitchen staff, you’ll know that when they are not complaining about each other, they are complaining about customers. Many over-worked restaurant employees have a hard time with the adage “The customer is always right.”
Maybe the customer is not always right, but the guest is.
However, regardless of whether or not people know all about French cooking techniques, there will never come a time when running a restaurant comes down to “delivering a perfect plate of food.” If you can come close to do this, you have won part of the battle, but ONLY part.
The complaining chef I was speaking of focused on the mistaken reasons the customer had for complaining. When we ask why a guest is complaining, good service asks us to ask this question with the aim of ensuring the guest’s happiness, rather than analyzing the guest’s motivation and deciding whether it they are right or wrong. Yes, your food may be as good as it can get. This should be reflected in the majority of guest experiences. When a problem can be recognized and solved, it should be. Beyond that, the goal is to please the guest. Is the guest right or wrong? It doesn’t matter!
Your Guests Decide When You’ve Done a Good Job
A restaurant manager or restaurant cook cannot decide when the product is perfect. Only the guest can. Since most of the guest’s expectations are subjective, the product will never be perfect. Since the product will never be perfect, the key to success is what? Striving to meet the expectations of guests. Sounds tough, doesn’t it?
Given the above, there will be times when expectations cannot be met. This is especially so since those expectations may not be clearly defined. People come to restaurants in all sorts of moods. A regular customer can come in a cheery mood one week and a grumpy mood the next. Someone who is easy to please during one visit can be harder to please during the next. Given that there are new and unique challenges every day, successful restaurant management focuses not only on providing a consistent quality experience, but on making sure that each and every guest’s experience lives up to their expectations.
Let’s think about it by using a familiar example: McDonald’s. If you think you only go to McDonald’s to get a hamburger and fries, think again. Imagine if McDonald’s opened a franchise in a busy community. Except, instead of a typical McDonald’s restaurant, it was nothing more than a small booth in a strip-mall parking lot, somewhat like a seasonal snow-cone booth. If you wanted to “go to McDonald’s,” you’d have to wait in a long line in the hot sun, perhaps for an hour or more, before finally getting to place your order. Then, after placing the order, you would be shuffled off the to side, with no clear system for receiving your order. You’d wait for another twenty minutes, if not more, and then when your order was finally ready, it would likely go the the wrong person!
Now, do you still think you go to McDonald’s just for the food? Clearly, you have other expectations of the experience. McDonald’s has, though the years, created very clear expectations in its customers mind. You know exactly what ‘service’ to expect. Since there is a fairly well defined culture behind the restaurant experience, experienced diners have general expectations of any restaurant experience. However, those expectations are not nearly as specific and defined as their expectations of a McDonald’s restaurant.
Someone’s expectations of a homogenized fast-food experience like McDonald’s are very limited and defined. But when it comes to a sit-down meal at a “nice restaurant” expectations are not nearly so limited and defined. The guests at a sit-in service-oriented restaurant are not as heterogeneous as those in a McDonald’s.
Is There a Self-Proclaimed Food Expert Epidemic?
We have to ask, though, whether today’s restaurant manager is faced with an epidemic of amateur chefs educated by Food TV. It is highly doubtful that a large proportion of restaurant guests actually send dishes back and launch into a lecture about how to correctly prepare it, even if they do think they know better.
There is a reason why corporate run restaurants put out those little comment and feedback cards. Most unhappy guests don’t actually complain. They simply never come back. This is the reality that our chef needed to become aware of. “Nobody ever complains about my food,” they may say. This may be the literal truth, but not because there are never any problems. You can’t solve problems of which you are unaware, so the feedback of guests, even negative, is a valuable resource.
It is likely though, that the reason this chef seemed to think that “everybody thinks they’re chefs these days,” is due to something called an availability heuristic. Someone telling you how to prepare a dish, and perhaps sounding pompous and making a scene, will stand out in the mind. Even if it happens a few times a year, the sheer spectacle of it, and the negative emotions it brings up, will make it seem as if it happens more than it does. A cook may easily discount the many times when food is sent back for legitimate reasons, but with less dramatic results.
The Rock Star Chef Working the Room
Food TV, especially restaurant makeover shows, including fake ones like Restaurant Stakeout, has created an impression that guest should feel entitled to meet the chef, and discuss the food with them. Undoubtedly, many cooks are becoming increasingly irritated by this tendency, exacerbated by the would-be rock star chef who thinks his job is to work the dining room rather than work the kitchen.
The idea that anytime there is a question about the food, or a problem with it the chef should be available to run out and diffuse the situation is a bit ridiculous. This is the job of the manager, or whomever is appointed to manage guest satisfaction on the floor. A chef who is forced out on the dining room floor on a regular enough basis may be a chef who is working with an incompetent manager. This underscores the need for qualified restaurant managers who understand the intricacies of managing service operations.
Hotel and Restaurant Management Education
In the past, restaurant mangers were most often promoted from within. Even those hired from the outside as managers many times came into restaurants having had previous management experience in other types of businesses. I would predict that more and more restaurant owners will be not only be seeking to hire managers with a great deal of restaurant experience, but a solid education in hotel and restaurant management, hotel and food service management, hospitality management, etc. The hospitality service industry is growing and as it does, the need for qualified educated managers will grow.