The actor Robert Duvall in the film Apocalypse Now climbs out of his helicopter after successfully bombing a Vietnamese village, inhales deeply and says: “I love the smell of Napalm. It’s the smell of victory.”
His words take me back 13 years to when I first came into the business. Practically all of my memories of that time are associated with smell. When you consider that I came from an office environment where smells played no part in my working life, I suppose it is not surprising that the nose played such a vivid and memorable part in my first impressions.
The mere act of going into a restaurant for an interview was totally novel. But even more unusual was the fact that as I entered the premises, the air was full of the unmistakable smells of cooking, something I had never before associated with jobs and interviews.
That first whiff told my unconscious mind to prepare to abandon my antiseptic, smell-less office world and prepare to enter a new world of aromas and fragrance. From that day forward, I began to appreciate the “nose” as one of the restaurateur’s most vital tools. I put “nose” in quotes because I mean it in both a literal as well as a metaphoric sense.
Of course, in this business our dependence on our noses in determining good wines and food is taken for granted. Somewhat less obvious is the need for a good nose to make sense of the whirl of people and events that we experience daily. Without it, we would flounder in a sea of mediocrity. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
To be good in my profession you need a quick “nose” for people. In the first place, we are forced to get the measure of our customers instantly if we are to give them the type of personal service that suits them best – does the customer want chumminess or aloofness from the waiting staff?
In the second place, you need a quick “nose” to take measure of the potential of future employees. Let’s face it, we all spend a lot of time interviewing, far more than we would like, and far more than non-retailing professions. It’s the burden of our calling. There often isn’t the time for in-depth discussion, so we have to be quick and accurate in sussing an applicant’s suitability for a particular job.
Besides a quick nose for people, you might need a quick “nose” for checking out events. Unnervingly for my staff and management I find that I can walk into either of my places and smell, in a split second, who the manager on duty is even before I spot him. Moreover, just as quickly I can smell if he is running his shift well or not, and what the problem areas are. All this happens in almost a fraction of a second and I suppose is dependent on rapidly and unconsciously breathing in hundreds of tiny clues.
I also find that I can smell whether other restaurants are running smoothly or not. This often dismays my family and friends when we go out to eat.
I feel sure that my ability to “smell” people and events is not unique. It’s a safe bet that anyone who has achieved even moderate success in the restaurant or hotel business must have a highly developed and trained proboscis. But the question I ask myself is: did we have this ability before we got into this business or did the business force us to develop it out of sheer necessity?