From reading the room to empowering teams to enhance the guest experience, here are the secrets of stellar service from the UK's top front of house professionals
You're likely to hear AC/DC and Def Leppard blasting out of 22-seat fine dining restaurant the Wilderness in Birmingham, which general manager Sonal Clare says is central to the nightclub-esque vibe.
"The atmosphere isn't the traditional environment you'd find in fine dining restaurants," he explains, "We want people to come and have a good time and feel like rock stars."
The approach to service is flexible and allows the team to offer gestures of goodwill, such as giving a gift voucher to a table who have never been to a fine dining restaurant before or using the Coravin to serve a wine that isn't usually available by the glass. It's a skill to provide a service to each guest that is also consistent with the restaurant's brand.
"We're a small restaurant – I'm not saying we do that every time –but those little acts of goodwill are what hospitality's all about and sometimes we overlook that," says Clare.
Don't underestimate the aspects of service the guest doesn't see, such as managing the pace and communicating across both front and back of house, for example, to say that a table needs a bit more time to finish their wine pairing before moving on to the next course. Observation and communication are key and that includes keeping an eye on the floor.
"If you switch off or disappear for 10 minutes off the floor, you lose where you are because things move quite fast," says Clare.
Observation is also important when reading a guest, but Clare stresses that at the same time it's not about making assumptions.
For instance, a guest may ask for a bottle of a wine they enjoyed as part of a £95 wine flight without realising that it costs £120 a bottle.
Those little acts of goodwill, it's what hospitality's all about
It takes care and sensitivity to quietly communicate this to a guest without patronising them, while also ensuring they're not in for a surprise when the bill arrives.
The same applies to upselling: "I've learned over time to say, ‘would you be interested in having a glass of wine?' but there are so many ways you can interpret that," Clare explains, pointing out that the price of the wine must also be clearly communicated to ensure a guest doesn't assume they're being offered a free drink. He suggests: "Would you like me to organise a drink for you to go with your wagyu? We've got a lovely glass of Dolcetto which is £X per glass."
Creating the right restaurant atmosphere
There's a lot to think about when designing the right atmosphere for a restaurant, says 2023 Acorn Award-winner Hayleigh Mullen, restaurant manager of Iasg at the Kimpton Blythswood Square hotel in Glasgow.
Iasg has a DJ every Friday and Saturday evening, which helps establish the mood.
"If you're enjoying your drink and the music, you'll tend to sit back and have another drink – if you're not enjoying the music, you'll tend to leave," Mullen points out.
Friday's playlist, for example, is upbeat but not distracting. "We are still a restaurant and it's definitely not a party," says Mullen, but people may have just finished work for the weekend and be in the mood for some Nile Rodgers and Sister Sledge.
When it comes to guest interaction, sides and nibbles to start are "probably your two easiest upsells... most people will say yes to that", she says, and upselling can enhance the guest experience if done in the right way.
Recommending a side of potatoes for a lamb dish might turn the arrival of a smaller plate that may disappoint a hungry guest into a positive upsell and a happy customer.
"Speak to your guest and make it more of a conversation with them, rather than a push," Mullen explains. To do this, the team needs to know what they're selling and should have tried every item on the menu so they're aware of what each dish looks like, how big it is and what goes with it.
Meanwhile, Mullen emphasises the importance of a table having the same server throughout to allow them to develop a rapport and understanding of what level of service to provide. She warns against jumping onto someone else's section, even if they're struggling during a busy service, and instead asking how you can help.
"They need to be the one who's running it, they need to get that connection with the guest," she points out. "If you've got several people coming in and out of a section, they're not getting that experience and the special moment."
It's also vital to step back and take a few seconds to read a table if things have turned sour, such as an argument among guests, says Mullen, so that you're not potentially making a situation worse. There are sensitive ways of diffusing tension and often, politely asking guests if they'd like to move somewhere more private will be enough to nip it in the bud.
Get team members involved in being creative
Christie Hayes, restaurant manager of Michelin-starred Beach House in Swansea and the Institute of Hospitality's Restaurant Manager of the Year 2023, says all team members are encouraged to offer their ideas and creative solutions.
"Every single person makes a difference here every single day, whether it's for the guest or for each other," she says. "There are ways to be creative beyond cooking and art forms, in terms of setting up procedures for guests or service."
Team members are also cross-trained, with waiting staff doing shifts in the kitchen and the bar and vice versa, which helps forge mutual understanding between back and front of house. The team will then discuss what they've learned with their colleagues afterwards.
"That's really important in terms of product knowledge, to be able to say, ‘I know how this is done because I've done it myself'," explains Hayes, adding that the front of house team also gets involved with the foraging.
"I took great pride in serving the wild garlic sauce on one of our previous dishes and telling guests, ‘I got this wild garlic this morning from the Mumbles'."
As a manager, she stresses the importance of getting to know your team as individuals to encourage them to express their passions and personalities, which will result in guests receiving better and more authentic service. "The worst thing you can do is try to force someone to be what they're not," she says.
"If somebody is a little bit quieter or bolder, you need to embrace that. Of course, there needs to be a consistent message across the restaurant, but you should also be playing to people's strengths and making sure they feel comfortable to express their own individuality at the table to the guest and with each other as well."
To start building a relationship with a guest that is more than simply transactional, she says the most important thing is investing time in asking questions about something outside their dining experience. "Something as small as, ‘how's your day been so far?' can lead on to the most unbelievable conversation. Engaging with the guest beyond their experience in the restaurant is really helpful in terms of reading someone and finding out about their character," she explains.
Although her top tip for front of house professionals is more practical: always bring a change of shoes, because you never know when your feet will start aching during a shift.
Be welcoming to all staff
Lucy Do says it was a conscious decision to create a service at her west London micropub, the Dodo in Hanwell, that is open and welcoming to all – values that her all-female team lives and breathes.
"We have really strong values as a business," Do explains. "We constantly talk about those values and being a safe space for people to come in for a friendly chat."
Service at the Dodo is purposely informal and egalitarian. There's no obvious bar from which to order as the pub offers informal table service. At quiet times, staff are encouraged to pull up a chair alongside their patrons.
"We want people to feel equal to the people they're serving," says Do. "We want it to feel like you've stepped into somebody's home."
The informal style encourages staff to express their personalities, get to know regulars and upsell in a way they feel comfortable with.
"Because we're a small, community-focused pub, we'll know what they want off the board immediately. That's not necessarily upselling, but we know what they want before they come in, and that really adds to their experience," she says. "People like the recommendations and that we know what they like."
Due to the egalitarian style of service, guests and staff also feel equally empowered to call out inappropriate behaviour and ensure the venue remains a safe space for all.
"There are instances where somebody may have made a joke that doesn't align with what we believe in this pub, and they will immediately be called up on that by either myself or one of the team members," says Do.
As long as they haven't really overstepped the mark, she encourages an open conversation approach, explaining why it's wrong to give them the chance to learn and understand.
The website and social media have been key to communicating the pub's values and service style. When female team members experienced sexism and harassment while on shift, Do published a blog on the Dodo's website making the venue's stance clear on boundaries and its zero tolerance policy. She says it's about being "brave in that messaging and clear about our values", which subsequently attracts customers who align with those values – and discourages those who don't.
"I'm not afraid to make a stand on those things because I never want people to come into our space and experience that," she says.
Enhance the guest experience with small touches
At the Greyhound in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, service has been designed entirely around guest comfort. There is a selection of reading glasses available for guests who may have forgotten theirs to read the menu, and the front of house team will make a note of the individual's prescription and have the glasses on the table for their next visit. They'll also register whether a guest is left-handed when setting up their cutlery, and regular guests get their own engraved napkin rings.
"Every single table has an imaginary red circle around it and it's your job to turn it green before they leave. It will only turn green when you know you have done everything in your power to enhance their experience in your own way," says co-proprietor Daniel Crump, who opened the venue in 2019 with wife Margriet Vandezande-Crump.
However, good service is also about being authentic. If guests feel genuinely comfortable, he says, they'll be more likely to express how they want to be treated or if something isn't quite right. The same goes with inauthentic upselling, which he says a guest can see through if it's not natural. Instead, staff are fully equipped with knowledge of the dishes, beverages and produce through extensive training for at least an hour every day and an exam every two to three weeks.
New joiners are given a training checklist but told to tick it off themselves only when they feel comfortable that they have mastered each section, allowing management to ascertain where they might need extra support.
"Everybody trains differently and learns things at different rates," points out Crump.
But despite the focus on training, the front of house team is encouraged to provide guests with a bespoke service. A business lunch is unlikely to be interested in hearing where the mackerel was sourced, whereas a couple celebrating their anniversary may well be keen on a garden tour and meeting the head chef. It's all about gauging the service level based on the table's interest and enthusiasm.
"To create special memories for people, whether it's a celebration or not, to do that for a living, day in day out, is a very special occupation," says Crump.
"The service is still evolving but it's about being sharp; being true to yourself. It doesn't matter who a guest is or how much they spend, everyone gets the same service. That is the kind of service we want to implement."
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