Restaurant Service: A Discussion

Twelve Austin professionals come to the table in an effort to define, demystify, and defend the most controversial aspect of dining out

Behind the bar (l-r): Fino's Bill Norris and Vespaio's Tom 
Upthegrove; sitting at the bar (l-r): Vespaio's Susan 
Shields, Castle Hill's Sharon Bright, Jeffrey's Johnny 
Guffey, and the Cafe at the Four Seasons' Winston 
Shipman; seated at the table (l-r): Manuel's/Changos' 
Ahmad Modoni, Magnolia Cafe's Mahala Guevara, Fonda 
San Miguel's Steven Adams, and Asti's Rachel McCown; 
standing: Matt's El Rancho's Edward Zambrano
Behind the bar (l-r): Fino's Bill Norris and Vespaio's Tom Upthegrove; sitting at the bar (l-r): Vespaio's Susan Shields, Castle Hill's Sharon Bright, Jeffrey's Johnny Guffey, and the Cafe at the Four Seasons' Winston Shipman; seated at the table (l-r): Manuel's/Changos' Ahmad Modoni, Magnolia Cafe's Mahala Guevara, Fonda San Miguel's Steven Adams, and Asti's Rachel McCown; standing: Matt's El Rancho's Edward Zambrano (Photo By John Anderson)

So, what is it about service in restaurants? How many times have you heard someone say, "The food is great, but the service stinks"? How often have you declined to return to a place because you had an unpleasant experience with a waiter? Why do we care so much? And, what, exactly, constitutes good service, anyway?

The answers are complicated, something like trying to define good quality of life. While wrestling with the idea, I polled 10 friends for definitions of good restaurant service (their only common ground is that none are food professionals and all like to eat out). The various answers reveal the struggle to articulate what good service means. Thoughts ranged from the metaphorically specific – "keeping my glass filled" – to the metaphysical – "good service is when I feel love: for me, for the food, and for the ritual of nourishment."

Other responses included "attentive but not obtrusive, never interrupting;" "problems are handled pleasantly and quickly;" "educated answers about the food and wine;" "just someone to make sure I have everything – disappearing hacks me off;" "faithfully arriving at the table when needed, before I have to ask for attention;" and, perhaps most revealing, "it's very easy to describe bad service, but much more challenging to pinpoint what makes it good. ... A good server is akin to a chef's mystery ingredient: I leave the dinner saying, 'I don't know exactly what it was, but this evening has been just great!'"

Are we getting somewhere? Attention, love, comfort, nourishment. Needs being met intuitively and unobtrusively. Clearly, there is much more at stake here than a waitperson's technical competence, which is indeed critical. Still, we're not just talking about deftly opening wine or serving to the left, clearing from the right.

In its original French usage, the term restaurant simply meant a restorative: a food or remedy that renews strength in an ailing or tired individual, a health-giving consommé prepared by a skilled restaurateur. An establishment where a chef prepared food and a waiter served it to guests was not called a restaurant until the 1820s. But, somehow, the original meaning of restaurant has survived in our collective unconscious. Wittingly or not, we go out to eat to be restored in body and spirit. We want prepared food that pleases our palates and fortifies our bellies, and we want intelligent, caring service to soothe our weary souls.


That Thing You Do

How does a restaurant's waitstaff minister to these subtle, intangible needs while conveying the food and drink from kitchen and bar to table? How do the best and most successful practitioners manage to make us feel both content and important, wanting to return for more? The Chronicle Food section aimed to find out.

Food Editor Virginia B. Wood, fellow writer Kate Thornberry, and I sat down for a couple of hours with an impressive panel of Austin's premier servers (see "At the Table: Our Panel of Service Experts, right). We asked them to talk about themselves, their chosen profession, and their insights about providing the exceptional service for which they are known. We had some questions in mind, but mainly, we just wanted to hear what they had to say.

As it turns out, they had plenty to say: These are experienced, articulate, and thoughtful professionals who've carefully observed what customers want and considered exactly how to deliver it. They take great pride and personal satisfaction in their work, and they're eager to share thoughts on how they understand and do their jobs. The 12 participants expressed much consensus about what makes for successful service that is rewarding not only for restaurant guests, but for those who serve. Aspiring waiters, take heed.


The Foundations of Service: Personality and Work Ethic

One topic that immediately emerged is that, quite possibly, great waiters are born and not made. Susan Shields of Vespaio remembers eating out with her parents and having "this weird feeling ever since I was a very little girl that I would be a good waitress." While mastery of the required service skills is essential, the panel made it perfectly clear that if someone doesn't enter the profession with the right personality and work ethic, that someone is not going to succeed.

As Mahala Guevara, general manager of Magnolia Cafe, puts it, "I don't hire for restaurant experience; I kind of don't care. What I look for is someone who takes things upon themselves, feels that sense of responsibility. 'If something's not right, I'll make it right,' is what I know I can't train; I can't teach someone how to be that kind of person. I can tell that about people most of the time when I meet them."

Restaurant Service: A Discussion
Illustration By Jason Stout

Manuel's chef/owner Ahmad Modoni agrees. "Yes, you can teach them about the job itself in a couple of weeks if they are smart ... and if they care. I like to hire people with no experience so I can mold them, train them. Lots of people [serving] in this town have no idea why they are in this business. No idea."

"To do what we do, you really have to like people," says Winston Shipman of the Four Seasons. "I don't believe in pretense; when I'm working, I am who I always am. And I like being nice to people."

Steven Adams from Fonda San Miguel deconstructs: "There's the technical part, which we all work on, and then there's the intuitive, or artistic part. Like the art-and-science, right-brain, left-brain aspect of anything. The technical part is measurable stuff, the things you can write down. The art is the unexpected, the intangible way in which you size people up and understand how they want to interact. And little things make a big difference. When you pay attention to the small things, it shows that you care, and it makes things happen nicely."

"I really like getting dressed up and opening the door and 'here they come!'" Shields says. "It's all about the show." Shipman and others agree. "It's about as close to showbiz as you can get without having to audition."


What About Training?

The group expresses firm consensus that training is a critical tool in providing good service; they also agree that said training is often inadequately addressed. (If you eat out in Austin, I daresay you can attest to that.) With a few exceptions, the servers recalled that when they began their careers, they were, as Johnny Guffey of Jeffrey's says, "just thrown out on the floor," and left to figure it out for themselves "Most restaurants, they don't take the time to train," Modoni adds. "They just let servers go right out there, and that is a disaster situation."

Shipman remembers that in his first serving job, "it was chaos, just managed chaos ... going out on the floor was like walking through a bad neighborhood. You just tried to avoid full body contact." Guevara had a similar experience: "I started at Magnolia as [a] host, and I wasn't trained. I worked there for months before I ever met the general manager, and I had no idea what was expected of me. It was left up to me to make up the rules of how I would do my job; it felt like everyone was kind of an independent contractor. Now, I am the GM and in charge of training."

However, Sharon Bright says, "I started at Castle Hill when David and Cathe Dailey were there, and it was all about training. They would sit down with all the employees and go over everything, any words you didn't know, any food you didn't know, anything you hadn't any clue about. They were passionate that the servers knew as much about the food as the kitchen knew, and incorporating that into what was good about the restaurant, what would make people come back."

Both Shields and Vespaio bartender Tom Upthegrove started their careers in chain restaurants; they had positive comments about their corporate training. "My first job was at Bennigan's, and we had like six months of intensive training," Upthegrove says. "We had to memorize a manual this thick." Shields began at Houston's, where "they had a great training program. That restaurant was designed to always work at top volume with everyone working as a team." After that, she says, "I realized that I had it down, I had every skill, so it was a question of finding a place with the food and wine and people that interested me enough to put those skills to work."

Rachel McCown of Asti concurs on the importance of finding the right venue to perfect received corporate training. "Those restaurants want waiters to be robots. The restaurants that we love here in Austin are the ones with personality."

According to Shipman, the Four Seasons' training manual includes "this 56-point thing we are supposed to hit in a 70-minute period. There's supposed to be a two-week training program, but usually it works out that the person gets trained until it's really busy one day, then you throw them out on the floor."

"Fonda has a training manual," Adams says, "But that's just the beginning. The real training is done by following experienced people and watching what they do; they teach you. You learn the ropes, but it leaves room to develop your own individual style." Modoni emphasizes that "we train our staff to remember, 'You are here to please the customer. You make sure the customer is happy.'"

Restaurant Service: A Discussion
Illustration By Jason Stout

All parties agree that continuing education for waitstaff benefits everyone, guests and servers alike. "This gig has taught me so much about food and wine," Upthegrove says. "I've become passionate, especially about the wine."


Team, Team, Team

If any point comes across, it's that it is almost impossible to provide good restaurant service in a vacuum. The kitchen, the management, the bar, and the waitstaff provide the four legs upon which rests the table of guest satisfaction. If any leg wobbles, it's up to everyone to work together to keep the table steady, the service smooth, and the guests content.

"Teamwork is critical," Adams says. "If you have any downtime, you need to connect in some way with guests at someone else's tables, see if you can assist. I have great confidence in my co-workers; I know they all give good service."

"At Matt's El Rancho," Edward Zambrano asserts, "if you don't have a really good busboy, it will break you. We do such a high volume, you've got to develop a relationship with your busboy so when you need help, he's gonna be there for you."

"In the early days at Fonda, we didn't have but one busboy," Modoni remembers. "We all helped each other, the waiters had teamwork like a clock. I look at some restaurants, there is no teamwork; you hear 'it's not my section.' They are in la-la land!" Guffy echoes: "'Not my section' ... those are the most horrible words you can ever say to a guest or to a co-worker."

"I literally cannot imagine a situation at Vespaio," Shields says, "where if I asked someone to help me, they would say no. That just would never happen. Not only the busboys, but the hostess, even the owner ... that's the spirit of service; that's the spirit of working in a restaurant." Continues Guffy: "We're all in this together. We are here to serve the guests; we can't afford to fight among each other, or slack off, or take something that someone says too personally."

Tyrone Soares, of Asti and 34th Street Cafe, points out that "when you have a situation where everything has to happen at once, all the food must be run at once, all the clearing must be done at once, if there is a person who appears to be slacking off, it's time for the Group Shaming."

Although everyone laughs, it's clear that this is no joke.


It's About Hospitality

A question about service vs. hospitality makes the group thoughtful. Guevara expresses the first idea. "Hospitality is part of my cultural legacy and part of who I am. It's how I identify in this world. I love interacting with customers. I love interacting with the people providing service, every part of it, and I really believe in the concept of hospitality."

Soares continues, "There's the whole notion of 'reading your table,' figuring out what each one wants. Some people just want you to get it done, so you make sure their water is full and everything goes smoothly. Then there are people who want hospitality. ... Regulars especially want to know who we are, and for us to know who they are."

"You can't have hospitality without service, which must be seamless," Shields says. "You shouldn't have to be talking about service, addressing what is actually going on, but you create a moment around that, where customers don't even realize that service is happening." Soares agrees: "Service is just your starting point. You get that right, and then you deliver hospitality beyond that."

Restaurant Service: A Discussion
Illustration By Jason Stout

"I look at it like, this place is my home, you are coming to my home," Modoni offers, as Guffy picks up the thread. "It's like giving an endless dinner party," he says, "where you don't have to cook or wash dishes." Modoni adds, "I hear a knock on the door, I open the door, I smile, I have a nice dinner for you, we open a nice bottle of wine. That's what I tell my waitstaff all the time, 'This is your home; make your guests comfortable.'"


Only Connect

The importance of establishing a connection between server and guest comes up repeatedly. Guevara tries to explain: "It's about creating that space for the guests; it's about them, kind of like therapy. When you talk to your therapist, it's about you, not about the therapist. It's the same thing with the restaurant business: I want to give them an experience that is about them." Adams agrees. "We strive to get it all done, but not to get in the way of the guests. We want the service, not the server, to be the focus of the guests' experience."

"In this town, you may be waiting on a guy in flip-flops and baggy shorts," says Fino bartender and former New Yorker Bill Norris, "and he just may be the guy who owns Dell. It's one of the things I like about Austin: You can't judge anybody by their cover."

Bright says, "It's all about that connection of personality between people; it really makes me feel blessed. ... I need to do my art thing, my other work, but it's so much easier to go in [to Castle Hill] and get all this connection, this gratification from serving – when I'm entertaining, I'm having fun."

Adams believes that it comes down to "personal connection, part of the 'art' of the job. If you've made this connection, established this level of comfort, then if something goes wrong – and it's very difficult to provide perfect service – then people tend to be more forgiving. It's important to show that I'm grateful, that I appreciate that they're there."


Why Do They Do It?

"Of course we're all out to make money, for ourselves, for the restaurant, for our investors. But the difference between service and hospitality is making a meaningful life for yourself in the restaurant business," Guevara says. "If you asked somebody what all of us would say about our jobs, they'd expect, 'Oh, the money is great, we don't have to get up early, people just hand us cash for not doing much.' None of them would guess that our passion for this job has very little to do with that. I know there are waiters like that out there. But one of the things I try to teach my guests is that what I do is because I love it. I don't care what you leave me, I don't care what you order, I don't care what wine you drink. What I care about is that you get what the restaurant is about, and that you have the experience that I want to have when I go out."

"That money thing, it doesn't even enter my mind," Shipman concurs. "I know there are waiters who think only of the money, but it just doesn't work like that. They've got the concept all twisted up. Other people talk about having 'real' jobs. ... I consider this to be much more real than people's work in a cubicle, in an office, stuck in rush-hour traffic on the freeway."

"Many of my regular guests feel like I am part of their family," Zambrano says. "It's a good feeling, you know? I love it. I consider this my profession. I'm doing good, thank God, I enjoy it. I got a great deal."

Modoni says, "The way I look at the hospitality industry, your soul, your heart, everything, is right in there. You get close to people, you get to know them, that is my enjoyment, just making some people happy ... offer them great wine, good food. I have been very successful at it. And I am extremely happy."

"My son asked me why I do it," Adams says. "I really get a personal, emotional reward when I have a good time with guests, when guests have a good experience. We have our regulars, and they are just the greatest part ... plus, other new people you meet ... it's all just extra rewarding for me."


Last Words

As the session wound down, Modoni spoke up again. "There is one thing I would like to say: This is the work we have chosen. I really want the public to respect this profession as a profession. From the time you open the restaurant until you close the damn thing, it is a lot of hard work." Norris agrees: "We spend as much time working on our feet as you spend sitting in your cubicle."

Modoni adds, "There's a lot of headache, a lot of anxiety. Stuff goes on behind the scenes that the customer does not see; all they see is the smiling face – which is great, as it should be – but please, respect us in our profession." Shields points out, "We do have white collars, lots of us!" while Norris says, "Don't assume that the person standing in front of you is stupid. That is my biggest complaint. I have a master's degree and this is the work I do. You can yell at me if you want, but please don't assume that I'm dumb."

So there you have it: what delivering good restaurant service means to the best and most popular practitioners in town; how they work to understand you, please you, and make your dining experience what you wish it to be. For them – and for us – the standard, however unquantifiable, has been set pretty high. end story

  • More of the Story

  • At the Table

    Our panel of service experts

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