–Schnik’s Note– I have the pleasure of knowing this business owner and I consider them great friends. Gaining the perspective on Customer Service from the owner’s point of view is something I’ve considered doing but needed the right storyteller. Here’s their story. If you’re ever in Camas, Washington, and soon to be Vancouver, Washington – Check out Twilight Pizza, they really do make you feel at home. (I suggest the T-Rex Pizza!) All added photos and emphasis are mine.
What do we sell at a restaurant? Food is the obvious answer, although I really believe that what we sell is temporary relief from the stresses of reality. In some ways, a restaurant is much like a movie. The goal of a movie is to offer temporary escape from reality. If the movie fails to suspend our disbelief, breaks the veil of unreality, well, then, hopefully that was the intent. But if that wasn’t the intent, and the movie fails to fully envelop us in its world, well, then, the movie’s probably a failure. Or, as my business/life partner husband says, “It’s probably an Adam Sandler movie.” (Forgive me, Adam, I liked most of your earlier work.) But I digress….
If, when you visit our restaurant, we fail to allow you to escape the stresses of life, if we can’t sweep you off of your feet and create a place where you are the center of our universe, if for but a small moment in time, then I feel we have failed in our goal.
We have tried to create this comfortable escape for you in a million tiny ways that, if we’ve done our jobs, you don’t know why you love it here so much or why you feel so comfortable—but you just DO.
It’s because we chose our chairs carefully so that they’d be comfortable for you, and not the ticking (forgive my phrasing) ass-time-bomb that so many restaurants use, as if they’re trying to make you uncomfortable after 20-30 minutes so that you’ll leave and they can turn the table again. Or maybe the owner(s) didn’t try out the chairs before they purchased them. We DID try out chairs—many, many different chairs before selecting ours. Our chair seats are wide, the backs supportive, and they even have little divots carved for your bum cheeks. Yes, bum divots. (It makes a difference.)
It’s because we researched colors, because we wanted the atmosphere to be warm and inviting so that you felt immediately at home. I’ve never been fond of the IKEA school of restaurant design. If I feel like I’m in a Mike Myer’s Dieter skit on SNL when I walk into a restaurant, that doesn’t make me feel all warm and fuzzy—and I doubt it makes you feel that way, either. Blue is a bad interior color for restaurants, or really anywhere that you want to feel warm. Yellows can be harsh and overbearing, but if used sparingly and in the right spots, can add warmth. Why do I know this? Because if we wanted our customers to feel warm and at home, we had to learn about color.
It’s because of the hundreds of observations we intentionally made going out to other restaurants, noting the things we liked and didn’t like, the things that made us feel welcome and the things that didn’t, the food that turned us on and the foods that didn’t, and the interactions with restaurant personnel that were great, and the ones that weren’t so great.
I suppose that’s why restaurant ownership is the perfect place for me. I’ve always been a little on the short attention span side, and in owning a restaurant, one must wear many different hats and learn many different things. That suits me.
I’m not fond of the phrase “customer service.” Only because it has become a trite phrase used to death, but ringing hollow in so many places. It may also be because I think of our “customers” as “guests,” as if they were guests in our home, and I like to think that we make people feel that way as well. But we sometimes fail. Everyone fails from time to time. I have to tell you, though; I truly, genuinely HATE it when we do fail. And I’m not telling you this to gain any sympathy or acknowledgement. I’m telling you this because I sometimes think that people do not understand how truly personal a small business is to the people who own and run it. It is very, very personal.
We picked our staff, not necessarily because they had a great deal of experience in the restaurant industry, but because they were genuine during the interviews, personable, likeable, and showed a keen interest in making others happy. I can train someone to serve a plate of food. I cannot train them to have a sincere like of people or to want to please them and make them happy. That is an innate trait that cannot be trained into someone. This quality, to me, is far more important than a long and impressive resume of previous experience. I believe this assumption has played out in truth in our restaurant. (Although I am thrilled and proud that many of our servers do have a long and impressive resume of work experience in this industry and that they choose to work for us.)
I will admit that our training program is less than formal. It may even border on chaotic and “throw them into the fire” at times, depending on staffing needs. I will cop to this being one of our many shortcomings. We’re a small operation, and as such, long periods of training simply aren’t in the budget. We are working on implementing a more formal, written training program, and I hope that this will lessen our falling short in this area.
However, in our particular field, nothing substitutes for being in the trenches. I’ve learned so very much in our first five years of business that I cannot even believe that we were so naïve as to think we could make it in this industry. We’ve made mistakes. Our employees have made mistakes. And when we’ve recognized our mistakes, we’ve tried to make amends for them. Sometimes we’ve succeeded immensely and have gained a lifelong customer because we went the extra mile to make it right. We give all of our staff the authority to make things right for guests. They don’t have to come and explain the what’s and why’s of a situation. We trust them to know when we owe someone a mea culpa. If we don’t trust someone to know when that call needs to be made, they don’t work for us for very long. And “knowing when” is sometimes a function of being able to read people, to know to ask if they didn’t like their appetizer because they didn’t eat much of it. (And then to have the follow through to take it off of their bill.) To know that if you overhear that someone has had a miserable day that bringing them a dessert on the house could turn their day around. To know that smiling at a child playing sweetly with their mother and getting a big old smile back can also make your day in return.
The bottom line—you MUST like people and want to make them happy to be good at and to give honest customer service.
But don’t misunderstand me that I expect my staff to like everyone that walks through the door—they don’t. That’s not because they don’t try, believe me. They truly WANT to like everyone who walks through the door. But some people really do make that very difficult.
There’s the guy who wanted to leave his kids with us to eat while he went to the bar down the street to drink. Yes, really.
There’s the couple who have made waiting on them so very painful that when they come in, experienced servers will try to pawn them off on the new guy/gal, which will be a lesson in customer service for that new employee.
There are those people who threaten you with their never coming back because you are not giving them their way, when their way will be unfair or unpleasant to the other guests around them.
I’ll reiterate that it is our job to protect your ability (and our ability) to maintain that oasis free from the stresses that exist in your life outside of this little space that we have spent so much time, research, blood, sweat, and tears (literally) to make it as amazing for you as we possibly can. Sometimes that means pleasing some and angering others. We do our best to please everyone, so long as what they are demanding is reasonable, doable, and we are able to execute it without imposing difficulties upon other guests.
Misbehaving isn’t tolerated well. Remember, you are in “my house” so to speak and I wouldn’t let little Billy trample over my rosebushes at home and I won’t let him trample on other guests’ comfort here. I don’t feel that this is unreasonable, and frankly, neither should you. If you do, you are probably not going to want to be my guest. But if you understand that little Billy’s mom and dad are responsible for his behavior and I ask that he not run in the aisle while 550-degree disks of melted cheese are being shuffled to tables, well, then, you are probably going to like it here. It’s my job, and my staff’s job, to make sure that our guests understand imposing their will on you is not within the spectrum of their authority. You are paying the same money, too, and you deserve a good experience, too…right? Right.
So my staff and I have your back and we’ll continue to try to do right by you each and every day. We’re going to blow it sometimes and I hope you’ll give us a heads up and say, “Yeah…not so great this time.” And we’ll make up for it and do better next time, learning something valuable from you in the process that will allow us to raise our game. And to keep the veil of suspension of the realities of everyday life at bay for an hour or more, so we can make your day better for a just a little while. That’s all. We’re not curing cancer here… we’re slinging a few pies to please our guests. We are more than that, of course. And if we’ve done our job right, we’ve impacted your life in a positive way. And that’s the goal. Every day, every plate.