Hospitality as More Than a Word

There is no such thing as “bad hospitality.”

There’s bad service. Lots of it, actually, and it’s generally a remnant of crap leadership in the restaurant, whether for reasons of ineptitude, lack of desire, no empowerment of the staff – and of course, the list goes on. The fish rots from the head, as they say. There’s bad food, too. Bad cooks or bad “chefs.” There are bad environments, bad designs, bad lighting…but there’s no bad hospitality, because when it works, it’s always good.

Hospitality is defined as “the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.” Whether a quality or disposition, there is no antonym for “hospitable” other than “inhospitable.” One either is – or is not – hospitable, and it’s far more than simply providing good service. Hospitality runs deep in people, and in certain types of people. We tend to use the term as ours exclusively in the “Hospitality Business,” but it goes far beyond. Being welcomed in a place where no one knows you, your name, or what may normally make you feel welcome, is hospitality defined. Making sure that those around you are comforted in any way that you can make them feel that way is hospitable, and this goes far beyond just the claim that we are in the hospitality business.

And as it turns out, experience is not needed. It’s an inherent thing for people to have or not have the mechanisms that make them that way – it exists in bankers, furniture store clerks, grocery checkouts, and even with other drivers. It happens when someone goes out of their way to help someone get their coat on or off, and when another holds a door open for the person after them. However, it’s regularly and frighteningly absent in people that should do and know better. All too often, too much pressure is put on staff to treat a room as all the same, and modicums are put in place that consider too much of the bottom line instead of the folks that provide the money to get there.

On the other hand, hospitality is a humbling thing for some. With myself as an example, it can take time to realize what the principle truly is, and even longer to execute it. The point at which I came to understand the same was much later in my front-of-the-house-career than I care to admit, but I can assure any reader that the moment it happened was not unlike Neo’s realization that he could, in fact, control the Matrix in the movie of the same name. It was the final piece in a puzzle of understanding how to get better in restaurants, and changed not only my career, but my success, in an instant.

Hospitality is a contagious thing, and it starts with those entrusted to create the environment in which it can thrive – the management, for starters – is the staff made to feel like the equals that they are, or are they treated like children? Does a manager lord over them as an emperor or act as a leader and teacher, bettering not only their environment but their abilities to excel? Are they the types that talk down to their colleagues, and point out what needs to be done, or are they in the trenches, sharing the pains instead of only taking credit for the successes? These tend to turn into the same that will “go get the server” when a guest has a need. Do the managers push in their chairs, or clean up after themselves in the restaurant, or get others to do the same? A little thinking goes a long way, and consideration turns in to hospitality quickly. Management owes hospitality to its staff, and not only because its proper, but because without showing the same the staff has no model to follow.

Turning the staff, then; these people hold the singular responsibility to provide hospitality to the folks coming through the doors to pay the bills. That includes the people with what seem to be strange questions, the ones that show up late, and yes – even the ones that come fifteen minutes after they had a reservation at closing time. It’s knowing what on your wine list is similar to the cheap pink wine that grandma loves, and understanding that even though Mr. Smith isn’t truly allergic to salt, he’d like very little of it. It’s not questioning the validity of the feelings of your guest, but making certain to accommodate what they are. It’s not telling a mother that asks to heat up the baby’s bottle in the microwave that you’re “not the kind of restaurant that has microwaves,” but heating the damn bottle. It’s not rolling one’s eyes when asked for what the server considers “inferior” or “cheap” product, but providing the same (or better if asked) and so with the spirit of hospitality, which passes no judgement on preference. It’s having all of the ability to answer questions, but not flaunting or strutting the knowledge.

Wondering what else we could have done at the end of service is what defines us as a restaurant. Taking notes on what we did right, and what we could have done better, is the best way to get ready for service the next day. Had I only realized that earlier in my career when Jim Solomon, owner of the Fireplace Restaurant in Boston, told me the same – but alas! To steal the words from a mentor’s mouth, Jim made it clear that the minute you walk out of a service thinking you’ve got it all figured out is the minute that you should hang it up, because there are better mistakes to make the following day. How very true this is, and how wonderfully it applies to the principle of “hospitality” – since each time a guest joins us, and we learn more about their preferences, we have to try harder to dazzle them the next time they come in. This is hospitality – cooking for every table like it’s a first date, treating each guest in service like parents of the first date, and hoping they’re begging for the next reservation on the way out the door. Pause and consider – how proud are you of the local restaurant where you take all of your friends, and the owners and managers know who you are, as well as everyone in the room? The food in these restaurants could be here or there, but the dining room personalities can bring you back – so why not create the same feeling with the kitchen, bar, and dining room? To have every element make you want to come back again and again…to feel cared for. To be treated hospitably.

There is simply nothing better in the world, and it is absolutely simple to create. A reputation for hospitality quickly becomes a successful restaurant, no matter the level of press or accolades, and this business element of course is a priority – bills have to be paid. First, though, restaurant teams must surrender to hospitality. Not “good” hospitality. Not “warm” hospitality.

Just hospitality.

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About maitresomm

A servant in the church of hospitality. And booze. And food.

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