Service and The Third Place    

In the restaurant business there is service and then there is Service. Basic service is the polite greeting at the door and the party seated on time. The menu and the wine list are presented. The table is set appropriately and the silver wiped to a shine. The glasses are polished. The order is taken accurately. The food is served to the person who ordered it. The wine is at the perfect temperature. The label is presented and the wine poured correctly. The glasses are refilled as needed, and never over poured. Plates are cleared only when everyone is through dining. The check is presented in a timely fashion and the host says a warm think you and goodnight. That is service.

 And then there is Service. 

The greeting at the door is warm. If the guest is a regular he or she is recognized by the host and seated at a preferred table with a long time waiter that the guest probably knows.  In fact, most of the staff is as regular as the guests. They don’t move around because they like the place where they work.

Then there are the small things that count. Are the menu and wine list free of misspelling? Are the wines in the cellar as listed, correct vintage and in stock? At the right temperature? That is Service.

Was the wine list presented to the right person at the table, even if it was a woman? That is Service.

Did the waiter or sommelier refrain from obviously correcting the guest’s mispronunciation of the wine’s name? Did the sommelier offer a taste to the person who ordered the wine? That is Service. 

If the guest did not like the wine did the sommelier refrain from arguing with the guest even if the wine is perfect, and quickly suggest another? That is Service. 

 In other words service is more than being right or correct. Service is being in charge, but with a smile. It means serving with grace as well as confidence.  A restaurant with great service is one where guests are treated with dignity and warmth and where they want to come back to repeatedly. That last word is the key. Everyone can be a good first date. But do you want to establish a lasting relationship? 

 In this day and age where the restaurant business is so competitive and the economy is tighter than we all would like, correct service will no longer suffice. It is important to deliver Service. You need to establish and maintain a real, not just technological, relationship with the guest. Computer programs keeping track of birthdays and anniversaries are a convenient way to show you remember them, but, really, any place can do that now. How do you go the extra mile in forging that bond with the guest? If you are the sommelier do you remember your guests’ preferences in wine? Do you stock a few special wines that are not on the regular list for preferred guests?  Do you call them to let them know of a rare bottle that has come into your cellar or some really cool close-outs  that you may have but are not on the list? Do you have carefully chosen bargain wines for those regulars who are not Titans of Industry? Or who are no longer Titans of Industry? 

 In 1989, sociology Professor Ray Oldenburg wrote a book called The Great Good Place. It talked about the three places that are an integral part of our lives. The first place is home. The second place is work where we may spend most of our time. The third place, like the third leg of a stool, is equally important for our well-being and stability. It is in theThird Place where we connect with others of our community. (And if we telecommute, we are even more isolated and in need of contact with others on a three dimensional plane.) It is an informal social space that brings people of diverse backgrounds together. A place where old friends can gather and new friendships are formed. It is a welcoming, comfortable place we return to regularly because it completes this societal triad essential for our equanimity. TheThird Place does not have to be expensive or exclusive. It can be a wine bar, a café, or casual dining spot. It provides comfort, familiarity, and delivers Service in its best sense. It takes care of guests, not just waits on them.

I met Professor Oldenburg when I had Square One Restaurant in San Francisco. While doing research for a follow up book on Third Places, he heard about us, visited the restaurant and we started a long correspondence. Square One is long gone but I constantly run into people who say “we really miss your restaurant.”  Why? Because we were theirThird Place. Yes, we had great food and an award winning wine list. We actively supported community events and participated in local fund raisers. But most important, we had a loyal staff who delivered on Service. Most of them, kitchen and front of the house, were there for ten to twelve years and were an integral part of the Square One community. We didn’t need computer programs to jog our memories. We knew our guests and they knew us. And we enjoyed each other’s company. This is especially important in this day and age where people are increasingly isolated by the technological aspects of their work, the pressures on their family, and worries about the future. To succeed and survive in this business it will be necessary to learn how to make real contact with guests. We must embrace service and community and strive to create a Third Place.  


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