Monday June 6, 2005

Your Restaurant Needs A Redesign.

In this, my time of transition, I have had increased exposure to the “bar-and-grill” variety of restaurant. As utensils have been packed or The Wife has been out of town, I have frequented a fair number of what I consider to be “mid-level” eateries; sit-down establishments in the vein of Chili’s or TGI Friday’s. Though it is certainly nothing to make me never go back, I have noticed an unusual practice begin to take root.

It may be that I am witness to some sort of non-standard formula, and that this really isn’t growing in prevalence. Still, it is a bit irksome. A waiter comes to my table and takes my order. Before my food comes, he stops by a couple of times to refill my water. But when the food comes to my table, it is someone new who brings it. Sometimes this person is obviously a cook or “backend” personnel who is not presentably dressed, like my waiter. Not dirty, but not presentable. In every case, this new person has no idea what I ordered. So, depending on how many individuals are at the table, a disorganized game of “Where Does This Plate Go?” or “Who Ordered The Fries?” ensues.

This reminded me of a discussion I once had with an employer about continuity as part of user experience on the web. People don’t like it when a familiar process is changed or altered. You’re expecting one thing, and something else happens. I believe the specific issue I was evangelizing with my employer was an order process. He saw nothing wrong with sending the customer to a different website to enter their payment details as long as the new site “looked like the old one.” My argument was that customers who buy online pay attention to URLs and would be less likely to trust a payment process that took place at a strange URL — especially when there was no advisement that a new URL would be used to process the transaction.

Has the role of the waiter changed without anyone telling me? It’s not a huge deal, but it does affect my experience as a customer. I am less inclined to leave a good tip because the waiter has, in my mind, done less that his job. I don’t necessarily feel valued or served, either. My past experience is my frame of reference. Instead of dealing with one person for all my needs, I now deal with 2 or 3? The process has changed, and no one told me.

Don’t change an expected process without research and proper advisement. It’s just good manners.

Commentary


Jeff Wheeler » 4456 days ago #

Very good point. I’ve noticed many times waiters coming to help the backend personnel after they have already served one tray of food (the waiter comes with the second). I see this happen a fair amount, mostly because when I eat out, it is often with about 6 people.

Rob Weychert » 4456 days ago #

I spent six years waiting tables at a restaurant of the sort you’re speaking of, and I know a little bit about how these establishments probably intended your experience to be, and where it all went wrong.

In most of these places, each server has his/her own section (usually averaging four to six tables) and is responsible for attending to the needs of the guests in that section. When orders are rung into the computer and sent to the kitchen, they should specify seat numbers which detail which items go to which guests at which table. In this way, guests get more individualized service (it also makes it a lot easier to split up the check, if need be).

Taking the food from the kitchen to the guests (“foodrunning”) is done with teamwork to ensure the expediency of its delivery. The idea is, if your server is busy with something else at the moment your table’s food becomes available, another server can bring it to the table and know who is supposed to get what, based on the seat numbers that were entered with the order. In theory, anything else you need at the time your food is delivered (drink refill, extra mayo) can be handled by the foodrunner, or the information can be passed along to your server.

The trouble is, barely any of the servers in these places actually use seat numbers, because they think of their guests as tables instead of individuals. For those few who do use seat numbers (like I did), they still can’t expect other foodrunners to pay attention to them. And so ensues the whole “Who gets the Steaming Beef Pile?” game.

The ”’backend’ personnel” you’ve seen were probably expeditors (“expos” for short), the liaisons between the line cooks and the servers. The expo puts the finishing touches on the food before it’s served (condiments, dressings, etc.) and lines it all up with a ticket that tells the foodrunner where it’s supposed to go. If you ever see an expo serving food, it’s usually because foodrunners are, for whatever reason, in short supply. In any case, you’re not really supposed to see them in the front of the house, just like you’re not supposed to see cooks or dishwashers or any other back-of-the-house staff.

So think of it this way: There are good servers out there trying to give you excellent service within a system that requires teamwork, just like we try to give our clients excellent design solutions. However, many of the people on the team have a much narrower view of what excellent service is, or simply don’t care, much like the administrative decisions of agencies or clients who only see the bottom line can turn your beautiful, accessible, standards-compliant solution into a Comic Sans-drenched tag soup.

Nathan Smith » 4456 days ago #

I ran into something like this recently, in the business sense. I’m working with a para-church organization, redesigning their site, etc. About a month into things, at one of our meetings, I was informed that the point person, or lead contact for the project was fired.

So, now I find myself dealing with a group of people, who despite all their good intentions, are largely technology-illiterate. In this situation, I guess it would be like the customer getting up and leaving before the meal was paid for.

Anyone have any advice? :)

Jared Christensen » 4455 days ago #

Thanks for the breakdown, Rob. Good stuff to know! I kind of figured these new faces I was seeing were folks being handed “battlefield promotions” because of shorthanded staffing. I’ve seen them before, but as assistants to the waiter when there was too much food for him to serve with his own two hands. What’s new in my experience is these “foodrunners” and “expos” flying solo. I’m also gathering that there’s a difference between a server and a waiter. Interesting.

Nathan – I’ve run into this situation many times. Too many cooks in the kitchen, uh, to continue the restaurant analogy. Sometimes your client is 10 people, and you just have to respect that. It can be difficult, but learning to guide a group of people to one good decision is a valuable skill to develop. There should be, in my opinion, only one person responsible for signing off on project checkpoints. Let the client(s) decide that person amongst themselves.

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