Great, formal service means pulling out chairs for the ladies, serving from the left and presenting the wine cork. It means all the bells and whistles.
But quality service can also happen at the most casual of places. Giving great service is less about sticking to a rulebook or starching tablecloths than about making customers happy, regardless of the environment.
Often the assumption is that a laid back vibe and wonderful hospitality are mutually exclusive. Customers might appreciate that they don't have to keep their voices at a murmur, or remember which fork to use first. But they won't appreciate a cooler-than-thou, eye-rolling, knuckle-popping server who won't give them the time of day or their chicken pesto sandwich.
The challenge is not just to navigate the space between uptight and sloppy, but rather to create a culture that fosters both casual-ness and attention to detail. This is tricky, but also quite possible.
Pitfall 1: No structure
Casual can mean freewheeling. At my corporate steakhouse, every job position came with mountains of paperwork, rules and manuals. There was practically a sanctioned way to tie your shoes.
At an infinitely more relaxed wine bar where I worked, off-the-cuff instructions were the only kind. Official procedures—official anything—were nonexistent. It was up to each employee to figure out what to do and how to do it. This is a dangerous situation for any business owner, even if you happen to have hired yourself a company full of self-motivated hospitable overachievers. Most everyone needs some structure to thrive.
To create clear direction, define what's most important to your company. Then make sure everyone who works for you knows this, understands and can integrate it into what they do each day. If you're all about your eclectic wine list, make sure your employees understand the nuances of all those funky Hungarian reds and crisp Portuguese whites. They should know how to converse cordially to wine snobs and novices alike. They should know which pairs perfectly with fresh goat's milk cheese, how to present a bottle tableside and how to engage each person who walks in the door.
No matter if you pour heavenly nectar into each customer's glass. If the staff doesn't understand how to be warm and professional, guests will enjoy a less special drink in a more welcoming place. And they will enjoy it more.
Pitfall 2: Anything goes
When a wine bar server asked the owner if she could add some bright pink highlights to her blonde hair, the owner replied in the affirmative. They had both come from fine dining restaurants where such things are verboten, and were happy to allow some wiggle room for self expression.
I'm all for pink hair! I love watching the fashion show that is the hipster waitstaff in my great neighborhood diner. But individuality is a virtue only when it's not interfering with customer experience. I had to tell a server who worked for me that her skirt was too short and her cleavage was too exposed a few times before deciding to implement a uniform.
Uniforms are not the only way to go, and they're not for everywhere. But like any parenting book will advise, it is important to set limits. Where lines are drawn is up to you, and should be in service to presenting the very best face of your business to the public.
Anything can't go. Maybe rainbow hair goes, but lip rings are out. Maybe it's ok to say "hi," instead of a more formal "hello," but it's still important each customer is welcomed warmly. Maybe chatting with guests about films and hairstyles is a-ok, but only after food is served and water glasses refilled.
Pitfall 3: Respect is missing
One of the worst experiences anywhere is to see a manager berating staff in public. It's pretty clear that doing this is a terrible move. To build a friendly environment for your customers, first foster one with your team.
You're the owner; you care deeply about your business. It is second nature for you to treat customers with kindness. The trick is to enable your staff to feel the same sense of pride and ownership that you do. If they feel respected and value, it is much more likely they'll treat guests with respect and appreciation. Your people are your businesses' biggest asset. They can't shine with positivity if they don't feel positive about what they're a part of.
Even though show plates and tableside serving might feel stodgy, caring a lot about each guest's experience is non-stodgy and absolutely imperative. Since it's not in the fancy touches, show you care in other ways. Get to know your customers. Pour them a bit of something you think they'll love, on the house. Show them some love.
Do great work
Less formal should never mean less good. Without the fluffy formality, you are boiled down to the essence. The essence better be something quality. If you're serving funky cheeses or selling financial services, remember that a casual environment makes it all the more important that your product shines. The formula is barebones: great service, great food. That leaves little room for error, but plenty of room to do something special.