Hospitality Matters

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Just how critical is service to a restaurant’s success? In this faltering economy, it may be more critical than ever. Yet in the trifecta of food, ambiance and service, it frequently comes in dead last.

Not so at Paul Martin’s American Bistro, where the hostess remembered our first names and the staff fawned all over us on two separate visits. (And, no, we weren’t there on Sac Mag business.) So we asked Brian Bennett, a partner and visionary behind the stylish Roseville restaurant, to serve up some thoughts on service.

When you hire, do you look specifically for people who have a certain “hospitality” factor?

Most restaurants hire people because they look a certain way. We made a decision to hire people because they “felt” a certain way. If they put across that they like to take care of folks, like to interact with them, like to service people—that’s what we look for. If you sit in interviews for three to four weeks, it’s easy to see the thread of hospitality in people.

So you don’t train your employees to use certain techniques to provide better service?
We tell them that there are no rules at Paul Martin’s other than to take care of your guests. But we do have the capability, through the computer, to track information about customers, such as what table they sit at, who their servers have been, what they’ve ordered. It’s hard to get that information if they don’t make a reservation. But once we have their name, we can start keeping track of these things, so the hostess can hand information to the waiter, such as “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson have been here three times, they like a certain table, and she’s allergic to peanut oil.” That sort of thing.

How well do you think other restaurants in the area are doing in the service department?
I could point to a certain handful of restaurants that do service well. You probably know which ones they are. But, generally, I think the common thread is hands-on, involved ownership that has their name out there. If you’re a restaurant owner downtown and everybody knows you—and your name is mentioned when the name of the restaurant is mentioned—it tends to go hand-in-hand with better service. I think when people have a brand to hide behind with no ownership, such as in the chain restaurants, service can become very spotty.

Can service make or break a restaurant?

I think that what it can do is give you a competitive edge. It can create a reason for people to choose your restaurant over another. I think when people sit down today and they only have $100 to spend, hopefully as they sift through filters—one being good food, one being good service, one being location—one of the reasons they might come back here is that we make you feel special. We’re passionate about service, and we’ve been lucky enough to create an atmosphere about service. We don’t always get it right, but we try.