Sunday, January 30, 2011

Day one at the Original

Yesterday I switched gears from Olives Ole to focus on my other major project: writing employee handbooks for the waitstaff, hosts, and cooks at the Original Mexican Restaurant on the Riverwalk. From 6pm-11pm I immersed myself in the restaurant, which meant shadowing all the stations, walking around the place, and talking with as many employees to get their perspective on what new hires need to know when being trained. Apart from a few months of low-key waitressing, I have no restaurant experience so this is a whole new set of job skills for me. It was intense.

Fortunately it was a "slow" night by Riverwalk standards, so I had plenty of opportunities to talk shop. The waitstaff is the only group of employees with any sort of training manual already created, although one waitress I talked to stared at it blankly and said she'd never seen it before. It's not a bad foundation and actually does test on most of the important things...but according to the managers, the waitstaff is just not absorbing it. I'm going to rewrite the tests so that the same questions are asked 2-3 times in order to help reinforce the knowledge, and I want to create a more hands-on, visual test for things such as the bar menu (one of the largest knowledge gaps identified....with 38 margaritas, I'm not surprised!).

Part of the problem is the extremely transient nature of the employees here. One manager estimated that they go through 200 waiters a year. They come and go so quickly that a significant portion of the staff is still learning the restaurant at any given time. That makes it hard to achieve consistent service. Such is the nature of Riverwalk restaurants and waitstaff in most places.

(I have to say that at least as far as last night, I thought the waitstaff was pretty good. They had a decent hustle, I didn't see too many congregating or wandering aimlessly, and their tables seemed taken care of fairly well. That was my initial impression anyway.)

The hosts don't even have a manual. They are not trained according to any standardized program, and more often than not, their training consists of "okay, these are the table numbers, go seat people." The elements that the senior host last night found lacking were menu knowledge and sales skills, although he doubted that the latter could be taught. I disagree--I am a pretty reserved, shy, occasionally insecure person but I have been taught how to sell by engaging the customer and making them feel that connection. Too many times last night, I would see a group of three hosts at the front all facing inward at each other, while potential customers passed by the entrance. That was the moment the hosts needed to make eye contact, smile, extend the offer--"immediate seating available!" Even if they aren't saying it verbally, they can say it with their body language. I saw enough people pause, look in, give these visual clues that they were right on the edge of getting pulled in--and nobody engaged them. They were ignored. I know this is a teachable skill.

For comparison, when Chef Will is at the Original, he said that he spends about half his time at the front doing just what I described: converting potential customers to actual customers. The cutesy philosophy: read 'em, greet 'em, seat 'em, bleed 'em, and repeat 'em. He's terrific at it and business soared when he was at the helm. I understand that there's more to it than "pulling in as many customers as possible--" after all, if we fill more tables than we have staff to wait, then there will be a problem. But we had plenty of staffing. It shouldn't have been an issue to keep pulling in customers until the place was full, pause briefly to turn over some tables, and repeat the process.

Maybe I'm just an overachiever. I dunno.

Anyway, room for improvement with the host training. I'm excited about that part.

And finally the cooks. I spent enough time in the kitchen to see that they were a calm, capable bunch of men who really don't require training for what they're doing. It's color by numbers--the prep work is done by one group, the cooking/assembly by another, and for as basic and familiar as the dishes are, their system works just fine. I'm a bit intimidated to try and create a manual for this position. I'll talk to Chef about it.

I felt fortunate that Chef had enough free time to sit with me and explain the inner workings of the Original. It was a terrific learning experience, start to finish. At one point I was fretting over whether I was doing myself a disservice by wanting to enter the teaching profession without putting in years of work in this restaurant atmosphere.

Chef's awesome response: "You don't have to have your ass kicked to know that it hurts."

So that was the Original.