American Dining's Service Deficit

About 70 percent of the complaints recorded by the Zagat Survey are about service, far more than food. The authors describe the problems in America's dining service and provide suggestions for how to improve the restaurant experience for everyone.

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Over the years that we've spent surveying hundreds of thousands of diners, one fact becomes clear: Service is *the* weak link in the restaurant industry. How do we know? Roughly 70% of all complaints we receive relate to service. Collectively, complaints about food prices, noise, crowding, smoking, and even parking make up only 30%. Moreover, the average rating for food on our 30-point scale is usually two points higher than the average rating for service. Given the fact that identical people are voting, and that there are hundreds of thousands of them, this deficit is dramatic.

It's easy to complain, but how should the industry correct the problem? To start, it's necessary to understand that there are two elements of good service. The first is hospitality. If you're warmly received by a restaurant, starting with the reservationist, you'll automatically feel better. The most successful restaurants understand this, and make sure to fill their staffs with likeable people (I'm thinking of NYC's Danny Meyer, Chicago's Rich Melman, and the New Orleans Brennan family). One famous restaurateur we know says that he never hires anyone unless he thinks his wife would like them.

Our suggestion is that we create front-of-the-house divisions at every culinary school in the country, which would elevate the quality of service in the hospitality industry.

The second element is professionalism, e.g. where to put the utensils, which side to serve from, and being able to explain what you're serving.

How to rectify this? It's helpful to look at the recent history of restaurants in the United States. 25 or 30 years ago there were very few middle-class Americans who wanted to become chefs, and there were hardly any professional culinary schools. Today there are over 100 culinary schools across the country producing thousands of bright young chefs each year. The public now perceives chefs as respected professionals--celebrities, even. Besides having a 24-hour TV channel devoted to cooking, there are food shows focusing on chefs on the major networks and myriad cable stations. No wonder chefs are seen as stars. But when was the last time you saw a show that focused on waiters or maitre d's, and how many schools pride themselves on teaching service skills?

Our suggestion is that we create front-of-the-house divisions at every culinary school in the country. These schools would elevate the professionalism and the respectability of service in the hospitality industry. They would save restaurants the enormous cost of training wait staff from scratch and reduce the high turnover most restaurants face. In addition, the schools should adopt many of the restaurant management courses that are already in the curriculum for chefs.

In light of the Obama administration's focus on creating jobs and providing necessary education for those careers, I can't think of a more useful program to support. It wouldn't just help the restaurant business. It could help many other "service" industries--retail alone is a big, and struggling, sector. (Just think of the prices you might be willing to pay if your gas-station attendant were polite and actually serviced your car.)

Bear in mind the number of restaurant jobs is vast--well into the millions--and there is a restaurant around almost every corner that needs well-trained help. The only thing they need to remember is that likeability should be a preliminary requirement for the job; after all, we're talking about hospitality.