Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Heart of an Industry, or, What I've Learned from Mr. Rogers

You walk through the front door and are greeted by the widest of smiles and a very genuine, "Hello! Welcome in!". As you are being led to your table, you begin to notice the glow from all of the diners sitting at their tables; Come to think of it, you can't recall a single time that you have seen anybody enjoying themselves so thoroughly that they seem completely oblivious to the rest of the world.

You sit down and, shortly after, your server arrives and begins to thank you gratuitously for deciding to choose their restaurant. He, as well as the host, appear to genuinely mean what they say in their respective greetings. Its almost eerie how sincere and kind they are. He begins to take your order and addresses questions you have by noticing a facial tick that you were unaware of making. He is unassuming and yet retains an air of great knowledge and professionalism. He assists you in choosing the perfect meal for that moment.

While you are waiting for your food and enjoying your suitably picked drinks, you see a great deal of camaraderie and teamwork as a party of eight departs and no more than a minute and a half later, the table is bussed, cleaned, set up, and another eight-top is sat by the same smiling face you received. Your meal arrives and you are thrilled, because, as promised, it is perfect for how you are feeling, the weather, etc.; Your intuitive server really came through for you.

Throughout your meal, you can hear ruminations from the tables on either side of you regarding the utter disbelief at the caliber of service they were receiving. They, too, weren't sure it even existed. You are greeted by members of the management to see if everything is to your liking, and even once to see how your day is going. It is never intrusive or bothersome, but rather, you get the sense that they really care.

Have you ever been to a restaurant like this? Or, perhaps, is it only a place that you dreamed could exist in a utopian world? I had been a member of the latter camp–only hoping that one day I could go to a place wherein existed such passion, kindness, warmth, and generosity it made you feel as if you were truly being welcome into somebody's home. I had been a member, up until recently, that is.

The aforementioned experience was one that I had recently at the wonderful Urban Solace restaurant, located in the lively North Park area of San Diego. The staff there is just absolutely so giving and attentive. This was, hands down, the best dining experience I have ever had. Everybody involved in my time there was tremendously helpful and kind. And, to boot, the food was stellar–believe everything you hear about the buttermilk cinnamon rolls at brunch... betcha can't eat just one... At Urban Solace, they verily accomplish what their name states: they are a haven for you in the middle of a great city. They let you know, from time to time, that you are still dining in a restaurant, but, mostly, you are transported outside of the menial for a short time. They truly make you feel as if they are old friends who have invited you over to their house for a night free from stress.

Now, I could sit here for hours and spew superlatives about Urban Solace and its crew (and they would be well deserving of it!), but at the heart of it, I realized something there, and my meaning is twofold: I not only realized that it is very possible to provide stellar service, be extremely friendly and warm, and still be a kick-ass restaurant, but also, I had it realized to me.

The Hospitality Industry. The Service Industry. The Restaurant Industry. I have always known that the former two are perhaps better descriptions of what we in 'the business' do, but lately I have only been referring to the profession I am in by the latter name. "The Restaurant Industry," it sounds so concise. It takes away from the heart of what we do as industry professionals. "The cuisinier (server, host, floor manager, cook, etc...) loses his reputation when he becomes indifferent to his work." Fernand Point reminds us as cooks that we must always be mindful of what it is that our job entails. I have added, in parentheicals, my own observations which were reinforced during my dining experience the other day. It is so important for us to make every effort to make our guests feel welcome and comfortable in our establishments. It should be our main focus.

Being in the kitchen all the time, I tend to lose sight of that goal so often because I am not involved in the FOH efforts. Nevertheless, its even in the way that I speak about diners sometime, "WTF?!?! They are subbing that out? Chef, can I go kick their ass? I'm gonna go kick their ass!" Providing that kind of environment for myself and those around me is cancerous. It spreads so quickly and will only do harm to everyone, including our customers.

Corny as it may be, Mr. Rogers said it so well, "Won't you be my neighbor?" He preached the kind of generosity that we should be exuding every day. He was all about being wholly welcoming of everyone, loving everyone, being kind to everyone. Why can't this philosophy permeate more of our restaurants? More of our society?

Hospitality? Service? Yes, Please! Thank you very much! If we made it our sole purpose to really, and I mean really serve the people that walk through our doors every day, I am certain that there would be many more people gushing about our restaurants the way that I was about Urban Solace before. Its not that hard. We just have to do it. And I am not saying that the food should come second, but we need to put equal emphasis on both aspects of the business.

I had a paradigm shift and I would like to thank Chef Matt and his crew at Urban Solace, not for flipping on the light in my head, but rather, for changing the bulb by which my perspective has been lit.

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