“Service trumps culinary magic”

20 May 2021, 07:50 AM
  • Tracey Tannenbaum, former deli owner and chef, argues that a warm greeting can make all the difference. Read her tips for boosting customer service
“Service trumps culinary magic”

The sun was making a rare appearance, so I was having a cup of coffee with ‘N’. As usual, once the pleasantries had been exchanged, we got on to business. Well, other peoples’ business, since we had both sold our cafés recently.

N grumbled, “We arrived and there were all these empty tables. Not even a hello and the hostess said they were full.”

I replied that many people were now booking in advance. Did she really expect to just waltz in and grab a table with the sole heater? (Yes, we are talking about England in May).

N continued, waving away my – in my view – rational thought. “That’s not the point. The hostess didn’t even say hello.”

Okay, now I got it.

When I had my deli/café, one of the things I drilled into staff was that a greeting consisted of a visual hello (smile) and a verbal hello (“good morning”). If busy, then an “I’ll be with you in a moment,” would follow.

Other than plain manners, there’s a psychology to greetings. By acknowledging the customer, you are saying several things. The first is that ‘you are important and you count’. Sounds basic, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how often this small ingredient is missing.

I bet one recent experience you’ve had is being greeted (or not, in this case) by a sulky teenager on her mobile phone? Sure, that’s your local café you argue, but how about the last time you were at that expensive restaurant? Remember how the maître d’ looked over your shoulder to acknowledge the more important customers behind you. Not very nice, was it?

From a business standpoint, there’s a second reason for a warm greeting/acknowledgement. If your deli/café is busy, it buys you time. Most customers will understand a delay if they see you are busy – BUT only if they’ve been acknowledged. If they aren’t, you are signalling that you are not managing the demand but being crushed by it. The customers’ frustration will mount, they will stare and you will feel more and more stressed. Stop this cycle of café despair! Just say hello and that you will be with them as soon as you can.

That’s the warm greeting covered but there’s another angle to this – the goodbye.

The customers pay their bill and they wander out. No expressions of ‘goodbye/thanks/good to see you.’ As my husband has said, “You wouldn’t let friends leave your house without saying goodbye – so why do it at work?” Good point.

Now, think back to that local family-owned Italian bistro. You were welcomed warmly and with enthusiasm, you had an ‘okay’ meal of pasta and a passable Chianti, but when you left, the entire staff said goodbye. The chef might have even come out of the kitchen for a cheeky wave. You left full, warm and feeling appreciated. More than likely, you’ll return – even though the food was mediocre. Service trumps culinary magic because sometimes it is exactly what we need.

And If you do this greeting thing right, you know what? You’ll have them at hello.

Tracey Tannenbaum is a chef and former deli owner. She now offers advice on how to run deli/café businesses and is in the process of writing a business/cookbook. Read more from Tracey here.

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