After years of spotlighting the kitchen, front of house is rightfully getting its moment in the spotlight.
— Jason Clampet
Yelp may have recently introduced its Nowait kiosks, but having someone greet diners at the door at most mid-priced to high-end restaurants is (thankfully) still de rigueur. That’s because human contact is important in the full dining experience, be it a counter person taking orders, servers reciting the day’s specials, or a maître d’ making sure everything runs smoothly.
For years, chefs have been given the spotlight, but operators are making sure their front of house is as much an extension of the brand as the food. From hiring the right people to be the face and voice of the restaurant to solid training programs and embracing technology, it’s all about enhancing the guest experience.
When it comes to “touching tables,” the art of a good maitre d’ or general manager is still in high demand. Equal part host, parent and party planner, they’re the ones orchestrating staff, reservations and timing; pulling out all of the stops to make both high-profile regulars and newcomers feel welcome; and utilizing charm, skill and a general sense of what needs to be done at exactly the right moment. There’s a new guard, too, like Gabe Dopplet, a former Vogue editor who took over for longstanding maître d’ Dimitri Dimitrov at the entertainment powerhouse Tower Bar in West Hollywood. Some of it is innate, but as Dimitrov reminds Dopplet, there’s a lot to learn.
For Sean McGinness, maître d’ at Addison in Del Mar, California, one of San Diego’s most awarded fine dining restaurants, it starts with hiring the right people. While he heads up an extensive six-week training program for new employees — including pre-shift practice drills, much like actors rehearse a play — he doesn’t want the “dreaded robotic service.”
“One of the bigger challenges when implementing a multitude of standards with regards to movement, like synchronized water service for multiple people, delivering plates with side dishes, offering chair service, and placing a pedestal for a lady’s purse, is seeing that the team performs these steps while not losing their sense of self,” he said.
This is true of most fine dining restaurants, especially in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Eleven Madison Park has designated “dreamweavers,” staff members who literally help create restaurant magic. At Curtis Stone’s Gwen and Maude restaurants in Los Angeles, director of operations Ben Aviram strives for attentive service with as much invisibility as possible, which takes a robust staff. But he also wants it to feel approachable and organic, not stifling.
“The big trend in fine dining is an elimination of the rigidity of traditional French service,” he said. “Of any of the world-class, three Michelin-starred meals I’ve had in the past several years, more and more the service feels comfortable but still incredibly thoughtful. A less formal way is the new way. Bygone are the days of some of the tropes that come with a fine dining experience.”
While some restaurants have the ability to beef up their ranks to deliver the kind of service they want and their customers expect, fast-casual and fast food chains are investing in more technology over staffing for the front of the house experience. Executives at Shake Shack spent a lot of time this year explaining that their new ordering kiosks in cities like New York and Seattle doesn’t mean they’re completely replacing human beings; they just need to adjust the roles.
To roll out the new technology (after a messy launch in New York last year), the company now employs guides to help walk customers through the new system. While the kiosks will ultimately cut back on labor costs, Shake Shack execs say they still need to invest in FOH staff because, it turns out, people still want to talk to people.
As minimum wage increases continue across the country, large chains like McDonald’s, Panera and Wendy’s have also added more kiosk technology to cut back on labor. But embracing technology doesn’t always mean decreasing the workforce. In some cases, it’s helping front-of-house staff identify and understand their guests better.
Restaurant reservations system SevenRooms is working on an Alexa skill that will enable restaurant operators to use voice commands during service. This will access information, like diner profiles and preferences, but also streamline table service, reminding staff to send extra ketchup to a table or replacing a dropped fork.
“By deploying SevenRooms’ technology, restaurant operators can make smarter decisions on marketing, guest relationship management, staffing, and more, and ultimately present dining guests with a more enjoyable experience,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon in a statement.
Restaurateur Sean Feeney, co-owner of Lilia and Misi in Brooklyn, agrees that front-of-house roles will only get better as more tech, and even data collection, is embraced. “I don’t think tech integration is creepy,” he said at the TechTable conference in October. “Although it doesn’t exist now, I can’t wait for guests to come into our restaurant, whether it’s their first time or 500th time, knowing exactly how they dine, whether it is their average turn, where they spend, how many people they come in with, how many times they’ve been out to eat. All of that information makes us a better operator.”