O Captain, My Captain


The role of host, the first and last person guests encounter at a restaurant, is ripe for reinvention

While dining at a family-owned Italian-style restaurant in Niagara Falls, Ontario, I noticed something subtle yet incredibly important to the operation’s success.

It was extremely busy with plenty of walk-ins causing a lineup and folks arriving for takeout orders. This easily could have deteriorated into a chaotic situation and more than a few unhappy customers. However, the matriarch of the family navigated the dining room, lounge, kitchen and even the lineup at the door, making sure all areas were ticking over like a finely tuned engine. 

I watched in amazement as a party of eight got up to leave and three bussers descended on the table like a NASCAR pit crew. The table was cleared, reset and the next group of guests seated within 40 seconds.

The door was handled smoothly, the food expedited efficiently and the service was genuinely hospitable. What made it all possible was the guiding hand of the woman in charge. 

Call her the “captain” or “quarterback” or whatever you like, but the presence of an individual to oversee all facets of your operation during service is paramount to insuring the best possible guest experience.

Think about the journey guests take when dining at your restaurant. From the time they walk in the door until the moment they leave, they pass through various “zones.” These include the host station if applicable, seating, the table greeting, taking the order, delivering the food, payment, thanking them, etc. All are critical touch points that can make or break the ability to have more-than-satisfied guests who will come back and tell others.

Having a key person to ensure that each zone is performing at maximum efficiency with the highest level of hospitality is an absolute necessity.  

In this case, that person was a conscientiously hands-on owner/operator, but this role often is played by a manager, host or designated server, depending on the way your staff is structured. Regardless of title, this person must garner the respect and trust of all staff so that when things start to go sideways their calming influence, strong decision-making abilities and appropriate delegation can right the ship. With that in mind, I asked Jason Porat, who oversees Saboroso Brazilian Steakhouse in Saskatoon, what attributes a person in that position should possess.

“They should have a strong background in as many facets of the restaurant as possible” he replied. “An understanding of what each job entails allows them to speak to, not at a person when coaching them.” Jason added that the ability to communicate with staff not only during service but also in preparing them prior to their shift is very important with today’s younger workforce. “We utilize technology thorough mobile apps like Schedulefly. This allows them to manage their shifts as well as see any messaging we are trying to convey on the day. Things like the menu features, promotions, reservations or any topic we feel is relevant.”  

Having folks come to work prepared can lessen pre-shift meeting time and free up your leaders to focus on guest satisfaction.

Jason also mentioned that whomever you delegate to be your “go-to” person should exude the company’s vision and passion. “Build a family atmosphere that consistently maintains a positive outlook no matter the situation,” he advised. “No one should lead by fear; it should be a collaborative effort while keeping in mind that the person in charge has the authority to hold others accountable.”

The Tap and Barrel, a group of high-volume restaurants in Vancouver, takes a progressive approach to management. I asked Josh Harding, General Manager of their Shipyards location in North Vancouver, what they look for in their leaders. “For us it is all about developing folks with strong interpersonal skills who have personality,” he said. “We strive to build a culture where people want to come to work and enjoy the company of their peers.” 

During peak times, Harding noted, up to five floor managers may look after different zones. To keep things running smoothly, a senior manager “floats” among areas, acting as quarterback when necessary. This allows for quick conflict resolution, increased guest interaction and generally keeps things moving in the right direction. 

“We want our key personnel to be our culture keepers,” Harding explained. “They need to be clear and consistent with expectations and follow up on coaching points when needed. If you maintain a strong culture it will trickle down to the guest experience and create an atmosphere they want to socialize in.” 

Tap and Barrel also uses technology to help communicate through texts, email and internal Facebook as well as software solutions such as Hotschedules to free up managers’ time.

Whatever your concept, have someone at the helm to navigate the choppy waters of providing hospitality. You’ll find it greatly improves your ability to exceed expectations and rise above the competition. 


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