Teamwork service: an idea whose time has come

Teamwork service: an idea whose time has come – restaurant industry

Charles Bernstein

Teamwork service: an idea whose time has come

Everyone complains about service in restaurants (including this column), but few seem to do much about it in specific terms. We urge more people to sound off or write in when they are especially well treated at a restaurant, so that we can emphasize positive aspects in the midst of what many see as a deplorable decline of courtesy in restaurants, hotels, and all types of businesses.

Two outstanding service systems on opposite sides of the country are worth bringing to public attention. One is in Santa Barbara, Calif., in a restaurant heavily frequented by members of the White House press corps whenever they are covering President Reagan at his nearby ranch. The other is in North Miami, Fla.

Both examples show better service can be achieved when there is an innovative spirit from the top down and a willingness to carry through to help the customer.

Steven Ross Sponder was a budding 23-year-old entrepreneur when he opened The Palace Cafe at Santa Barbara’s central Old Town district in 1985. Emphasizing Cajun-Creole cuisine, the upscale 48-seat place served only dinner from the first, with an average $25-per-person ticket.

What’s interesting is that Sponder launched a “teamwork service’ system whereby a waiter or waitress would take the initial order and inform the customer that “any of our 12 waiters or waitresses can help you with whatever you want.’

Initially, Sponder recalls, his dining room staff viewed the system as a threat. “Waiters and waitresses were very protective of their own stations,’ he says.

But they gradually became believers–especially when their job satisfaction was enhanced in direct proportion to the appreciation of customers, who gave much higher tips than they had done before.

Now the system has been refined so that patrons, arriving for dinner, find pamphlets with this greeting on the tables: “Our staff works as a team in order to better serve you. You need not look for the person who initially took your order for additional service, just ask anyone! This system of service is designed to help you enjoy your time here by making everyone on our staff available to take care of your table.’

Sponder is ecstatic about the morale-building results: virtually zero turnover in contrast to the shuttle service method of constant turnover that one sees at too many restaurants.

Top- and bottom-line results aren’t bad either– an estimated $970,000 annual sales on just 48 seats and one meal period.

Kenneth Boxer, a chief waiter there, says he and the entire staff “vehemently take exception to always reading and hearing how the quality of service in America is slipping. At our restaurant gone are the days of ego-inflated waiters bringing you cold food from the food line when it should have arrived minutes earlier by someone else.’

The biggest challenge was training waiters who by habit wanted to stick to their individual territories or stations. But the problem was overcome by requiring dining room servers to pass an intense practical examination.

“We’re all a lot happier now,’ says Boxer, “because the teamwork concept has turned out to be a far more efficient style, making jobs easier with better service and higher gratuities.’

It has become something of a crusade for Sponder and his dining room staff. W. R. Grace’s Hola Amigos Mexican restaurant, also in Santa Barbara, recently invited the waiters and waitresses to visit and give a live demonstration of the system, which Hola now plans to adopt.

The idea of teamwork service is not new. What’s notable in this case is the way the dining room staff implements the teamwork so beautifully under Sponder’s guiding hand.

A different twist on the teamwork idea may be seen at La Paloma in North Miami, Fla. Werner and Maria Staub, the European owners of this Swiss-Continental restaurant, have devised a system whereby the waiter or waitress takes the orders and gives them to the kitchen staff. But then speed “runners’ bring the food to the tables, while waiters and waitresses answer customer questions. The result is far speedier and efficient service.

The waiters and waitresses in effect are public-relations people, or individual maitre d’s. This requires a heavier investment but is more than worth it in customer satisfaction.

Neither The Palace Cafe nor La Paloma is unique in its approach.

But their ability to implement true teamwork and harmony is a pleasant contrast with a number of other ego-driven restaurants where teamwork– and service–are almost nonexistent.

A team pulling together can and will outperform individual stars each working only for his or her own gratification–especially when the owners show the employees that everyone plays on the same team and can win together.

COPYRIGHT 1987 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group