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Service without borders

While dining in Istanbul this past month, I was reminded of a phenomenon I notice consistently while traveling through Asia, India and in many hotel restaurants in the Middle East: buffet-style dining. Is this a trend?

Then I began to wonder: Are we experiencing something that is a function of language and culture barriers? I view the buffet as the latter, a type of service shortcut through which the dining experience is greatly diminished as a result. I’ve heard hoteliers say the buffet is a way to expedite service, particularly at breakfast, but it is often used in the three-meal venue all day. What does it take to teach or train a server to do just that — to serve? It’s about being sensitive to guests’ needs and reading cues.

How can we fix this service dilemma? Don’t let obstacles get you down; use language and cultural challenges to your advantage by viewing these barriers as opportunities to grow a stronger staff.

Just because a guest and server might be from completely different cultures, with little — if any — understanding of the other’s language, it doesn’t translate to little hope for a great dining experience for both parties. Good, if not great, service can be obtained; merely believing a commonality can be found can sometimes be the missing ingredient.

To elevate service quality from good to great doesn’t mean adding a lot of bells and whistles; one doesn’t need to be fluent in any given language to read universal cues at the dining table, such as placing silverware or chopsticks on one’s plate to indicate the end of a meal. Just being aware of the guests throughout the meal and anticipating their needs can be enough. Train your staff to imagine what they might need in terms of service during a meal.

How to deliver on a better guest experience

  • If you want repeat customers, and I’m assuming you do, assemble a waitstaff that will recognize diners’ individual nuances and react accordingly through swift and thoughtful service.
  • Begin each meal with a servers’ lineup to discuss procedures and mock service scenarios for servers so they know how to handle any given situation. Give them the tools to succeed.
  • Provide real on-floor supervision. This may be in the form of a captain or a manager; just make sure the role falls to someone who can keep an eye on the dining room and the guests to ensure service is where you want it.
  • Problems always show first in the face of your guests; someone who can pay attention to a guest’s demeanor will solve most of your problems.
  • I live in San Francisco; bilingual training has been a standard in California for as long as I can remember. A little restaurant speak goes a long way.
  • Finally, it does pay to let your servers get some tips — making a better tip is a big motivator!
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