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How you feel when you’re at a restaurant is as important as the quality of the food in determining if you’ll return there to eat again. [Peoplecreations / Freepik]

Wine Me Dine Me: It’s all about how you feel

How you feel in a restaurant is so important. In my 15 years as a restaurant reviewer, I’ve been to more than 800 different restaurants and that’s just “on the job”. I dine out at many restaurants for my own enjoyment, on my own dime, which brings the number up quite a bit. In the reviewing situations, I tend to write more about the food than the experience, when in fact the feeling I get from dining in a restaurant is more important to me. Indeed, my primary goal in what I write is to help readers answer the questions: “Is this place right for me? How will I feel?” That includes the food and drink of course, but a big part of it is the hospitality, and I’m glad I had 10 years or so as a waitress so I have that insider perspective. Making someone’s experience the best it can be, helping them feel happy, was always my goal.

Danny Meyer, a New York City restaurateur, defined in his book “Setting the Table” the difference between service and hospitality. He wrote, “SERVICE: Is the technical delivery of a product,” “HOSPITALITY: Is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel.’”

It’s something New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells noted about Union Square Cafe, one of Danny Meyers’ restaurants in his article, “What Hospitality Means to Times Restaurant Critic Pete Wells (May 3, 2017).”

He talks about using the term “customer” instead of “guest” in his three star review of the USC and at the end of the piece says, “No, it didn’t feel like a transaction. But it was one. Believing otherwise would be like believing that David Copperfield had caused the Statue of Liberty to cease to exist. Anybody over the age of 5 knows that the statue was still there. David Copperfield made it invisible, though, just like Union Square Cafe made the machinery of commerce invisible. That’s the trick.”

Wells notes that Meyers did that in part because:

“After the restaurant opened in its original location on East 16th Street, in 1985, Mr. Meyer worked hard to instill a certain ethos in his employees. It borrowed from Boy Scout law (helpful, friendly, courteous, kind) and served as a polite Midwestern demurral to the notion that New Yorkers went out to eat in order to be intimidated by frighteningly attractive servers whose cheekbones could slice shallots.

The servers at Union Square Cafe weren’t like that. They were boy- and girl-next-door types. They didn’t shovel your driveway or walk your dog. But they’d do just about anything else to win you over. When it worked, you left convinced that you’d gotten something more than you’d paid for.”

We food and restaurant writers spend a lot of energy lauding and elevating restaurant chefs, giving them reality TV shows and plenty of awards, but if a guest doesn’t feel welcome and cared for, that the staff isn’t on their side, they will not come back. Oh, and they will grouse about it on Yelp and social media, but that’s not nearly as important as the fact that a human connection was not made during their visit. By the way, kudos to you restaurateurs who comment on each and every negative social media review and post, asking how you can help make it up to them. I see it and appreciate it. And you posters out there, how about talking to the restaurateur first before slamming the place on social media, huh?

I’ve written before about the hard time I had when I first began to spend more time in Austin, Texas, straddling the worlds of the smaller Portsmouth, New Hampshire region and the much larger, very much younger-skewed city. I remember the first coffeehouse I went into where I walked up to the counter and the young man gave me an upnod and said with deadpan affect, “What’s up?”. No smile, no “How may I help you?”

“I’m not in Kansas, or for that matter, Portsmouth, anymore!” I lamented to my husband. I would regularly get ignored at bars and restaurant tables alike while staff gossiped with each other and moaned about their hangovers. I eventually found the right places, though, the bars and restaurants where even after just one visit, staff remembered my name and the conversation we had the last time and that I was there before. Now, I even get a “Leaving so soon?” at one of my favorite bars. Boy, does that feel good!

I read another article recently by David Flaherty in Nation’s Restaurant News called “The Art of Hospitality.” He quotes Sophie Oppelt, sommelier at Summit at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“Hospitality is the most important aspect of what we do. At the end of the day, you can have a killer beverage program and incredible food, but it all comes down to how your product gets to the table and the human interactions that go with it. These can have an impact that are more memorable than the bottle of wine, or even the entire meal.”

Flaherty advises, “Having empathy for your guests and recognizing that each one is looking for something different, allows you to engage them with an open mind, to adapt your approach to what you’re hearing, and then to create custom experiences they’ll remember.”

To those restaurateurs who have embraced that spirit of hospitality, indeed, internalized it and have a staff made up of similar empaths, I raise a glass. Thanks for making us feel welcome, cared for and happy. We know you are on our side.

— Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner who lives in Exeter, NH (and Austin, TX). She can be reached by e-mail at rforrest@gatehousemedia.com

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