Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tales of the Cocktail 2008: "Is the Customer Always Right?"

June 16
Recently in the blogosphere a particular tale of customer dissatisfaction created a minor ripple. Commenters were divided along several lines. Some believed "the customer is always right," then there were those who were sick and tired of snobbery in service when all they wanted was a damn cup of coffee. Others thought the store was well within its right to refuse serving coffee to a customer based on the philosophy of what they served. Some people were even more riled up after reading the coffeeshop owner's response. Finally, there those who thought both parties were jackasses and nobody handled the situation particularly well. In other words it was an anecdote that seemed to illustrate all that could go wrong in a customer-server relationship.

What did this particular bit of "Iced espresso is Not Okay" brew-haha have anything to do with Tales of the Cocktail? Well, when I arrived at Tales, the professional series seminar "Is the Customer Always Right?" jumped out at me probably thanks to this story being in my head so recently. So soon after checking in and running on 3.5 hours of sleep, I slid into a chair for the 10:30 a.m. session.

Moderated by Doug Frost, the panel members were Charlotte Voisey, mixologist and brand representative for Hendrick's Gin, Deet Gilbert, Johnson and Wales faculty member who teaches front-of-the-house practices; Jim Meehan of PDT, N.Y.; and Ti Adelaide Martin of the famed New Orleans restaurant family responsible for establishments such as Commander's Palace and Brennan's.

In an age where many cocktail bars, bar chefs, mixologists, and bartenders are formulating solid drink philosophies not unlike how some chefs have their own food philosophy, how should customer service type issues be addressed?

The topic of how to provide good (or probably more accurately, appropriate) service quickly became a talk about recruitment and training as Charlotte Voisey opened things up by stating that a lot of talk about improvement revolves around improving the bar, the design, the ingredients or technique, but "we need to talk about what happens between the bartender and the guest."

Voisey pointed out three important aspects of human resources to improve guest service:

1. Right recruitment.
2. Responsibility.
3. Service as an integral part of training.

Deet Gilbert echoed some of Voisey's points by explaining that "you can't teach the right personality," and in the hiring process bar managers and operators need to look for things in their prospective employees such as how they are dressed, their smile or what kind of personality they have."

And about the old "the customer is always right" adage, Gilbert explained that "It's not always that they are right, but it's to make them think they are right. That's our job."

Jim Meehan spoke from the point of view of the independent bar operator and said that on a day-to-day basis training needed to be tailored to each employee. Even after a prospective bartender manages to impress someone hiring them, different working styles, personalities and skill levels can require different care and training from an employer or manager.

While all this talk of training and recruitment may seem like a detour into an HR seminar, the truth is properly trained employees make good service.

As Ti Adelaide Martin mentioned at one point, the motto drilled into employees at Commander's Palace is that the employees are there to make dining memories. And as providers of not just good drinks, but an overall experience, a staff that is trained well with adequate attention who innately have what it takes can make or break a customer's experience.

"We are in the hospitality business," Martin said. "We are not here to show off our technical skill."

Not that technical skill or knowledge doesn't have a place. Especially in the world of high-end cocktails or beverages.

Voisey gave the example from her early bartending days when she'd hate serving single malt whiskeys because she wasn't too knowledgeable in the area. And instead of being able to discuss or provide information and product that her customers wanted, she'd find herself pushing the customers onto something else that they did not want.

Then how do passionate people with a large library of skills and knowledge not scare customers?

Deet Gilbert said, "Talk to them like a normal person. Don't talk down to them," pointing out that a too technical bar chef or intimidating menu can sometimes create a chilling effect similar to when customers who are not familiar with wine encounter wine lists in a fancy restaurant.

Martin agreed with Gilbert and told the group that at Commander's Palace, sommeliers go by the title of "wine guy" to bring things down to more of a casual level.

"Ask them 'What do you like? What do you normally drink?'," Martin added.

"Just give them the vodka cocktail," Meehan said. "That's what pays the rent...They'll sit for ten minutes drinking and will see other cocktails and will order something else because they'll realize they're in a cocktail bar."

Doug Frost then asked the panelist when would a customer be wrong?

"When they're abusing our staff," Martin answered immediately, but then added, "For us it has to go pretty darn far" before any action is taken. Touching an employee is verboten.

"We expect customers to treat us we treat them. It goes two ways," Gilbert commented.

"It's when they take you out of our comfort zones," Voisey said.

Voisey said with so unwritten rules in bars, having a culture or policy defends the bars so people can know clearly when they've stepped over the line.

Meehan said that the customer is wrong when they begin to affect the experience for other customers. And when he asks a particularly loud customer to keep his voice down or asks another to refrain from using uncouth language, that particular chided customer might leave in a huff, but usually once the rules are explained they are understanding and other customers are appreciative of the effort to maintain a certain mood or experience.

The panel members also agreed with the importance of being able to take criticism as well as taking initiative to find places to improve.

Martin said she when she walks around Commander's Palace she'd ask customers how they were doing and most times they'd answer that things were fine. Nonetheless she'd ask again to truly find out if everything was working for a customer by saying, "Listen, I don't learn anything from compliments."

Taking initiative towards improvement can be something as simple as in being on the lookout, just as if a restaurant patron leaving food can be a sign of dissatisfaction, Voisey explained that the look on a customer's face in that unguarded moment of the first sip can speak millions.

In fact, the idea of a reputation as being perfect can be an impediment towards good service by creating expectations built high that can topple like a deck of cards and keep staff members on edge. Meehan brought up how back in his Gramercy Tavern days, customers brought in with them their own high hopes and interpretations of what a Danny Meyer dining experience was and ended up expecting to "levitate on their way out."

"Perfection is not the goal; excellence is the goal," Meehan said.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tales of the Cocktail 2008: New York, July 16th

June 16

I arrived home from work at a little after 8 p.m. on Tuesday the 15th. I had a 7 a.m. flight the very next morning. After finishing half my packing I took a "nap" at 11:30 p.m. and dutifully woke up at 3 a.m. to finish what packing I could before heading to the airport.

As I stood in line bleary-eyed for a breakfast burrito that ended up tasting better in theory than in reality I turned around and noticed Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller get in line behind me.

"What a coincidence," I thought. Or so I thought.

Once I got to the gate my plane was departing from, I saw that there was a small group congregated near it...and I recognized them all.

I said hello and good morning to Allen Katz, Paul Tanguay, Kenta Goto and Damon Dyer. Damon was asking if anyone knew where to get some lemons. This was an important fact to note and it would be most fortunate that I ended up sitting next to him.

I think I passed out from sheer exhaustion as the plane took off, but I was soon wide awake as the flight attendants were making their way down the aisle for drinks. I asked for a Coke and got my soda with a cup of ice. Damon asked for tonic water and two cups of ice. Our flight attendant looked at him funny, but acquiesced.

Damon eyed my cup and solemnly told me, "Save your ice."

He informed mixologist Gardner Dunn, who was sitting in the row head of us, to do the same. Wising up to what was going on, Gardner stressed that he wanted "a lot of ice" with his drink order.

The flight attendant again looked slightly suspicious but Gardner got his request. He turned back around and gave Damon a thumbs up and handed his cup back.

After giving a perfunctory assessment of the situation, Damon began pulling out small bottles of brown spirits and made me sniff one of them saying that it'd been pre-doctored with bitters and began pouring the contents out over the ice. The smell of bitters seemed to linger with a vengeance in the recycled air of the plane's cabin. The lemon search had been unsuccessful, so he ended up using some orange juice (later on, he'd take a swig of the juice and wrinkling his nose declare that it was "pretty terrible. I'm ashamed I even put that in there.")

He then reached into another pocket and pulled out a small plastic bag filled with lemon peel and begins to squeeze and drop them into the drinks. After passing one to Gardner I got a cup of my own.

Holding his plastic airline cup up he said, "Cheers. Welcome to Tales."

I lifted my own cup and said, "Cheers."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It has begun!

For once, something not about alcohol.

Making my way to work, walking down Lexington, I get stop at the Starbucks betweetn 57th and 58th because they had a dude standing out with their freebie tray and those mini cups they use for giving out sample. Busy commuters weren't really paying much mind but I heard him say Vivanno and I thought, "OH SNAP THE NEW SMOOTHIE!" and quickly grabbed one. Didn't get the Chocolate Banana though, it was mango. There was a slight, almost savory, tinge in the back of it. And I don't mean the slight metallic taste from the banana (both have flavors have bananas in them). I don't know if savory is exactly it, but it's a little something you detect on your tongue. Maybe the protein powder? It could just be the flavor of the juice they use. Not too sweet at all though admittedly, I just had a little bit and I'm not sure if such a small size is really a fair way to...

Oh wait, gotta go. Looks like we're having an impromptu tasting here in the office at the moment.

...and I'm back. Got to try the Chocolate Banana flavor as well and there's something muted in that flavor that I can't quite put my finger on. It's not exactly something bad, but it's definitely something you notice. But after having tried some more the "not that sweet" verdict still stands.