Serve Somebody

The all-but-forgotten art of service is equal parts craft, dedication, and benevolent management

They taste all of the fish--a substantial investment on Oceanaire's part. Whereas most restaurants turn imperfect cuts into ceviche or add them to pasta, if Oceanaire gets a new species they'll take whatever isn't guest-perfect and prepare it for the staff, so that the servers can answer about what a fish tastes like authoritatively. There are training updates, wine tastings, scotch samplings, CPR courses and such offered every month as well.

Then, every day, Oceanaire makes sure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. The kitchen staff has a three o'clock meeting that the managers sit in on, where they discuss the issues of the night. And then the front-of-the-house people have a 4:30 meeting, where management conveys what's going on in the kitchen to the servers, and they craft a game plan for the evening. This, broadly, is why, when you have a question for an Oceanaire server, they have an answer. So, the first tier: training and communication.

The second tier of Oceanaire's approach to service is the one that's kind of shocking, because it's a little bit socialist, and in a distinctly non-proletarian environment. Oceanaire's second secret is all about treating employees well. "The better you are to your employees, the better they are to you," explained Uhl when I spoke to him on the phone for this story. "We don't just care about you because you're making us money. We care. The only way you get longevity in this business is by treating people right."

Know your crab cake: Chef Kyle McCleary reviews the finer points of seafood service with the Oceanaire staff
Kathy Easthagen
Know your crab cake: Chef Kyle McCleary reviews the finer points of seafood service with the Oceanaire staff

Location Info


The Oceanaire Seafood Room - Minneapolis

50 S. 6th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55402

Category: Restaurant > Seafood

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

And you want longevity? Consider this: For front-of-the-house positions they get 50 to 100 applications every month. They last hired someone eight months ago; before that, the last opening was two and a half years ago. Furthermore, they host seminars for their servers on topics like estate planning, so that the servers can envision their career as one that will support their family and dreams--not a stopgap moneymaker that signifies some kind of career pause or failure, which, let's admit, is how most people treat servers. And why wouldn't servers act all squirrelly if strangers are assuming they're failures?

Which is beside the point, but please know that when you're sitting in Oceanaire, part of what you're paying for is wonderful fish, and part of what you're paying for is a raft of jobs in America's new service economy that provide both a livable wage and dignity. Which means that while dinner at Oceanaire costs a pretty penny, the overriding theme is less "Let them eat cake" than "Let's all have some fish." Which is a very long way around to explaining that when you're cozy in a booth slurping down oysters, most everyone on the job around you has been there four years or more. If they welcome you like it's their home, brother, that's because it is like their home.

They pay their back-of-the-house people well, too, and help them with their various issues. For instance, when Uhl realized that his food-prep people, most of whom are immigrants, were paying exorbitant transfer fees to get money back to their families in Central America, he explained to them how bank accounts with ATM cards could save them hundreds of dollars a year. The last time Uhl lost a dishwasher was almost four years ago. "When you treat people well, they want to work for you," he explains. "And you always keep in mind that none of this is easy work."

This respect for staff is also why the average age of an Oceanaire server is 38, says Uhl: "Most of them are college educated, and this is what they choose to do--not what they're forced to do." Which, he adds, is how you get repeat guests. It's kind of a garbage-in, garbage-out way of living, which I appreciate in its common-sense approach, except, in this instance it's more aptly phrased as support-and-dignity-in, support-and-dignity-out.

So, to everybody with a need to vent, from St. Paul to Minnetonka and back, maybe we should all dwell on this: Sometimes when people are treating us like dirt, it's merely because we're in the wrong place at the wrong time. Conversely, sometimes when people are treating us like royalty, it has little to do with how charming we are, and much to do with how much support they get, and how fairly they are treated. In any event, there's justice, karma, and an invisible yet palpable depth in the world, even when we speak merely of removing the crumbs from your dinner table. (Oceanaire; 1300 Nicollet Mall (in the Hyatt Regency Hotel), Minneapolis; 612.333.2277.)

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