Serve Somebody

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

Dear Dara;

This letter is pure venting. I walked out of L___ yesterday. Why? Because the waiter would not let me sit at a table other than the crappy little two-seater in the corner he had picked out for me, where my shoulder would have been smashed against a wall. It was just after 7:00 p.m. on a Sunday. The place was fairly empty, there was no line, no wait, no theater show about to get out. These small tables in the worst part of the restaurant and the fight to not have one--it's ridiculous and it pisses me off. I am so outraged. Why would they think that my business is less important than the slim possibility that a dozen groups of four might all walk in simultaneously? Do they not understand that dining isn't always about the food, but also about the atmosphere? For every diner. I think I need to say that I look neither gross nor slutty. I do not omit unpleasant odors, nor am I a lush, or anything but normal (ish!).

Dara, please help.

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

Map

The Oceanaire Seafood Room - Minneapolis

50 S. 6th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55402

Category: Restaurant > Seafood

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

Oddly, venting done, I do not feel any better.

--Emma, in St. Paul

Dear Dara;

I need to vent.

We recently had dinner at B___. We have eaten there at least 20 times, but not in the past year. They have "updated" the decor (i.e., put a mural on the wall and fresh paint) and now the menu's prices have escalated a huge amount. One of my biggest pet peeves (at any restaurant) is when the server rattles off the specials, but the patron needs to ask what the prices of these specials are. But at B____ there is a whole drink menu that doesn't list prices!

Honestly, Dara, would you go into Marshall Field's and purchase a pair of shoes that you didn't know the price of? Of course not.

--Harriet, in Minnetonka

 

Dear Venters;

You know, I couldn't agree more. Sometimes I lie in bed, envisioning the difficulties in guest-server relations. Sometimes I even envision it as a play.

Guest: Is the cheesecake made here?

Server: I didn't ask to be born! [sobbing, throws apron over head, runs into street]

Guest: I'll tear out your liver! [gives chase, wielding chainsaw]

I mean, I was surprised this week to get two letters from readers that opened in the same need-to-vent vein. But I wasn't at all surprised to hear that Minnesotans are frustrated with the hospitality they receive at local restaurants. In fact, my mailbag over the last month contains dozens of tales of hospitality-related woe. Reservations are lost; servers fight openly and sulk about who has to take a late-arriving table. Guests are scolded for seating themselves in a restaurant with no host at the door, and no sign indicating another policy. Questions about a house specialty are greeted with, "I don't know, I don't eat fish." Drinks stink of dish soap while the server insists that's how they're supposed to be. Appetizers, entrées, and the check are abruptly dropped to speed the diner from the establishment. Cheap tilapia is substituted for expensive swordfish, without warning. Hours pass between order and delivery of food. Corked glasses of wine are valiantly defended, and the diner is implied to be trying to cheat the restaurant. Drinks are served in water glasses and subsequently topped off with water. Water glasses are filled with mysterious particulate substances. Dishes that servers imagined didn't have nuts cause mid-meal sprints to the emergency room....

And more, more, more. Sometimes I am amazed that anyone eats out at all. My best guess lately has been that servers, and restaurants, actually don't have any idea of what they are trying to accomplish.

However, my best guesses are nothing compared to the insights of someone who actually manages to pull off good service. Namely, what does Steve Uhl, general manager and operating partner of Oceanaire, think?

Now, Oceanaire is that expense account, ultra-fresh seafood destination restaurant that opened in Minneapolis a few years ago, a sister to Manny's Steakhouse, and has since expanded to the coasts. Service in the restaurant is nearly flawless. Real human people answer the phone when you call for your reservation and answer whatever question you might have. The servers seem to know everything about every single food and wine in the restaurant. Assistant servers prowl around clearing, crumbing, and filling waters like watchmakers tuning clockwork. The restaurant is one of the elite few in Minnesota, or North America, really, where you can settle in with a reasonable certainty that, barring catastrophe, nothing bad is going to happen. If you're on a date or a business dinner, that quieting of life's anxiety is priceless. So how do they do it?

The full answer will probably shock you.

Mostly, says Uhl, the Oceanaire's peerless service derives from a two-tier approach. The first tier is the more obvious one, and has to do with rigorous training of the staff, backed up by constant communication within the restaurant. Managers spend eight weeks working every station in the restaurant: They follow hosts to see what hosts do, they work the pantry, they work the oyster bar, they learn what's difficult about every job in the restaurant. Meanwhile, server training is equally rigorous. Servers watch videos and study pictures of what all the dishes are supposed to look like, so if, for instance, a new chef botches a crab cake, the server will catch it before a guest ever knows. They learn the ingredients of every single salad dressing and standard recipe, and aren't allowed on the floor till they test 90 percent or better on written tests of the ingredients.

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."

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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