At June’s Restaurant Congress, Emma Underwood, leader of the TMRW Project's The Switch initiative, restaurant manager at London’s Stem and a rising star on the UK service scene, delivered a rousing tribute to undervalued waiting staff and a stark assessment of how difficult it is to master this complex synthesis of organisational and emotional intelligence.
“To work front of house (FOH) you have to be charming, intelligent, be able to multi-task, be reactive and quick-witted, all while maintaining a sense of hospitality,” she explained, before adding the killer blow. “Most people are terrible at it.”
It is an uncomfortable truth but one that, if service in Britain is to improve, bears repeating. Anyone can handle the mechanics of service, the pouring pints or carrying plates, but finding people who can do that while charming and disarming guests is problematic.
Indeed, I regularly encounter FOH staff – diffident, spiky personalities, grumpy malcontents, overly exuberant stars in their own firmament – who in their unfortunate attitudes and behaviours actively detract from the experience. Desperate for bodies, managers seem reluctant to address this issue of personality, but here are ten types who need retraining or weeding out:
The misery. Deep down I am a veritable laugh riot, but I know I can come across as grave, serious, miserable even. I dislike small talk. My default facial setting is hangdog. Warning: never let anyone like me man your bar. No one likes dour bar staff. Not even me.
The void. There is a breed of (posh, reluctant) waiters who – blank expressions, offering no comment or recognition – take your order without using a pad and, psychologically, leave diners on edge. How, we wonder, can anything we have just said have registered in a way that reassures us it will actually happen?
The Soup Nazi. First identified in Seinfeld, this (usually takeaway or coffee shop) authoritarian insists on military order in where people queue, order, pay, wait. Woe betide anyone who tries to order off-menu.
The sloth. Are their batteries dead? Did they hear what you said? It is difficult to say when confronted with those hippyish staff, who, their minds elsewhere, waft about at their own painfully slow pace. “That’s not a problem,” they reply, before disappearing for 10 minutes. For them, nothing ever is.
The cheerleader. Who, infuriatingly, as if dealing with a class of five-year-olds, remains so upbeat that, even as you are trying to complain, smilingly repeats “OK, great, let’s deal with that” – as if we need to work through this problem together.
The cleaner. Are they industrious? Or are they wiping down the next table in the passive-aggressive hope that the pine-fresh fumes will force you to skip dessert and do one?
The patient. I recently had someone sneeze into their hand twice and loudly cough-up and swallow a wad of phlegm as they served me a drink and passed some nibbles down the bar. They were lovely. But ill. And oblivious to how this looked. Note to reader: I did not eat those nuts.
The quizmaster. Those overly zealous staff who fastidiously correct your every minor comment about the restaurant, a dish you ordered, background food facts, etc., as if this is a competition. A competition you are definitely going to lose.
The speed freak. Some people naturally move at 100mph. But when they seat you, insist on your order and clear the table as if trying to beat a turnaround PB, it is exhausting.
The entertainer. Entertainers credit themselves with having great rapport with guests. They are a one-man show. Unable to read guests’ body language, the entertainer can usually be found chatting about themselves and boring timid guests to death.
This article that first appeared in the September issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here. Follow Tony on Twitter @naylor_tony