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Can hospitality be found in Charlotte?

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Cosmetic surgeons say their best work goes unnoticed. This could also be said of restaurant service. When service is technically correct, the customer may not notice the service but feels good about the outcome. But, what of hospitality? Service covers the basics that every customer has the right to expect, but hospitality is what creates the soul of a restaurant and allows the customer to feel, well, special.

Restaurateur Danny Meyer writes in his latest book Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of the Hospitality Business (HarperCollins, 2006) the difference is the "51 Percent Solution." He hires servers at his 11 Manhattan restaurants, which include Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, for both their technical proficiency - or 49 percent - and their core emotional skills - or 51 percent. These skills include: optimistic warmth, intelligence, work ethic, empathy and self-awareness/integrity.

Local restaurateur and chef Catherine Rabb, who owns Fenwick's (since 1984) in Myers Park and is also on faculty of Johnson & Wales University, calls these distinctions technical skills and soft skills. She says, "Ideally, I like the seamless balance of the technical skills - menu knowledge, how to open a bottle of wine, how to pace the courses - with the soft skills - dealing well with people, remembering names, handling difficulties. Like most operations, our restaurant has a heartbeat - a rhythm that takes a while to learn. No matter how much training you have, the server must have time to find that rhythm and dance to it."

But where should a server learn the technical aspects of service: on the job or in a classroom? And can those soft skills, or the 51 percent, be taught?

Michael Miles is a Charlotte server who possesses that 51 percent. He currently works for Ruth's Chris Steak House, but has been a professional server since 1989. He says he reads every table and treats each table the same. He relates the story of a table reserved for eight, which "turned out to be women." Then the number dropped to three, but ultimately ended up being seven. "They drank expensive wines and ended up with a bill of $1,100," hardly what a novice server might expect at the beginning of the night. Miles says, "You never know what to expect and you have to be prepared for the unexpected."

Rabb states the best training requires "time to study the menu and taste and memorize the wines and the money to pay a server to do this." Yet she concedes that training is not always cost-effective: "There was a restaurant in Charlotte that had a six-week paid boot camp for potential servers who only got on the floor after passing a rigorous battery of tests. Ultimately that restaurant closed and cited high labor cost as the reason."

How hard is it to give good service? Rabb tells the story of an older man "clearly in a career transition" who applied for a job. "I sat down to interview him, fully expecting him to say that he had waited tables in college, liked it, and thought it would be an enjoyable thing to do for a time. But he said 'I have never waited tables, but how hard can it be?' Well, pretty damn hard. A really good server is the king or queen of multitasking and it's much harder than it looks. A top notch server needs to have an almost psychic ability to read the table - how guests want the meal paced, who is the host, if it is a special event, if the guests want to be entertained or left alone. Great servers genuinely like people and have the special ability of being kind and truly concerned that a guest has a good experience and is willing to do what it takes to make that happen."

Good servers in Charlotte can make between $52,000 and $60,000 per year, and as Miles notes, servers work flexible hours, typically 28 hours per week. At that rate shouldn't Charlotteans expect professionalism, especially at the higher end restaurants?

One of the primary issues in Charlotte, though, is servers who don't consider hospitality as a profession. Miles refers to the better servers as the "crusty old waiters, like you find all over Chicago," a city known for restaurant service excellence à la Charlie Trotter. Yet a downtown restaurateur reports that one of his best servers is his youngest, but notes that this server has several years experience and is concluding his Johnson & Wales B.S. Hospitality degree this November. The commonality here is the choice of hospitality as a career.

Perhaps one root of Charlotte's service issues is the plethora of inexperienced servers hired to fill the recently opened enormous (250 seat+) corporate restaurants while the lifers gravitate to the right house (restaurant) where they can make the most money and get the best benefits. Miles noted that the staff at Ruth's Chris was at least 30 to 35 years of age and "doing it for life."

Danny Meyers writes of a change in the hospitality industry as a whole. When he first opened a restaurant in 1985, his family thought eventually he would get a "real job." Now, Meyers has employees who have been with him for decades. Rabb agrees, "I know several servers in Charlotte who wait tables or bartend for a good living, and are exceptional because they have focused their energies on becoming excellent at their career. Perhaps as time goes by and servers get more respect, this will be a viable career option for more people."

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136, or e-mail tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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