The 10-Minute Manager's Guide To...
By Lisa Bertagnoli, Special to R&I
EVEN IN THE AGE OF E-MAIL AND WEB SITES, guests who want to make a reservation or simply need a little more information about an operation’s menu are likely to pick up the phone. A prompt answer, a helpful recording (rather than bland music) and a friendly voice give call-in customers a positive first impression.
Used correctly, high-tech devices can only add to a guest’s experience. “In this age of technology, successful operators learn to combine technical smarts with a human touch,” says Cindy Brennan, owner of Mr. B’s Bistro in New Orleans.
Until two years ago, the 12 restaurants in the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group took reservations the old-fashioned way, with a few marks in a big reservation book. Now the restaurants outsource the reservation system.
The technology enables the Las Vegas-based operator to organize its books for longer periods of time, says Madeline Benito, director of communications and marketing. The vendor’s program simplifies floor assignments, previously a complex hand-drawn affair, and captures and stores customer data such as seating and server preferences as well as dietary requirements.
The system coordinates telephone reservations with those made online. It also meshes with programs used by hotel concierges, no small matter since five of the Wolfgang Puck restaurants are in Las Vegas, Benito says. Repeat customers tend to book via the phone; the online system is a great source of new customers, she adds.
The company pays $400 a month for the service and leased equipment. In addition, the restaurants are charged $1 per cover for reservations made online. Customers do not pay the fee, Benito says.
Two years ago, only about 15 customers a month booked online. That number has since risen to 150 guests per month. Benito says that more than 90% of the group’s customers telephone to make reservations, and that restaurant employees prefer it when guests call for reservations. “We can get more information that way,” she says.
Still, the online system fills a need for customers who call after hours, and for foodservice’s growing group of online guests.
Making Guests Feel at Home
Alex Brennan-Martin, owner of Brennan’s of Houston and three other operations, started searching for a technologically advanced reservations system 15 years ago. “We were using Rolodex cards and trying to hold on to what we knew. It got frustrating,” he says.
He found a system that not only takes reservations, but also stores information that helps the restaurants make people feel at home. When guests call, they’re first asked for their name to see if they’re in the database. If they’re not, the host takes their name, number and other pertinent information, such as whether the customer is celebrating an anniversary or birthday. (That information is relayed to the server when guests arrive.)
During the meal, servers add to the store of data by taking notes on food preferences or allergies, wine likes and other details. Servers are rewarded for obtaining such information, and on return visits, that customer is seated in the server’s section, a move that often results in a higher tip. “They develop a following,” Brennan says of the waitstaff.
Thanks to the Internet, Brennan’s restaurants can share information on customers, and take reservations for the other locations as well.
Entertainment on Hold
When Chicago’s busy Frontera Grill began taking reservation last year, it was inevitable that some callers would be put on hold. Rather than waste that on-hold time with boring music, Frontera fills it with an informative monologue delivered by Chef-owner Rick Bayless, who conveys such useful information as the restaurant’s reservation policy, location and the difference between it and Topolobampo, its sibling operation.
Bayless also tells on-hold customers about current events (such as his new cookbook, “Rick and Lanie’s Excellent Kitchen Adventures”) and in the past has offered recipes, including one for guacamole. The result? “Occasionally people say, ‘Put me back on hold, I want to finish the recipe,’” says Jen Fite, Bayless’ assistant. She adds that future on-hold presentations won’t include recipes. “It wasn’t nice when people got interrupted,” she recalls.
The restaurant runs a loop of six recordings, which Bayless makes at the restaurant. Four of the six change every month.
“It’s one of the easier things we do,” Fite says. “The hard thing is finding the time to do it.”
Juggling Callers and Walk-Ins
There’s a customer on the phone and suddenly, three people walk through the door. What’s a busy operator to do?
At Grace, a 90-seat fine-dining restaurant in Los Angeles, “people in person are a priority,” says Amy Knoll Fraser, general manager and partner. Hosts are trained to politely put callers on hold so they can acknowledge walk-ins; if the caller is in midsentence, employees silently acknowledge the walk-ins and finish the phone conversation as quickly as possible.
The restaurant also puts two hosts on duty; one is in charge of the phone and the other handles walk-ins. In addition, Fraser and the other managers keep an eye on the door and help out when the door gets too busy.
Because the restaurant allows time between reservations, there’s rarely a mad crush at the door, Fraser says. And, because there are only four phone lines, only four callers can be on hold at any given point.
Still, “it’s a difficult predicament,” Fraser says of the door/phone balancing act. “It does get challenging at times, but [our staffers] are used to it. It’s the nature of being a host.”