It looks like an easy job. There’s a lot of smiling involved, a lot of handing out menus, a lot of “follow me this way and I’ll show you to your seat.” But, as with most things, looks can be deceiving.
A hostess is responsible for the first impression of a restaurant, quick and careful seating that balances workstations with available wait staff, and estimating accurate wait times to hungry, somewhat impatient, customers. Since a host has a lot on his or her plate, operators need to look for specific qualities in a potential hire.
“Hosts/hostesses are on the front-line with patrons. Successful hosts/hostesses are adept at providing great customer service, have strong communications skills and organizational skills and have warm personalities,” says Jennifer Grasz of CareerBuilder.com.
Customers want a hostess to be friendly, cheerful and welcoming, says Fred Pierson, partner of Atlantic Restaurant Consultants.
“They want a person to be attentive, which requires listening skills and the ability to anticipate their needs. For example, getting a high chair for a party with very young children, or knowing to seat a couple on an obvious romantic date in a quiet part of the dining room.”
Being alert is important, too. “Do they know what the daily feature is, or where the nearest movie theater is and what is playing? Are they looking you in the eye when they are greeting you, or are they robotically mouthing the words of a greeting while looking at their cell phone or watching the game on TV?” asks Pierson.
According to Su Pinney of Outside the Lines, Inc. and OTL Consulting, a hostess should be personable, have a willingness to serve and a genuine care for guests, exhibit excellent communication skills, maintain a positive, smiling persona under stress, and be able to multitask and prioritize.
“As potentially the first and last person the guest sees in the restaurant, they have the responsibility to represent the best interests of the owner/operator and must assure that all guests leave happy,” adds Kenneth King, senior consultant with National Restaurant Consultants, Inc.
A qualified host will be able to handle numerous responsibilities, such as knowing the menu, being familiar with the specials and understanding the traffic in the dining room. “Hosts should, every 10 minutes or so, circulate through the dining room to spot tables which are ready to leave, tables which need bussing and re-setting and guests who need attention,” King says. “The restaurant cannot have too many eyes in the dining room. The host is truly the restaurant’s traffic cop.”
According to Pinney, duties of the hostess include greeting guests upon arriving and giving farewells as they leave, answering the phones, taking reservations and quoting wait times. Additionally, depending on the restaurant, the host may also bus tables and assist with to-go orders and any retail sales.
“Most importantly, the host determines the pace of the shift, which affects the kitchen and servers. The way they seat guests can make the difference between a slammed kitchen (and/or server) and a smooth running run,” Pinney says.
Great qualities mixed with many responsibilities do not always create a successful host. Operators need to add in training. Most operators know how a host should act, says Pierson, and what a host should do, but they have trouble communicating their expectations to the employee.
“They do not let these employees know in no uncertain terms what their expectations are, or they do not follow-up to see if they are performing to said expectations,” Pierson asserts. “If more managers treated the host position more like a ‘director of first impressions,’ I would venture to say there would be a lot less restaurant failures in this country.”
Pinney recommends an on-the-job training program for every position, which at the minimum should include a training checklist. A training manual should complement the checklist and cover “soft skills like how to deal with unhappy guests,” followed by an assessment of lessons learned.
“Their training must include an understanding of service and hospitality, as well as the importance of treating every guest as if they were invited to their home. The host needs to be accommodating,” King says. “The restaurant operator has a responsibility to provide a carefully crafted seating and reservation system for the host’s use.”
King recommends that operators prepare back-ups.
“Hosts should cross-train to be servers where possible, and vice versa, so that there are a number of employees on the floor who can perform and understand the hosting responsibilities,” King says. He advises against the thinking that hosts, bus persons and dishwashers are “secondary” personnel who receive less training and supervision.
“All employees of a restaurant need not only to be productive, but also to take responsibility for the guests’ satisfaction,” King says, adding that hosts do not need to be scheduled during slower day parts, such as Tuesday evenings or Monday lunches, but a manager or server must pay attention to the door in the host’s absence.
“We believe the host is the make or break experience for a customer,” says James Sinclair of OnSite Consulting in Los Angeles, California. “Neither management or ownership provide enough training, role playing or situation assistance to a relatively low paying if not minimum wage job.”
DeAnn Owens is a freelance journalist living in Ohio. She specializes in features and human interest stories.