I was in a local Italian restaurant waiting for a carryout order recently. A family of three walked in and asked for a table. I would estimate the parents to be in their 50s and the daughter to be around 20. They were politely told there would be a wait of 15 or 20 minutes.
The hostess then left her stand to tend to a chore. While she was gone, two college-aged females walked in. They were attractive, and they caught the eye of a young male server who happened to be passing through the lobby. He stopped and asked the young women if they’d been helped yet by the hostess. When they said they hadn’t, he replied: “I have a table for you and can seat you right now.” The hostess returned shortly to find a few angry customers. “Excuse me,” said the woman. “Two girls just walked in and were seated right away.” She paused briefly, then repeated herself, with a twist, for emphasis: “Two young, pretty girls were taken to a table right away by one of your servers.” The hostess was obviously unprepared for the situation and looked somewhat stunned.
She was not sure how to react. Then, the customer spoke up again. “I’d like to know how that happens,” she said. “The old lady is told 20 minutes, while the young ones are seated right away.” Now, let me interject here. I’d seen the whole thing play out. I don’t think the waiting customers were snubbed. I think it was an honest mistake by the server. He saw two customers enter and asked if they’d been helped. He then seated them. His mistake was not checking the hostess’ notebook first. Had he done that, he would have realized the other three were waiting on a table as opposed to simply waiting for another family member or friend to come out of the restroom.
In any case, the slip was much more innocent than the waiting family imagined it to be. Still, the woman did have a legitimate complaint — customers who entered after her family were seated first. (This restaurant does not take reservations, in case you are wondering.)
Still not sure what to say or do, the hostess fetched the manager. The manager immediately apologized and said he would get to the bottom of the situation. He left to speak to the server. He then returned and explained to the woman that a simple oversight had occurred, that the server meant no disrespect, and that he was sorry (again) and would seat her family immediately.
The family followed the manager into the dining room as my food was being handed to me by the hostess, who still looked bewildered.
As I drove home, I couldn’t help but wonder if the manager had ever taken the time to properly train the hostess on how to diffuse an upset customer. Clearly, the poor girl had no clue. The manager handled the situation quickly and with tact, but what if he had not been available at that exact moment for some reason? The restaurant would have lost three customers — for good.
As the initial point of contact to your dine-in customers, a well-trained hostess is critical to your operation’s success. Don’t just hire a pretty face. Take the time to train whomever it is you hire. A hostess doesn’t simply smile, say hello and write down names. The job also requires one to juggle seating assignments, make wait-time forecasts the customers expect to be accurate and, yes, even interact with upset customers.
Jeremy White, editor-in-chief