March 16, 2015 |

Dining Room Red Flags

By Pizza Today

dirty dishes, plates

Stamp out these five potential problems to make a better first impression

Customers walk in hungry and toddle out satisfied — hopefully to return again and again. This cycle is the core of a successful pizza business. But what happens when the customer walks in, looks around and leaves — hungry? Rarely do such customers complain right away: whatever reason caused them to leave, they are choosing to take their business elsewhere rather than ask for the manager, which means owners and managers usually have no clue they are losing business. It’s an alarming problem, particularly because offended customers tend to spread the word with a vigor satisfied patrons will never muster. Businesses will bleed business without knowing –– or getting the chance to make things right.

“There’s this old understanding among professional magicians that you should start with your second-best trick and end with your best, the point being that people only remember the beginning and end of an experience,” says Michael Russell, restaurant critic for The Oregonian. “I think beginnings and endings in restaurants are just as important as any other kind of show.” Identifying potential problems that could drive customers away before sitting down allows pizza operators to make it to that last trick.


• First impressions matter, including the exterior of the restaurant. Mark Mayberry, a customer service experience consultant based in Roscoe, Illinois, says, “The first red flag is when you’ve got a parking lot that is either poorly lit or has trash all over.”

Janie Harris, marketing and guest relations for Hideaway Pizza in Tulsa, Oklahoma, adds: “Once a day we make sure the managers go and walk in the front door to receive the same impressions as the customers. Is the parking lot full of leaves and rubbish, or is the front door covered with dirty fingerprints or even nose prints? That will turn people away.”

• Once through the front door, the customer sees the wait area. If the space is crowded with impatient bodies, and the host doesn’t seem to be in control of the situation, many potential customers will leave without even asking for the wait time. Harris emphasizes the importance of having a responsible, capable person in charge of the wait area, adding that “It’s important that the host is well trained and knows how to handle requests for specific tables or sections, because if a customer is told, ‘That section’s not open,’ and there’s a half-empty restaurant, they will be offended.”

• Another aspect of the wait area that is easy to overlook is immediate greeting. Mayberry says initial contact is everything. “How you’re greeted — or IF you’re greeted,” Harris adds that one minute can seem like eternity to customers, noting that on receiving wait time complaints from customers, the Hideaway staff checked the camera feed. “By the clock, it was a minute and ten seconds, not the ten minutes they said,” she says. For a customer, nothing is worse than entering a restaurant and not being noticed. If the staff doesn’t care that the customer has arrived, it bodes badly for the actual service.

• Poor hygiene in servers and drivers is an immediate red flag to many customers. Harris recalls entering a four-star restaurant and being greeted by a server in a white button-down shirt with a ring of grime around the wrists. Not only did she request another server, but she was offended by the lack of attention to detail in management.

Brian Dickman, owner of Pizza Rita in Spokane, Washington, says, “You know, I run a pizza delivery business. My drivers don’t have to look like Brad Pitt! But they do need to look clean and confident. And if I hear a complaint that a pizza smells like cigarette smoke, I take action.” Harris adds that, as a lifelong non-smoker, she will turn around and leave a restaurant if she sees staff smoking outside, especially if they are still wearing their waiter aprons. “I don’t want to see it, and I don’t want to smell it on my server, and I don’t want to think of it touching my food!”

• Easy to overlook when on the floor or in the kitchen are dining room volume and temperature. Both can immediately offend customers as they walk in the front door. If the music is too loud, it will assault the customer, and if too quiet, can emphasize the bangs and crashes of normal restaurant service; or, if the pizzeria is slow, the unnerving stillness of no pizza being served. Of course, a sports bar will have a different noise level than a family-friendly pizzeria, so it’s important to monitor what’s playing at which volume.

Fighting over the thermostat doesn’t just happen at home. Harris says, “The front area of the restaurant should reflect the actual temperature of the building, so customers don’t think it’s too cold or hot. Here in Oklahoma, where the ‘wind comes sweeping down the plain’, we have to figure out ways to block the cold from entering with the customers.” She adds that in her experience, there is no happy medium, but that management should determine the best temperature and not let kitchen staff and servers adjust the thermostat at whim.


Delivery: Accuracy is Everything

First impressions for pizza delivery services start the instant the customer dials the phone. “For delivery, accuracy is everything,” says Brian Dickman, owner of Pizza Rita in Spokane, Washington. “If something’s messed up in the dining room and you need to replace the pizza, the waiter only has to waddle ten feet back to the kitchen. If it’s wrong on delivery, you have to send another guy out to the house, find the place again—accuracy matters!”

At his business, the emphasis on accuracy starts when the employee answers the phone and extends through the delivery, he adds. Pizza Rita delivers to office buildings in Spokane, and having the actual name of the customer is necessary in a building that holds 90 businesses. “Getting the name, number and order, repeating them all back to the customer—that attention to detail makes them realize you’ll treat their order with respect from the beginning.”

Emily MacIntyre is a food and beverage writer based in Portland, Oregon.