SERVICE: Treat coworkers as courteously as customers

April 16, 2003



You might think that dealing with customers is the greatest challenge faced by restaurant service personnel (in the case of pizza, I mean table servers, counter workers, delivery drivers, anyone who has direct customer contact). But the truth is, it's usually not. Dealing with coworkers nearly always is harder.

The book "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly," by Anthony Bourdain, lays bare this difficult relationship dynamic lived out in restaurants every day. His autobiographical text has been both raved about and reviled by restaurant industry professionals for two reasons: Those who liked it relate to the book as an accurate and humorous depiction of their professional experiences. Those who didn't like it likely were somewhat ashamed that Bourdain showed the public the often-sinister behavior of restaurant staffs.

What's interesting is that nearly every restaurant employee usually is in denial about why this business is so difficult. They tend to blame all the stress of their jobs on the customers, when, in reality, those patrons are rarely to blame. Sure, customers challenge us all, but I believe coworkers are far harder on each other than the customers ever are.

We've all heard it said many times, "Don't shoot the messenger," but that's just about what happens to service personnel charged with communicating customers' demands -- such as special orders -- to the kitchen.

You've seen the scenario hundreds of times: A customer makes a special request of a service person, and that employee eagerly tells him, "I'd be happy to do that for you." Problem is, someone in the kitchen might not be so happy about it, and even may flat refuse to meet that request.

That service person is then left with two choices: to fight with the kitchen to get the request met, or suffer the unenviable task of returning to the customer and telling him he can't meet his needs. Not only can this be humiliating, it can hurt a service person's tip.

It is distressing that so many restaurant employees who never interact with customers will make the jobs of those who do so emotionally, psychologically and physically stressful. It's not necessary and it always takes away from the greater purpose of caring for the customer -- the person who's paying everyone's salary.

It's fair to point out that service personnel often hurt their own causes by being just as hard on the kitchen. We've all worked with service persons who are rude to the kitchen staff, telling them to "Just do what I asked you to do," when the kitchen is already in the weeds.

Abraham Lincoln once said, "You'll attract more flies with honey than vinegar," and in the case of restaurant staff communication, that means both sides should make every effort to speak respectfully to each other.

Members of both staffs need never forget this one restaurant truism: Neither staff can do its job without the other's cooperation.

Courtesy with customers and coworkers

When serving customers, most restaurant workers know to treat them with respect by using terms of customer courtesy -- "please," "thank you," combined with "miss," "madam," and "sir." Those words project an air of polite detachment that reminds customers we're here to serve them.

Those same courtesy terms also are useful in communicating respect for coworkers, especially in the middle of a rush, when tension is running high. A service person asking a cook, "Could you please do this for one of my guests?" demonstrates that he's depending on the cook to help him please the customer.

Telling a cook, "I have to have this right now," however, screams, "You're here to meet my needs."

As age is strongly considered when addressing customers, the same applies with coworkers. Older folks (include my 55-year-old self in this group) grew up learning that "Hey," isn't a greeting, it's what you said to the dog when it tried to steal your pork chop off your dinner plate. "Dude" didn't work either, as it was used to mock a city slicker dressed like a cowboy. (Removing these terms from delivery drivers' vocabulary is very important as they bring more and more pizzas to the homes of millions of aging Boomers. "Hey, dude, here's your pizza," may work with teenage customers, but it likely won't settle well with an adult.)

Remember this, too: We're in a recession, and a lot of older people who might not otherwise be working in a pizzeria may be doing so to supplement their incomes -- even retirement funds drained by the bear market. Be friendly with them by being respectful first. Not only is it the right thing to do, I guarantee it'll make a much more professional and smooth-running workplace.

Topics: Service

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