By Justin Dolezal, Foodable Contributor
It's no secret that good customer service is an absolutely vital part of maintaining a successful restaurant or bar concept. With the ever growing number of quality dining options available in most major cities, a restaurant's reputation for customer service can set it apart from the competition, for better or worse. Managers and operators certainly know this, as hours of interviewing and training often go into ensuring that a staff is capable of providing guests with everything they could possibly need, from quick acknowledgment of every guest that enters an establishment to beverage recommendations and meal ingredients. The rise and influence of internet mouthpieces such as Yelp, have made maintaining customer satisfaction more important than ever, as potential clientele are able to quickly form an opinion, good or bad, about a spot prior to visiting.
While maintaining quality customer service is certainly the norm, some concepts have pushed back against the idea that a reputation for stellar customer service, or traditional customer service itself, is essential for success. It's not that these businesses don't care about their customers; rather, they've found ways to circumvent the idea that every consumer interaction must adhere to the “customer is always right” philosophy. The following paragraphs detail a few ways in which concepts have succeeded by moving away from traditional customer service.
Too Cool (and Great) to Care
Toronado, an outwardly unassuming beer bar in San Francisco's Lower Haight district, has been serving pints to thirsty San Franciscans for over 25 years. Since that time, they've established a reputation as one of the great craft beer establishments in America, with a taplist that is difficult to match anywhere in the country. Breweries that seldom distribute will jump at the chance to have their kegs poured at Toronado. Renowned breweries such as Russian River and The Lost Abbey have created beers specifically for the bar. Their annual Barleywine Festival, a celebration of the robust, malty strong ale, is one of the oldest continuous beer festivals in America (it's older than San Francisco Beer Week itself, and it can hardly be considered coincidental that San Francisco Beer Week happens to coincide with the Toronado Barleywine Festival).
What you won't find at Toronado is a staff consumed with traditional customer service. The no-nonsense, curt demeanor of the staff recalls Seinfeld's famous "Soup Nazi,” a character known for his quality food and short temper. The bar staff at Toronado will rarely indulge in the kind of discussion, education, and sampling that often occurs at modern bars. The best strategy for ordering at Toronado is to pick a beer from their daily draft list, wait for a bartender to make eye contact, and then say the beer name loudly and clearly. Follow this procedure, and your transaction should be smooth (just don't attempt to pay with plastic — Toronado is strictly cash only).
While this indifference toward customer attitudes may seem off-putting, there's nothing disingenuous about the staff at Toronado's attitude. This isn't some preconceived gimmick in which employees are mean for effect. Rather, it fits with the Toronado vibe, where metal music plays and the walls are adorned with bumper stickers. To put it specifically, this is a no-frills establishment, which is likely part of Toronado's enduring appeal, and why it has thrived with such a counterintuitive service style. In a city like San Francisco, gentrifying and altering by the minute, Toronado stands out by being the same rough dive bar that it's always been. If you can provide consistently outstanding products to people and build on a reputation for long-standing quality, then treating every customer like royalty isn't necessary.
It's Not You, It's the System
Readers of Foodable may recall the story of Hatchet Hall, a Los Angeles wine bar that received negative press for its slightly “unorthodox” wine list. The list, which even negative reviews have admitted is full of delicious, intriguing wines, is a complete departure from traditional restaurant wine lists, which often group wines by basic categories (red, white, sparkling) and then present them by names, producers, vintages, and occasionally grapes varieties. Hatchet Hall groups its wines not according to traditional categories, but by the first name of the people who sold them the wine. The descriptors themselves offer little in the way of description, and it is certainly not incorrect to call the list as a whole a bit difficult to understand.
However, not unlike Toronado, Hatchet Hall seeks to provide customers with an experience that is beneficial beyond generic politeness and catering to basic whims. The brain trust behind Hatchet Hall created their list in order to democratize the wine drinking experience and rebel against what they considered to be a flawed system. Ordering a glass of wine at Hatchet Hall will likely be a similar experience for both the wine enthusiast and the wine novice, with comfort zones being eliminated and exploration and discussion essential. The servers at Hatchet Hall are happy to suggest wines based on meal choices or customer preferences, creating an environment in which stuffy arrogance and pretension can be removed, and ordering wine can be enjoyable, exciting, and fun. There are plenty of restaurants that can provide an easy drinking experience; Hatchet Hall's provides something more rewarding.
Tackling the Yelp Dilemma
It's no secret that plenty of people in the restaurant industry dislike Yelp. The business rating website has had a remarkable influence on the food industry, allowing customers to rate and review restaurants and bars, with an average rating assigned to each restaurant. This system has become even more important in today's tech-crazed society, as many consumers make choices largely based on online reviews. Though at first glance this system may seem ideal, it puts extra strain on operators, as a concept's reputation can be torpedoed by a handful of bad reviews by consumers not necessarily qualified to impartially review restaurants.
This system was challenged directly last year by Bay Area Italian concept Botto Italian Bistro, in a way that was both ingenious and hilarious. The restaurant launched a “Hate Us on Yelp” campaign, in which customers were offered 25 percent off of their pizzas in exchange for leaving the restaurant a 1-star Yelp review. Reviewers were encouraged to get clever with their “negative” reviews, and the results were delightful, with patrons complaining that their pizzas had been replaced with baby food and that a makeshift pit greeted people who attempted to complain.
Botto's campaign was risky, as the influence of Yelp reviews on consumer attitudes cannot be denied. But the restaurant decided that it was worth sabotaging their own Yelp score, while providing discounted food in the process, in order to expose the flaws in Yelp's concept (the publicity generated by the campaign certainly didn't hurt either). By encouraging consumers to base their reviews only slightly on reality, Botto undermined the idea that Yelp can be considered a reliable, much less infallible, system of review. Online customer reviews can certainly be helpful when selecting a place to eat. Depend on them entirely, devoid of critical thinking, and you could be setting yourself up for trouble. Today, Botto is still happily serving pizza and pasta, with a dismal 2.5 Yelp rating.