Monday, April 21, 2008

What Servers Need To Know - a HP Primer

I wince every time I go into a restaurant in HP. I expect incompetent service and I usually get my way. Last night's experience at Park 52 was no exception. Beth Fama is planning a full review post soon, but the service was not up to snuff. It wasn't a matter of delays which one might expect in a new restaurant (which has been open 2 weeks); it was a matter of gaffes. It seemed to me as though no one had bothered to train the wait staff in the fundamentals.

I hope things get better as HP deserves a restaurant that is well-run.

In hopes of promoting better service, below is a primer on the basic flow of events in any quality restaurant:

1. Host/Hostess seats party
2. Busboy asks water preferences, serves water
3. Waiter drops by for drink order
4. Waiter brings drinks, ask "do you want to hear the specials?"
5. Waiter asks if you are ready to order, if not comes back in a few
6. Waiter takes order, asks for refills on drinks
7. Waiter/other servers bring courses
8. Busboy/waiter clears entree plates
9. Busboy asks if you would like coffee/tea
10. Waiter drops by after c/t served and asks if you would like to see the dessert menu
11. After a discrete interval, the waiter drops by and asks "is there anything else?"
12 . Check is delivered

Park 52's untrained wait staff left off many of the above and muffed the others.

Can someone explain why Jerry Kleiner can pull this off at 21st and Wabash (Room 21) and not at 52nd and Harper?

Some will say -- give them a break, they just opened. Come on, people! This is a simple matter. Our waiter apologized profusely for his incompetence (this reminded me of a U of C undergrad waiter apologizing to me at the Court restaurant, years ago).

Stay tuned for Beth's review.


Raymond said...

Service in Hyde Park is legendarily poor. I frequently experience the "no eye contact" retail transaction, even after the Co-op is gone. Walgreens is the worst perpetrator of this one now that the Co-op is gone.

Greg said...

I don't think I've ever seen a waiter take separate orders for coffee and dessert. If I don't want coffee but do want dessert, does he have to leave and then come back?

Peter Rossi said...


that has been my experience, but we can insert an optional clause there.

my point is that -- hey, this dead simple to teach someone (at least the steps). I haven't even gone into what makes a great waiter, merely a competent one.

Melissa_Bacon said...

Maybe the reason we have so few retail establishments in the neighborhood is because we are all too quick to condemn as incompetent those businesses that do open here. I went to this restaurant the first weekend it was open. Service was slow, but very polite, the food was good, and we were treated very well.

I am disappointed at the nastiness of this post. I was not disappointed with my experience at park 52.

rdb said...

What my wife said.

Lot's of restaurants have uneven service, not just those in Hyde Park. I've had uneven service in Kleiner restaurants, and non-Kleiner restaurants, downtown. Brand new restaurants are most likely to have uneven service. For what it's worth, I tend to expect good but not great service at Kleiner places, where the rush and the trendiness and the loudness can get in the way of a perfect service experience.

I think you need to take off the Hyde Park sucks glasses and wait a bit to see what happens. If the service is really bad 2 months from now, then you can condemn it summarily. Right now, you're jumping the gun.

Peter Rossi said...

should I not tell folks about my experience?

In fact, I didn't describe it in detail. I can only image how "nasty" this would strike Melissa!

Folks in HP settle for second best, which I think is the reason restaurants and stores can get away with bad service.

Nothing would please me more than to have a great restaurant in HP. I was very hopeful about Park 52; but the first take was horrendous.

Peter Rossi said...

again, I said clearly in my post that this is not about slow service, but incompetent service.

Why can't the restaurant manager teach his/her waitstaff to ask customers if they would like a drink?

Is that too much to ask?

Is it too much to ask to get mustard for your hamburger on the first request within ten minutes? do you have to ask twice?

Is it the word "incompetent" that offends? I'm glad to amend my post to use what every adjective is less offending.

EdJ said...

I don't see this as a nasty post. restaurant owners I know want to know when you get bad service. They can nip it in the bud early so that they don't lose business.

I don't know how many times I've said to others "Hyde Park Service" and gotten that knowing nod in reply. It gets to the point when you just expect it. I've vowed numerous times to not go back to Leona's or 7-10 after particularly bad service, but I always go back after a while because they're close and I kind like the food (and the closeness helps make it taste better).

It got to the point where I stopped compalining about it, but recently, I've gotten back into the habit of asking to see a manager to let them know the specifics of what's wrong with the service. Not nit-picky things. things like major parts of a taco salad left out of the dish (like benas and meat), not seeing a wait person after the food is dropped off to let them know I need something else.

We need to make sure we let people know when service is bad. let's not be enablers. Otherwise, we're not doing the businesses any favors and they go out of business.

Peter Rossi said...


I explained this. I guess it was not persuasive.

my point is that this is not about the rest being understaffed but about poor training and management. It wasn't the fault of the waiter that he didn't know what to do and how to serve in a good rest, it was the fault of his boss.

I gave a 20 percent tip and then put it on the blog.

If you treat your customers badly, you will only have bad customers!

I hope I am wrong. I plan on going back in a few weeks and I will certainly let everyone know.

Anonymous said...

My experiences at the new Treasure Island have been less than spectacular from a service standpoint as well. I figured with the Co-op going away, they would hire some friendlier employees and prices would be better.

The prices actually aren't that much better than they were during the "last gasp" Jim Poueymirou effort to improve the old store. Yesterday I was there to pick up a loaf of bread and walked past a man in a white shirt and tie who seemed to be a store manager or something. I smiled and nodded a greeting and was met with a scowl and averted gaze. The woman at checkout wasn't really rude but basically said nothing to me. No thank you, or have a nice evening or anything.

Granted, it was the evening so maybe people were tired but come on. One of my biggest complaints about the old Co op was the surly employees. Why did TI hire back a bunch of the old grouches?

I don't understand this neighborhood sometimes...

rdb said...

Peter -- you have every right to highlight your poor experience, but you have to admit that when you have a BRAND new restaurant, especially one in a neighborhood not already brimming over with fine dining, that you may make some bad calls in hiring at the beginning. Our service experience at Park 52 was completely different from yours. Does that mean that management training is batting 500? You paint a broad brush and invoke the HP-woe-is-us a little too sweepingly.

On "Hyde Park Service," I have to honestly say it's gotten better. Closing the Co-Op has helped. Having businesses like Leona's and Bar Louie and Potbelly's has helped. Hyde Park Produce and Treasure Island and Chant have been great so far. Our dry cleaners are the nicest I have known in ANY city. And the ethnic restaurants (like Kikuya, Seoul Corea, Snail, Nile) treat us like we're their best friends (maybe we order out too much?). It's hard to overstate that the best way to get good service is to be, you know, nice and friendly. After a few years in the 'hood, I find I get treated like a prince at most of the establishments I frequent, and I don't frequent places that give bad service. A big help is my charming, cute as-all-git-out 5-year old. But it goes a long way to be friendly and accomodating. I've even made headway with the Walgreen's pharmacy staff by no longer acting like an exasperated jerk when I reach the counter (they do have one TOUGH job). As someone has said here before, at least 50% of Hyde Park Service Syndrome is the result of the customers.

EdJ said...

I agree with rdb on how much the customer attitude can help a customer service situation. I try to remindmyself that I do't know what kind of day the person is having, so I try to not be the problem.

Still, how many bad days can people have out there? I do think there are a few rays of hope out there. Hyde Park Produce, Noodles, Toys etc., the post office at 46th and Cottage (yes, I said the post office), and the bike shop that used to be in Harper Court and is now on 55th (a litte gruff, but you got to like a guy who knows his business). My experience at Treasure Island has been pretty good so far. Greg having good experiences at Leona's and me having bad ones there shows that that is one place where you can get either rally great or really crappy service depending (it's been getting better), and him having bad experiences at TI, and me not.

I'm interested to hear where people have been getting ood service.

chicago pop said...

Ah, nothing like a debate on customer service in Hyde Park to take me back to the days of early Christianity and the question of whether Christ is the substance or emanation of the Father. Is it me? Is it them? Can't we all just get along??

But to get to the point:
the bike shop that used to be in Harper Court and is now on 55th (a litte gruff, but you got to like a guy who knows his business).

Dude, that guy is effen P.S.Y.C.H.O. and deserves to grease his own crank for all eternity. There are other options in Hyde Park (though I suppose for someone's daughter's $100 Target bike, it's acceptable)that don't require consumer self-flagellation.

chicago pop said...

Let me amend my previous comment: not even a flat tire on a $100 Target bike with pink tinsel on the handlebars would be worth a trip to that crank's shop. Somewhere in the archives of this blog Beth Fama linked to a Reader article or something where the guy admitted to being an A-Hole and not caring much about being pleasant. Do we need to discuss this matter further? The point is that nowhere else in the space time continuum could such an attitude coincide with business survival, except in Hyde Park, where people tolerate it, as they have grown accustomed to the muck served up in each of the restaurants on 55th Street.

rdb said...

I swore I wasn't gonna comment no more, but the more I thought about Peter's "it's so easy to train waitstaff to be perfect" argument, the more I had to single that out in particular.

Because, YES, outside Hyde Park, waitstaff ARE perfect. They always know what to do, and do it flawlessly. It's only beneath the baleful pall of Hyde Park's anti-business miasma that servers are clueless. Please. In my 13 short years in this burg, I've lived in the suburbs, in Hyde Park, in Lakeview, in Wicker Park. I've dined all over, from the Wisconsin border to Kankakee and have found my share of clueless waitstaff in zip codes other than 60637 and 60615. One of the reasons I moved out of Wicker Park was the horrible, rude, disdainful service at otherwise decent restaurants. I figured at the time that I could have a shorter commute, lower housing costs and the same lousy service in Hyde Park!

Training anyone for anything isn't easy or successful 100% of the time. If it were, we wouldn't need 50K+ business schools. Maybe this server was a last minute sub, vouched for but not trained, or the manager's brother-in-law. Who knows? Is it acceptable? No. Is it right to complain? Of course. Is it fair to say that running a restaurant and training and managing waitstaff is easy? I don't think so.

Good night.

Peter Rossi said...

the waiter at Park 52 was friendly as hell, so was I. just untrained.

Why is it, then, that when I go to other restaurants outside of HP, I have no problem getting service?
I think this does violence to the "you are a jerk, so you get treated like one, theory."

Another possiblity is that people in HP are supernice, so that I appear to be a jerk relative to this distribution. Elsewhere in Chicago, there are more jerks so I stand out less. We will never know ;).

I've learned long ago, that there is no point in dumping on service people. It is not really their fault; it is the fault of the management. I smile back at them, and go elsewhere.

I just would like to have a nice place in HP. Is that asking too much? Is it asking too much to have

I like my cleaners as well (Ann Cleaners on Harper). I like Cafe Istria, Freehling Pot and Pan, 57th St Books... I have no complaints. most of the time folks in Elston Ace are helpful as well.

Bonjour cafe also has excellent pastries and friendly service.

So give me a break. Evaluate on the content, please!

Peter Rossi said...

btw, service in Bar Louie can be awful as well. We had to walk out once because they basically refused to serve us (we waited 30 min in spite of the fact that there were only a few tables occupied in the rest and we asked several passing waiters). After that terrible experience, I haven't been back.

I've found the bowling alley on 55th (can't remember the name) to be more consistently friendly.

But compare this to any of the 100s of great rest in Chicago at any price level. They always treat me well. I can't really think of any bad service experiences except in HP.

Go to a Starbucks in Bucktown and compare that to Starbucks on 55th and Woodlawn!

Compare Pizza DOC to Pizza Capri!

Compare Room 21 to Park 52!

I have gotten good service at La Petite Folie, I should add.

Peter Rossi said...

Compare Bar Louie in HP to the other Bar Louie locations, as well.

Compare Pizza Capri, HP to Pizza Capri on Halstead.

A common theme is that the HP version is very dirty with poor service while the other locations are decidely cleaner with better service.

Compare Medici HP (dirty as hell) with Medici Normal, while you are at it (I can't say except that I don't eat in the Medici HP because it is so flithy). I was told by a friend that there is green mold in the orange squeezer!

Zig & Lou said...

Fascinating debate. From a food retailers stand point, it is not rocket science to offer consistent, quality customer service in a clean, friendly restaurant. With Istria (I cannot speak to the situation there today, as I am no longer involved) we hired the best candidates who had passion - it may not have been a passion for coffee, but they did have passion. And we trained, and trained, and trained. And trained. With Z&H we will take this culture qality service a step further with a more developed in-house customer service culture I can pledge that it will be an outstanding experience, and you will see us in the space everyday refining and coaching our staff. Another facet of customer service in small-business retail is the role of the owner (if they are the manager or not). An owner sets the bar for the business. If they are absent and do not seem to have a personal investment in the business (besides money) this contributes to the overall nature of poor customer service and an atmosphere that is less than welcoming. Finally, there is never a good reason for a dirty, poorly operated retail food business.

J/tati said...

I just hope I can convince Jerry to sponsor my new cycling team. :)

khs said...

Okay Peter now I must comment - "I can't say except that I don't eat in the Medici HP because it is so filthy"

Perhaps not new, and well worn but filthy, absolutely not! The Medici passes each of its health inspections with flying colors and is well cleaned and sanitized every night. Sure the old bathrooms were offensive but the new gutted restrooms are clean and beautiful and you can inspect the orange juice squeezer any day - you will find no mold as a 180 degree dishwasher takes care of that.

As a side, I agree that much of Hyde Park retail has mediocre customer service but the reality is that many retail establishments in Hyde Park and the North side do. Even some of the places cited as having great service have bad days and some of the places with historically bad service are getting better. There are so many variables and unfortunately Hyde Park in my experience, seems to have many more variables to contend with than its north side neighbors, particularly when you are hiring more than a handful of people for $10.00/hour jobs.

I find that going in with an open mind and pleasant demeanor helps immensely in any situation.

The Woodlawn Wonder said...

I find all of this interesting since I'm actually a server now. While I admit, good servers make it look extremely easy and it took me about a month to figure out things that you would think were common sense moves (ie. dropping ketchup after someone orders a hamburger, bringing pitchers of water to large groups)there are quite a few unexpected challenges to providing great service. Negotiating them along with quite a few demanding customers makes for an interesting shift.

Nonetheless, my HPP friends I'd like you to take the Woody challenge. E-mail me and I'll tell you not only where I work but when I work for the rest of the week. I'm sure by now you know my real name, come in and ask for my section. I'll serve you and you'll give me feedback. I won't know you from Adam so the advantage will be yours.

Just don't bring 80 people in and ask to split the check. Oh yeah, bring money---mama's got to pay the mortgage.

You in?

Peter Rossi said...


in response to some comments that I was being too nasty, I changed the wording of my post.

I sincerely hope that Park 52 gets their act together and starts to train their staff.

Peter Rossi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rossi said...


why do you have mold in your orange juice squeezer?

If I'm such a jerk, why do I get great service at dozens of restaurants (many much cheaper than Park 52 and many much more expensive).

Some examples where people are really competent and nice:

West Town Tavern
Room 21
Cafe Spiaggia
Spakanapoli (sp?)
Pizza DOC

the list goes on and on and on.

You have served me on several occasions in the Medici Bakery and at UM. I thought you were pleasant and I thought I was as well.


khs said...

Peter, I may not agree with all of your posts but I've never called you a jerk.

and . . . again, I don't have mold in my juice squeezers. The hundreds of people that use them each weekend will attest to that.

I agree with the list. there is a big difference with those places and many others - a much higher price point and liquor. Higher prices means higher wages and usually better servers follow $$$

Famac said...

I was at West Town Tavern the other night, and I said to my companion: "these guys must be having orgies after work, every one of our servers has had a cold since we started coming here."

Of course, I never know what I'm talking about in most matters it seems.

Just then, our waitor came to the table and rubbed off his nose with the back of his hand.

Melissa_Bacon said...

Hey Peter,
Thanks for editing your post. It makes it clear you had a bad experience but the new tone (disappointed, discouraged, but hopeful) doesn't start my blood pressure rising.

It is great that people are outlining some of the places where they receive great service. There are some gems in this neighborhood and we should celebrate (and frequent) them!

Love the blog - keep up the great work.

Peter Rossi said...


I go to my list of HP gems as often as possible.

I am frustrated because I would like to add ot the list. To train someone to be a really great waiter must be very hard, but to train someone to ask for a drink order ought not to be.


ps. I hear the service Calypso and Dixie Kitchen is good.

Elizabeth Fama said...


I've often wondered about the you-squeeze-your-own orange juice at the Medici, even when I worked there. It's a long-standing tradition, I know, but it is a potential health problem because customers have control of the equipment: they haven't necessarily scrubbed their hands, and they can sneeze and cough all over it. Why does the Dept. of Health require signs that say "employees must wash their hands before returning to work" and yet allow every Tom, Dick, and Harry to handle communal oranges and a juicer? Call me Monk, but I'd rather one employee squeezed the orange juice fresh in the back after washing his or her hands.


Fleurie said...

Tonight, I had the worst experience ever at Veggies to Go. Ordered the veggie wrap and left the place without buying it.

The girl who was supposed to prepare the wrap put the wrap ON THE bare counter top. At this point, I was only chocked but did not say anything. Then she smeared the humus on the wrap with her fingers. Yes, fingers… she had plastic gloves, but still FINGERS. Not a knife, or a spatula. At this point, I was determined to buy the wrap and just toss it in the first trash bin on the street. Next, the girl went somewhere and was there for over a minute. Came back with 3 huge leaves of lettuce. Put them on the counter top, then picked them up and went to the sink (general utility sink) to wash them. Dropped them in the sink while rinsing them, picked them up and attempted to lay them on top of the humus….At that point, I simply asked her if she was going to drain the lettuce at least. No answer. I don't know why I even asked her. Stupid me! I finally said that I changed my mind and did not want a wrap at all. Left the store after I had spent 15 minutes there and observed the process of preparing my veggie wrap. On my way out, a woman who presented herself as the customer relationship manager asked me what the problem had been and apologized for the bad experience I had. She offered to give me the wrap for free!!!! Why is it that restauranteurs think that if they give you free food you would be happy??? It is the food of Veggies to Go I was running from. NEVER going back to this place again. Even if they offer to feed me one free wrap a day.

I guess, you are right Peter. We simply expect less of a service and less of a quality in Hyde Park than anywhere else. I, frankly, felt bad for the girl (she was probably new and she better be still a trainee) and was going to buy the wrap just so I don't have to confront her about her incompetence. After Chant screwed up my Pad Thai twice I have not been back. Went to Park 52 and had a good experience. Although not great. Service was not the issue. Looking forward to Beth Fama's report.

Peter Rossi said...


On three occasions, we found glass or plastic in our food at Cedars. Twice they screwed up our take-out order and I had to bring it back.

Don't have much experience with service in the restaurant! Now I won't got again.

Re Pizza Capri -- compare HP location with others (it is a small chain). The hyde park location needs a thorough scrubbing and a new paint job. I shudder to think how filthy the kitchen is! Remember Pizza Capri was shut down by health department.

I don't understand why restaurants in HP can't train servers and put in a little elbow grease in the cleaning department.

Compare the wait at Starbuck on 55 or 53rd with anyother starbucks in Chicago. It's amazing!

chicago pop said...

The post to which Peter Rossi was responding, above, has been removed at the request of the author.