Enjoy Your Dinner!

By Ron Rosenberg

In the turmoil and chaos that seems to have become a permanent fixture in our daily lives, it's nice to get a break from time to time.

Because I travel regularly to present at conferences across the US and internationally, I get to visit some very wonderful places. And because I enjoy food and wine, I take full advantage of the opportunity to try out new and different restaurants. In fact, there are some restaurants that are so good, they are added compensation for a city that might not be on my short list to visit otherwise.

Time to Unwind

I was recently in Jacksonville, FL, to present to a group of meeting professionals. It was a great group of people, and the session was extremely productive. Because of airline schedules, my flight home was early the following morning, so I had an evening to explore.

I turned to my "best travel friend," TripAdvisor, to see what restaurants were nearby.  The one that caught my eye was Seasons 52. I don't normally go to chain restaurants (they have around 40 different locations in the US), but the menu looked good and they had happy-hour meal specials and a pretty good wine list. I made a reservation and took the hotel shuttle to the restaurant. I was extremely happy I did.

Great from the Start

When I attend conferences as an attendee , I've found that you can pretty much tell within the first 30 seconds if a keynote or breakout session is going to be good, average, or just plain bad. That's why I generally sit in the back of the room so I can make a quick exit if I sense it's going to be painful to stay.

It's the same with a restaurant - you can generally tell by the first contact with your server if you're going to be in good hands or not.

I mention this because my wife and I seem to have a knack for being assigned the worst server in the restaurant, as in "Hi! Welcome to (whatever restaurant we're visiting) - Bob will be taking care of you today. It's his first time ever waiting tables; he's just coming off a nasty divorce; and he's in a particularly bad mood today. Enjoy your dinner!"

Fortunately, this wasn't the case.

It's the Little Things...

When you look back at a pleasant experience, more often than not, it wasn't a single "grand gesture" that made it special, but rather consistent delivery at a high level on all aspects of the experience. Not one big thing, just a lot of lot if little things.

And this was the case at Seasons 52.

My server was efficient without being annoying or overly familiar, and he had the skills for delivering understated but effective service.

For example, when I ordered a glass of wine to start the meal, he could have just brought me the full glass from the bar. But since he had to open a new bottle anyway, he  presented the bottle, opened it at the table, and poured me a glass. For a few seconds, I was actually concerned that he thought I wanted a whole bottle instead of just one glass!

When I ordered three small plates from the "Sunset at Seasons" menu, he suggested bringing them out one at a time, and even recommended that they come out in a particular order so that each one complemented the one after it.

The food was great; my water glass was always full, and he waited until I had actually finished my wine before picking up the glass and asking if I wanted another one.

Did You Save Room for Dessert?

This is what most servers ask after the main meal is finished. As I said, I like to eat, but I also like to stay in shape also, so I generally don't give into that temptation. But when I think I might like a little something extra, I'll ask to see the dessert menu.

Sometimes there's an item there that looks like they created it just for me. More often, though, that's not the case, and besides, the desserts are usually overpriced.

So I was a bit surprised when my server came by to collect the dinner dishes and didn't ask if I was interested in dessert or coffee. From my perspective, this was his first "slip up" of the evening, and it seemed strangely uncharacteristic in light of everything he had done right up to that point.

Oh Ye of Little Faith!

So I felt pretty bad when he returned to the table a few minutes later carrying this tray:

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It was a collection of "dessert shooters" - small servings of different parfait-like treats.

He described each one in detail - letting me know the ones that were his personal favorites - and asked which ones I might be interested in.

When I asked how much they were he said that they were $3 each. Sold! I ordered the Key Lime Pie and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The entire experience was so enjoyable and so professionally done that, on my way out, I asked to see the general manager. She came out after a few minutes, naturally expecting to encounter a customer with a complaint or a bad experience.

Instead, I told her about my dinner, about the great service I had received, and about the very clever dessert tray. After a second to switch gears from "prepared to deal with irate customer" to "Oh, wow, thanks!!" we had a short conversation and I gave her a card with links to some of our customer-service audios that I thought she'd enjoy.

Lessons Learned...

First, as we've already discussed, it's the little things that make a big difference. But more importantly, and perhaps less obvious, is that there was definitely a lot of thought put into the concept of the restaurant and there was a system for delivering on that concept.

Beyond that, because there are so many locations for this restaurant chain, management has the opportunity to try out new ideas at one restaurant, gauge the response, and then make informed decisions about whether or not to roll these new approaches across the company.

I actually got a few ideas from this experience that I plan on implementing in our own company.  How about you?