My favorite breakfast in town is served on a simple diner-style plate, with paper napkins and no-fuss silverware. It comes with coffee served in a chunky white mug and ice water in a plastic cup. The green chile that smothers my eggs and the crispy potatoes served on the side are delicious, but that’s only part of why I keep returning. When I walk into the Pantry Restaurant, the servers and bussers and host smile and say hello—they know me by name. They know my eccentric order by heart (breakfast burrito with egg whites, vegetarian sausage, fresh vegetables, potatoes and an extra side of green) and what I want to drink. They ask about my family. I feel welcomed and appreciated and I’ll go back every week instead of choosing someplace new, just for this experience.
When it comes to choosing a restaurant, good food is important but good service is arguably just as imperative. Poor service can keep you from visiting a restaurant again, while great service and great servers will keep you coming back. But what are the critical ingredients for great service? As someone who’s worked on the other side of the table, from server to bartender to manager, I decided to ask colleagues from some of my favorite local restaurants to talk about what they think defines great service and what Santa Fe restaurant staff can do to foster great experiences for their guests.
During a busy Friday night or packed Sunday brunch at any restaurant in town, you’ve probably noticed the bussers and servers hustling through the dining room, on a sort of racetrack from the kitchen through the tables and back. A well-run restaurant is like a well-oiled machine and there’s a kind of dance between the employees as they work. This is what Luis Lozoya calls “the system.” Originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, Luis began working as a server at the Pantry 12 years ago and is one of the most recognizable faces of the restaurant.
At the Pantry, he says, everyone works as a team. The framework of service is a kind of cross training, where everyone knows how to do everything, so nothing falls through the cracks. “You have to have a good team,” he says, “and you have to know the system. We do everything here. If there’s food to run, you run the food, whether you’re a server or a busser. If you see a table that’s dirty, you clean the table.” He points out that Stan, the owner of the Pantry, and his son Michael, who currently runs the restaurant, are there working just as hard as the rest of the staff, wiping tables and running food and filling up drinks. “The food has to be good,” Luis emphasizes, “but the service has to be better.”
Owners and managers who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty are huge contributors to a restaurant’s great service and success. When I arrived at the Plaza Cafe downtown to talk about service, Jared Garcia, the manager and son of owner Daniel Razatos, was crisscrossing the floor, darting from table to table to speak with customers and running credit cards. “We all roll up our sleeves,” he said as we sat at the counter. “My father still busses tables, runs food, serves tables, takes back the bus tubs. We’re a big team and we treat it like a big machine and we’re all working together. It’s very important to do that.” Ester Najarro has worked at the Plaza Cafe for 32 years, after coming to the U.S. from Guatemala. She points out that a good manager also knows how to communicate with customers and is always present on the floor. “A good manager walks around the tables, asking how customers are enjoying their meals,” she says. “They ask visitors where they’re from, what they’re doing in Santa Fe. A good server should also communicate well with customers in this way.”
Communicating well with customers, working as a team and even knowledge of the menu items and wine list are all important aspects of service. But great service goes beyond these technical aspects, as my colleague Jay Hayden pointed out while we discussed the concept of excellent service. Jay bartended for nearly 20 years before landing at Geronimo restaurant, where he’s worked for 16 years, and La Boca, where he’s worked for seven years. If anyone knows great service, it’s Jay. He reminded me of the difference between technical service and hospitality, a distinction made by Danny Meyer, founder of Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park. Meyer says that service should be divided between the technical and the hospitable. Water glasses should remain full and food should arrive on time, but a server must also make the guest feel welcome and at home.
Jay believes the concept of hospitality applies no matter the style of service, whether it’s fine dining or a casual diner setting. “It doesn’t matter the level of service. The principles are the same. Even in different styles of dining, I’ve got to be spot on with service but I’ve also got to try to make that connection with customers.” Hospitality can be what separates an average dining experience from a fantastic one, and what makes you choose to go to one restaurant over another. Jay emphasizes that people have an endless number of choices when it comes to dining. “People can choose a multitude of restaurants. How do you get them to choose you?” Jared at the Plaza Cafe echoes this sentiment: “I explain to the staff that people choose us. They’re not only spending their money but they’re spending their time here and we want them to enjoy every minute.”
Hospitality is making customers feel welcomed and appreciated, not just keeping their water glasses full and the table clear. Jay says, “I want to figure out how to make it special so their experience is memorable.” Hospitality is all about how the customer feels, but it’s directly linked to how the restaurant staff, from bussers to managers, feel about their jobs. Some of the most hospitable people in the business are those who choose to work in restaurants as a career and are passionate about the work they do. I ask Luis at the Pantry why he loves being a server. “When you’re a server you know lots of people,” he explains. “There are people who come back every year, they ask about my family and they remember me. If you do this just for the money, it doesn’t work. It’s got to be your passion.” Ester at the Plaza Cafe agrees. When I ask what her favorite part of the job is, she doesn’t hesitate. “My customers. I have customers from all over the U.S. I love my customers.”
Matt Reynolds has worked at La Casa Sena for 15 years. He’s been a busser, a food runner, a head server, a bartender and is currently managing the restaurant. He considers working in the restaurant business a career, but points out that these days, there are a lot of people in the business who are just there for a quick buck. “There used to be more full-time workers,” he says. “Now, a lot of people have second jobs or they’re going to school for something else. Being in the restaurant isn’t their major focus.” Finding a restaurant with servers like Luis or Ester, who have passion for what they do and show us the meaning of hospitality, is something special. “In a restaurant like the Plaza Cafe, you can be a career server,” Jared says. “It’s not just a cafe, it’s something bigger than that. People keep coming in from all over the world. That’s something you can have pride in.”
As a server at two successful restaurants, Jay says that a staff’s attitude definitely contributes to a guest’s sense of hospitality. “I’m happy to be there,” he says, “and that translates out onto the floor. If you’ve got a happy staff and people are glad to be there, they’ll bring that attitude to the table.” He explains that dining culture has changed. These days, servers and managers aren’t just there to make sure your meal is delivered on time. People like Jay, Luis and Ester are the heart and soul of a restaurant and they have the potential to deliver a warmth and sense of welcome that will bring you back again and again. “You’re not just a waiter or waitress anymore,” Jay says. “You’re the host or hostess of the party.”
Originally published in the April, 2015 issue of Local Flavor Magazine.