In the Weeds

Have you every been in the “weeds?” When you’re in the weeds, it’s as if you are in a large field and the weeds are way above your head and you can’t see where you are going. You don’t know which direction to go and what is the most important thing to do immediately. In the customer service world it’s when you have a seemingly insurmountable amount of customers at the same time and you have no idea how to serve them all and provide excellent customer service. You’ve seen servers in restaurants who are in the weeds- they’re perspiring, they look nervous. They’re speaking with you, but you know what they’re thinking: “Did they just put another couple in my station?” They feel like quitting because they don’t see anyway out of the weeds- They’re crying inside, “Please, God, please make this stop!”

Besides the perspiration on their scalp, another sign of a server who is “in the weeds” is when they are constantly looking down. In their scared brain, they are saying, “Maybe some of the customers will go away if I don’t acknowledge them.” They are making one beverage at a time. Every time that they lift their head, more customers come through the door. They have not been trained on how to handle a rush of customers. If the server asked several groups of customers at a time what they wanted, they may be able to fill orders quickly. If four different customers want a large coffee to go, wouldn’t it make sense to brew them all together, gather the four cups at the same time and maybe cash them out together? It sure would. You’ll never know that if you keep your head down and process orders one at a time. If you knew that there were six different orders for lattes, small and large, wouldn’t it save time to brew all of the espresso shots at the same time, steam the milk at the same time, and process their orders at the same time? Suddenly, you’re no longer “in the weeds,” because everyone has at least part of their order in front of them. The customers know that you’re busy, but now they’re impressed with you. You smiled throughout that secretly painful ordeal, processed orders quickly, and made everyone happy. You’ve created happy soon-to-return customers, created wealth for the company and for you (in tips), and you’ve gained a life-long skill of learning to turn “into the woods” into a “controlled slam.”

When I was a server in various restaurants, but especially at the Rustic Inn in Annapolis, Maryland, and Lucky’s Grill in NYC, I learned techniques to get out of the weeds- or never to get in the weeds at all. For example, when you have 10 tables, treat them as one table- treat them as if it’s a family dinner. If everyone knows that you know that they exist, they will understand if it takes a longer time. Never pass a table without looking at them in the eyes. Say hello, ask if everything is okay, but look at them in the eyes and smile. They may need a fork because their fork fell on the floor. As you pass every table, look at your customers. They will forgive the tardiness of receiving food and beverages because they’ll realize that you’re just crazy busy. Make sure that everyone has something to drink in front of them. Do triage and make the situation manageable.

My cafe is frequently busy and when we are slammed- note that I didn’t say “in the weeds”- we treat the 30 customers that come in as one table. While we help each customer, one at a time, when another customer comes in we say, “Hello, how are you? We’ll be right with you.” I’ll even introduce them to each other so that they forget that they waited 10 minutes for a cup of coffee. When we take care of one customer, we’re constantly looking around with a smile, saying- we’ll be right with you. The smile and constant communication is the key to turning an experience “in the weeds” to just being crazy busy or slammed. “Slammed” is when a plethora of customers enter your establishment at the same time and they all feel that they have been taken care of.

I remember a morning at Chazzano when we were slammed- not in the weeds ever- because we make “fancy” coffee. No one is upset about the time it takes when you are brewing coffee in a fancy brewer like a pour-over, vacuum syphon, iced pourover, Turkish. The show becomes part of the entertainment. When I worked at the Rustic Inn, and I was neglecting a few tables while setting the Baked Alaska aflame with Grand Marnier, no one was fidgety or angry that they couldn’t get their check or dessert. They appreciated the show. The same scenario happens at my cafe- there are 20 people waiting, but while we’re making 2 Turkish coffees, 2 vacuum syphons and 3 hot chocolates, customers are mesmerized by the show. So, customer service is not just dependent on the server, but also dependent on the management providing the proper tools to keep customers entertained.

This is an excerpt from Frank’s upcoming book, “You don’t want dessert, do you?”

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