Shop Talk

Customers service is still key for new restaurant owners

Recently, some friends and I decided to check out a new restaurant near our Durham neighborhood. I was a little worried that we wouldn’t be able to get in on a Saturday night. That worry turned to concern when we arrived, and the place was almost empty.

While the evening started out with a friendly bartender introducing us to new beers and a sparkling cider, the service and general experience declined after we moved to a table, had a closer look at the menu and related portions, and waited for what felt like hours to get more drinks and our check.

The night got me thinking about best practices new restaurateurs should use to build a customer base in the competitive Triangle restaurant market, before those start-up struggles spiral out of control.

Scott Howell owns Nana’s and Nanotaco in Durham, has two new concepts in the works and has been involved in about six other eateries. He said that some of these younger, “hipper” restaurateurs don’t focus on basics, such as customer service.

“They are arrogant in opening a restaurant, thinking it is a privilege (for customer to be able to eat and get a drink there), but they are lacking in attentive, nice congenial service,” Howell said. “If you don’t have that, you might as well not open a restaurant.”

Howard Cannon, founder of Birmingham, Ala.-based Restaurant Consultants of America, said the complacency of the owners is often the source in failing to give customers what they have wanted for years: hospitality, quality, service, cleanliness and accuracy.

“If you look at restaurants that fail, usually what they are missing is the intensity by the person who’s in charge to drive speed of services, to drive product quality higher, to drive customer and employee satisfaction higher,” Cannon said.

To start, Howell said, in foodie markets such as Durham, good food has to be given, but it also needs to be priced right. With all the options in Durham, making entrees a couple of dollars more than they should be raises the expectations of diners and pits those newer spaces against chefs and owners with established reputations.

He’s right. After we paid for dinner and drinks, our thinking was that we could have eaten at a number of better, more established places for that same price.

Jason Smith, owner of three Raleigh eateries including 18 Seaboard, Cantina 18 and Harvest 18, said owners should seek out customers who are coming back again and again, and ask why and what they are enjoying.

Smith also said owners should avoid making significant knee-jerk changes, but should apply a “constant, gentle pressure” to build and improve the business subtly.

Wendy Dimitri, owner of the Charlotte-based restaurant consultancy The CRB Group and executive director for the American Culinary Federation North Carolina Chapter, said one way to build trust is by going table to table and asking for sincere feedback.

By seeking feedback, owners can make guests feel a part of a space’s success, she said.