In an ever-more competitive economy, operators are upping the ante on training and investing more time and money than ever before. “You have to make a commitment to training, it’s more important than ever,” says Stacey Smith, beverage director for Pappas Restaurants, a Houston-based company operating nearly 100 units under a number of concepts. “The mixology movement and craft beer revolution have changed the game. It used to be beer and ‘ritas; now beverage is so much more,” she explains. “And if your bartenders are not properly trained in technique, it’s difficult to make headway with new beverage programs.”
That’s why Pappas Restaurants is rolling out a bartender training program. “It’s tell, show and review,” says Smith, but with a modern twist. The program is a blended learning approach, which combines traditional methods with computer-mediated activities. Bartenders in training still receive a workbook, but that text is reinforced by corresponding e-learning courses at in-restaurant computers. Topics range from basics like how to greet a guest to knowledge-builder courses on products and techniques. Workbooks are interactive, too; some pages when completed, can be torn out and used as cheat sheets on the job. Smith and her colleagues at headquarters, as well as store managers, can track each trainee’s progress with the LMS (Learning Management System), a software application that facilitates online administration of the program across the company. And with LMS software, it is quick and easy to upload any changes and adjustments chain wide as well.
Training Goes High Tech
The tools and methods used are also becoming more complex and streamlined than they have been in the past. “We’re dabbling in new technology, incorporating more of it in our training courses,” says Gabriel Caliendo, a principal and vice president of food and beverage, of Huntington Beach, Calif.-based Lazy Dog Café. The vice president of the nine-unit chain has begun to videotape proper procedures for plating food and mixing and garnishing cocktails for use as reference tools. Videos and photos will eventually be uploaded to the kitchen display system, with links to the bar and the host station. “If a dish or a drink doesn’t look right, staff can go to the video and see it being made the right way,” says Caliendo. With digital cameras, the company also turned training into a creative contest: employee teams scripted and recorded procedural skits and posted the results on the Lazy Dog Café’s YouTube channel; the best of these are used as training videos at new unit openings.
Although not high-tech, the Purple Pig, a Mediterranean one-unit concept in Chicago, has an innovative educational policy. To help staffers learn the nuances of its wine list, the company allows employees to buy and take home any of its bottles at a 66 percent discount off the list price. The unique perk not only creates enthusiasm for the wines that translates to more effective selling on the floor, but the policy helps with staff retention as well.
“Recently, we went a bit more high-tech with some of our training; we developed a handbook and PowerPoint presentations for classroom situations,” says Michael Cappon, executive chef at Isabella, a Mediterranean-themed fine-dining restaurant in Conshohocken, Penn. Those advanced techniques were developed to prime for the recent opening of his company’s newest restaurant, the 401 Diner. This was necessary because the staff at the diner is larger than at Isabella and there is less time for managers to train staff one on one. “At Isabella,” notes the chef, “I have contact with every member of my staff, every day, which affords me the face to face time to train the old-fashioned way, hands-on.”
Keeping it Personal and Passionate
“Training is not about technology, it’s about people,” insists Professor Jeff Elsworth, PhD, who teaches restaurant management and entrepreneurship at Michigan State University’s School of Hospitality Business. “Training comes down to managers who are coaching, guiding, teaching on a daily basis.” This is true at the unit level of chains and especially at independents.
At Isabella, new, front-of-the-house staff spend the first night of their week-long training in the kitchen where they can observe the processes of ordering and food plating—and chef Cappon can observe them. There is homework and frequent quizzes. During that first week, new employees shadow server-trainers, run food and familiarize themselves with the bar procedures and drink menus. The first night of actual service is in a reduced-sized section, with the server-trainer nearby.
Good training programs are multi-faceted, encompassing initial employee orientation, a promotional push behind the roll out of new menus, and continuing maintenance of service standards.
“Training starts with hiring,” asserts Caliendo. The Lazy Dog Café generally hires servers with experience, that’s especially true for bartenders, because the concept’s bar volumes are high. “Beyond experience, though, when I interview, I’m looking for that smile, someone who uses the word ‘love’ when they talk about food and drink.” Upon hiring, new employees undergo an orientation about the company’s history and policies, and then are paired up with a trainer for two weeks. Each department has its own trainers, from bartenders to bussers.
“Potential team members have to be passionate about food and wine,” believes Laura Payne, general manager of the Purple Pig. “We want a certain base of experience when we hire because it’s intensive here as far as wine knowledge is concerned.” Front-of-the-house personnel go through a seven-day training program, which includes shadowing, running food, evaluation by a trainer and successfully passing a final exam.
Keep ‘em Rolling
“There are so many more roll-outs than in the past,” exclaims Smith at Pappas, “You have to keep it fresh and keep everyone interested.” The company uses the LMS approach to prepare for the introduction of new cocktails, spirits brands, craft beers or other beverages. New drinks are often the focus of pre-shift meetings as well. An ideal version of the cocktail, the “Perfect Drink,” is prepared for the meeting so staffers can see the glass and garnish as well as sample.
At the Purple Pig, written exams follow seasonal menu changes or changes of the wine-by-the-glass lineup. During daily shift meetings, chef-partner Jimmy Bannos Jr. explains new items and pops quizzes. Additionally, two mandatory wine training sessions are held every month, and purveyors and winemakers hold in-house seminars for staff on a regular basis.
The menu at Isabella changes weekly as do the draft beer selections, so they are usually the focus of daily pre-shift meetings. Then the new food, cocktail, beer or wine items are tasted by staff so they can accurately describe and sell them to guests. Additionally, the wine merchant who represents the largest section of Isabella’s portfolio often conducts educational tastings for the staff.
Lazy Dog Café initiates two chain wide roll-outs a year for both the food and drinks menus, in addition to sporadic introductions such as the recent roll-out of a late-night happy hour. To prepare, company execs create colorful training brochures that feature descriptions and high-quality photos of all the new items, as well as suggestive selling tips, and pairings with wine, beer or cocktails. Servers study the brochure on their own and are then tested for comprehension.
The Art of the Spiel
“The brochures help servers sell the items rather than just reading off a list of ingredients,” explains Caliendo. The suggested pairings are a good way to drive numbers and profits, he adds; but he cautions, use restraint and only suggest matches that work well. At the store level, Lazy Dog Café managers regularly conduct “Sell it to Me” exercises. One new drink, a seasonal mason jar, often requires that verbal sell. “On menu, it just says ‘seasonal mason jar, ask your server,’” notes Caliendo; “It’s up to them to close the sale.”
“Scenario training is an important technique to help your servers sell better,” concurs professor Elsworth. It hones interpersonal skills and improves confidence. “Servers also have to take a moment to read a table before they approach, observe and understand what those customers are looking for, what they really want.”
At the Purple Pig, general manager Payne regularly reviews with service staff the art of reading a table and how to suggestive-sell without being overbearing. “We have to be careful not to oversell and chase a guest away,” she cautions.
At Isabella, chef Cappon created a food and drink dictionary for the staff. “We use a lot of esoteric ingredients in the restaurant,” he explains. “So staff can reference that for descriptions and to help with selling.” He also conducts practice sales scenarios. These proved handy during a promotion of house-bottled sangria. Each table had a bottle of the sangria as a centerpiece, requiring servers to explain why it was there, what it was, and why it was a good deal. “We worked out a spiel during pre-shift,” recalls the chef. “All the servers started selling sangria when they realized how much it was increasing their check averages.”
“Operators have to make an ongoing investment in education and training,” concludes Elsworth. But training is not just a handbook, employee orientation or the 15-minute staff meeting, he says. “It’s the manager out on the floor, coaching, teaching all shift long.”