Recently I went to a really sexy fast-casual restaurant in Gainesville, Georgia. A lot of oxymorons there but this one is the flagship launch for a new brand by King’s Hawaiian – the company that makes those little sweet rolls everyone loves from the grocery store. I’m not sure why they chose Gainesville, Georgia (about an hour north of Atlanta somewhere near Marjorie Taylor Green’s CrossFit gym) but they did, and we went.
The building itself is gorgeous with incredible branding and pops of yellow and turquoise with high koa-wood herringbone ceilings, exposed heavy beams, and pops of Brady Bunch furniture. Even the crosswalks in the parking lot are painted with little turquoise waves. It is post-COVID-forward with equal attention paid to outside seating, inside seating, and the drive-through layout. The staff is uniformed, their entrees are delicious, and they even have a little counter showcasing unique donuts that are segmented for easy pull-apart sharing. Flawless concept coming off the drawing board and onto a 3-acre quadrant of a bustling corner in the far-out suburbs (perhaps they think that if it can make it in Gainesville, it’ll make it anywhere). It’s flawless …until you begin to interact with the staff. I’m not trying to turn this into a Yelp review so I’ll make my point: you can hire the greatest restaurant, retail, and design minds in the world and pour all the money, design, recipe-development, and ingress/egress studies you want into a concept…but if your young staff can’t talk to an adult or act like they give a [darn], it’s going to struggle. Visit a Shake Shack and you’ll know what I mean. Danny Meyer – renowned restaurant guru and author of one of the most influential books on service, “Setting the Table” – launched a concept where seemingly the last thing on his employees’ minds is caring for the guest’s experience. You can blame Gen Z or step back to their parents – self-indulgent Baby Boomers and helicopter-parent Gen X’ers, but let’s not waste time pointing fingers and start finding solutions.
In the 1970’s, restaurants took a turn toward efficiency. Competition was getting fierce so concepts that buttoned down their operating model could beat mom-n-pop. Through economies of scale, they learned they could invest in things mom-n-pop never could, like branding, positioning, market studies, and R&D. Evil-booty Ray Kroc was certainly ahead of the curve for fast food in the 1950’s/60’s, but McDonald’s efficiency was about controlling ingredients, throughput, time & motion, and marketing. Tackling scratch cooking and table service required a little more gumption. In the late 1960’s Norman Brinker took that leap with Steak and Ale. It and its sister concept Bennigan’s became the ones to catch while some Cornell Hotellies created Victoria Station to go head-to-head. These concepts trained a whole new generation of restaurant operators who eventually launched their own concepts like Longhorn Steakhouse, Houston’s (now Hillstone Group), Cheesecake Factory, Hops, and many more.
The 80’s and 90’s saw service improving in the full-service chain models through systems, giving customers more choices they could trust to deliver an experience that rivaled mom-n-pop. They ate it up…and where there’s a dumpster, there are cats. Everyone wanted in on it. Somewhere in the late 1990s however, we must’ve reached a saturation point and market share became difficult to defend. The accountants got involved and the workforce population couldn’t match the explosion of concepts…especially as people started doing the math on dining out vs. cooking at home (dining started winning…ala “how much would you pay to not have to cook and do dishes?”). Competition and relentless Wall Street pressure squeezed P&Ls. Sacred cows like lengthy and thorough training got slaughtered (among other things). By the 2000’s, the art of training service became less of a priority – similar to the way schools increased efficiency by cutting art and phys ed classes. Double income parents were too busy to teach their kids not to chew with their mouths open, and respecting others (especially elders) gave way to “you respect me first, then I’ll respect you”. Saved by the Bell, Hanna Montana, and That’s So Raven taught our kids to loathe adults and that the kids were the ones in charge. “Soft” parenting tactics became the warm bath in the Petrie dish which spread this disease until we landed where we are today…which is a workforce that, through no fault of its own, is irritating customers throughout America …with no idea that they’re doing it.
When you go into a fast casual restaurant as a customer and square up in front of the cashier and make eye contact…and the employee stares back at you (seemingly through you… without blinking) and doesn’t appear to feel an inkling of responsibility to greet you or manage the ordering conversation, we, as their elders and teachers, have failed them. That poor kid will struggle mightily in any job, customer-service oriented or not, because they are not experienced in direct human-to-human communication or rules of basic etiquette. We can’t do anything about how they were parented, but we can re-invest in training to teach them where the moments of truth are and what to do when they come across one. Indeed, as restaurants are often the firsts-job of choice for young people, restaurants shoulder a certain level of responsibility to take on parenting 2.0. Greeting guests, bidding them farewell upon departure, manicuring their table, refilling their non-alcoholic drinks without asking and before they need it, yielding the right of way when moving about in guest spaces…these are examples of moments of truth that make all the difference in the world to guests. Pay attention when you dine at concepts like Chick Fil A, Cracker Barrel, Disney, Houston’s/Hillstone and even some Starbucks. They invest hard dollars in training despite what their CFO’s advise. They make guest care important.
I believe the pendulum will swing and that necessity will always be the mother of invention. According to the Wall Street Journal’s article entitled, “Diners Are Losing Patience With Restaurant Service And There Is No Quick Fix”, the necessity is here. A decade of eroding service from servers and cashiers who seem like they could care less is enraging customers who are starving for a friendly smile and a simple “hello!” The good news is that we don’t have to re-invent the solution…we just need to dust it off and start investing in thoroughly and thoughtfully training our young work force to deliver it.