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Lessons in Bad Service 

A cautionary tale

In the hospitality industry, service is the prime reason customers make their decision to return. If a restaurant patron receives mediocre food, but excellent service, he will, more than likely, revisit the eatery. But, if the service has been meager, the diner will not return -- even if the food is spectacular.

Brio Tuscan Grille, which opened last June in SouthPark and is owned by the Columbus, Ohio-based Bravo! Development Inc., takes reservations for 40 percent of their tables. Other customers wait. Whenever I have to wait, like two months for a table at Per Se or 15 minutes for lunch at Price's Chicken Coop, I assume I'm waiting because the experience is worth it. Not so at Brio.

At Brio, the server appeared and while giving her mechanical, scripted introduction, the word waitron popped into my head. She asked us a question and without pausing she continued, "Fantastic." Not listening to customers is rule No. 1 of bad service.

Then the "waitron" returned to take the drink order. Even though we had not asked, she started a condescending monologue about wine. In the midst of her description she used the word "effervescent" Hard to get a word in, I interrupted, "Effervescent? A sparkling wine?" "No," she curtly replied. "Effervescent does not mean sparkling. It's means blah, blah, blah."

Rule No. 2 of bad service: Argue with your customers. Not being able to judge what a customer needs or wants -- including information -- is unprofessional and a hallmark of inept service. A server is supposed to make diners feel fabulous -- not the other way around.

All customers are created equal, right? Not here. At Brio if you are a local celebrity, a bevy of servers will end up at your table. Our server, in fact, left our entire section to talk to a local celebrity. While she was there our undercooked bread was delivered via runner. Then a dessert. Oops, wrong table. Yet, the waitron was still chatting up the celeb. The other people in my unfortunate section, including the man behind me who seemed to be continuously ordering 86ed items, were spending money. Brio is not inexpensive. My bill was $150. At that price point shouldn't diners expect attentiveness or at least some service?

Rule No. 3: Treat some customers better than others and let other customers see this.

In Lessons in Service, author Edmund Lawler writes that good service should "create a single point of contact for the table." Our waitron never poured the wine again after the first glass and on that rare occasion she did show up, she interrupted our conversation. After our entrées languished under the heat lamp for 15 minutes and 37 seconds, I was tempted to ask another server to rescue our food. Instead I watched as the expediter shuffled our entrées. When the entrees were finally brought by a runner, my salmon looked as if it had been cooked by the heat lamp, not a chef. Then the waitron appeared holding two black napkins. "Gimme your napkins," she demanded. We offered the white napkins to her. "These should have been delivered with the entrées." And then she turned and vanished into the cacophony of the dining room. I tried to call out for a fork, but she didn't hear me.

The next time we saw her, she delivered the check -- before she brought our desserts. Rule No. 4: Forget anticipating the customers' needs; instead, schedule events at your own convenience.

By dinner's end, an empty wine bottle, empty wine glasses, dirty bread plates, an unfinished appetizer, an empty water glass, and desserts were left on the table. Curious to see what another server thought, I stopped one and asked what was wrong with the table. She looked at it then back to me searching for a clue. Rule No. 5: Don't bus the table. Allow your customers to exist in a plethora of plates.

"But if the kitchen understands the complications on the floor, and the service team understands the complications in the kitchen, it should all work -- and it almost always does," writes Lawler. But not at Brio on this night. At one point I counted 15 employees hovering around the expediting line. With so many employees, shouldn't service be good or at least adequate? Not horrible and rude?

Reflecting upon my experience, I thought back to the customers waiting to be seated. Why were they waiting? The food was prescriptive, certainly nothing to write home -- or a column -- about. The bread was delivered undercooked, my salmon was overcooked, the fries were limp (admittedly the last two were casualties of the heat lamp -- not the kitchen.) The cheesecake is imported. The interior is somewhat overwhelming as my dining companion noted, "It's like a dressed up Chili's." Italian restaurants are popping up as fast as mushrooms after a rain in Charlotte. Dozens of establishments want your business. I have dined in restaurants -- both locally owned and chains -- in the SouthPark area that work extremely hard to create an unforgettable experience. And by that I mean a favorable unforgettable experience.

Even "average" dining service is well choreographed. Exceptional service goes well beyond this by not only being well-timed, but diners' needs are met intuitively. Poor service shows itself in a chaotic dining room; however, when a well-intentioned dining room has a bad night -- and this happens -- the floor manager typically comps a few dinners. But not at Brio. The only person who asked about our dinner was the valet. We appreciated that.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136, or e-mail tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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